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Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch Delivers Remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus 45th Annual Legislative Conference Judiciary Brain Trust Panel


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as delivered

Well, thank you all so much.  Thank you so much for that warm welcome.  Thank you for your patience.  I'm not usually running this late, but I understand that you have had some excellent presentations before me.  I see a number of old friends and hopefully new friends on this panel. Great voices all in our common struggle and so I think you have had excellent presentations and I’m just sorry I had to miss so many of them – I’m so looking forward to reading a recap of this because there's so many important issues here.   Dr.[Philip] Goff, such a pleasure to meet you.  Your leadership at UCLA on the Center for Policing Equity is something that is not only vital in terms of what we need today; it really is the key to a lot of issues that we’ve faced.

When I’m looking at the agenda for the entire CBC Foundation events, I see so many different panels of so many different issues but they all come together in regards to the central issue of our community’s relationships with law enforcement and with our government at large.  So many of the issues that you all are tackling all this week come back to that essential issue.  And so I thank you so much for giving me a few minutes to talk to you this afternoon about what the Department of Justice is doing in this important area because I will tell you that I view it as one of my main priorities as Attorney General of the United States.

I know that Congressman [John] Conyers had to go and vote, he is also pulled in many different directions but I want to thank him and his staff for their invitation to this event as well as for setting up this particular panel and of course, the Congressman's lifetime of service to these issues.  He has been in this fight for a long time, a long time.

As have many of you, not just here on the panel, on the podium next to me, but out here in the audience.  I see a lot of fighters.  I see a lot of people who have walked a lot of lines and walked across a lot of bridges.  And so I thank you for that as well.

Whether you have been in the struggle for years or whether you are new to it and part of the new and exciting and dynamic young voices that we need to tell us the truth – I commend you and I am so, so glad to hear from you.  Your commitment is important, your ideas are important, your energy and your passion.  And now is the time that we have to all come together around these important issues.  Because while we have made just extraordinary progress since the CBC was founded over 40 years ago, it is clear that we have so much more work to do. In the recent weeks and months we’ve seen these reminders.  You know it’s not just the overall philosophy that we always say; there’s more work to do we have to keep marching.  We’ve seen it.  We’ve seen it played out in a very stark and very painful reality captured for the world to see.

We’ve experienced tragedies that make it clear that this fight for our common welfare goes on.  And I will tell you that what hurts me so much in my current role, is that we have seen the mistrust between our law enforcement officers and our communities also deepened.  At a time when, not that it always hasn’t been the case; but at a time when our communities need perhaps more than any other time, the protection and the resources that law enforcement is committed and sworn to bring to bear.  It has always been my view that the essential role, not just of government, but of law enforcement in particular, is the protection of people who don't have anyone else to call on.  You know those times in the middle of the night when people are cold and afraid and they know that someone is out there who means them harm; we have someone on whom to call.  And we have to be able to trust and rely upon those individuals, to come when we call and to also look out for us when they do arrive.

Now this is an issue that I know you’re talking about today, not just on this panel but so many others, but in this panel in particular you’ve got the voices to do it.  You’ve got the experience and you’ve got the people who will also provide you the perspective of what it feels like to be left out of that dynamic of protection, to be left out of that umbrella in that circle of guardianship that every American is entitled to.  It is such an important voice today.

Now, it’s also not a new issue although it is an issue that is very deep and very personal for me.  As some of you may know, I am fortunate enough to have my father here with me this week.  This issue is generations old and when I was a young girl I remembered one of the things my father was telling me about.  You all talk about your grandparents and aunts and uncles and the family lore.  That’s what makes you who you are.  That’s how you know what the Lynches are like, what the Harrises are like - and they are both stubborn, just so you know.  But I remember my father telling me about his father, about my grandfather; a minister, third grade education, no money, eight children, dirt poor, living in rural North Carolina in the 1930s - when my father was born.  And even with all of those things stacked against him, he built his own church beside his house, called it Lynch’s Chapel- that's what you can do when you build a church yourself.

One of the things my father remembers is that there were times when he was a young boy in the ‘30s when people in the community, black people in the community,  were in trouble, as my grandfather used to say, “caught up in the clutches of the law” and didn’t have a place where they could go. They would come to my grandfather and he would help hide them - until they could leave the community. Sometimes the sheriff would come by the house and ask my grandfather, “Have you seen so-and-so?”  My grandfather would say, “Well not lately.”  So-and-so is hiding in a closet or hiding under the floorboards.  Because in those days, 1930’s North Carolina, there was no justice in the dark of night on a rural road.  No Miranda warnings. No procedural protections.  None of the things that we take for granted today.  And so despite what happened with these individuals, my grandfather knew that sometimes in order to preserve the fight for justice into the future you had to take action in the moment – you had to take action in the moment.

Now of course things are much better now and we all get reminded of that, whenever we bring up these issues you notice when you talk about these issues, whether they are of race in general or police issues in particular, when you talk about the current pain that the minority community is feeling and we are feeling it very, very deeply, people always say, “Well you know, things are much better now,” and they are.  In addition to giving you my apologies for being late today I can tell you that I was late today because I had a meeting with the President that ran over. I would never have been able to say that, even five years ago.  And the fact that my grandfather who fought so hard for justice in his own way would never have conceived that his granddaughter, the little girl he used to take out in the fields and show what tobacco looked like, would actually be sitting in a meeting with the President of the United States.  We have come so far but we still have so far to go.  And these issues of fundamental fairness and the relationship that the minority community has with the government at large and those of us in law enforcement in particular, are still with us.  They are still important today.

Now we all understand, on a personal level, the frustration that comes up when we are treated unfairly because of race.  But this is really about more than just that.  This is really about being treated unfairly because of race by those who are sworn to protect you, by those who wear the uniform of protection.  This is really a deeper issue than just the individual discrimination many of us have seen in whether or not we didn’t get the job or we didn’t get an opportunity, or if someone didn’t speak to us.  We are talking about the pain that comes up when these deeply rooted injustices get shrugged off and they get ignored.  We are in a different time and things are much better. Even if it they may not seem that way – even if it seems like this is a very painful time because we are seeing these issues so much more clearly.  I have to tell you that this takes me back to the early days of the Civil Rights Movement – you all remember those days – when people were marching and protesting and talking about conditions.  You couldn’t vote, you couldn’t get a job, you couldn’t sit into a store and take a break and have a cup of coffee.  No one wanted to believe that was the case, until the advent of television. Remember, the televised marches and the protests  and when the world saw what was happening, that police dogs were put on little children, that fire hoses were used against young men and women – that galvanized the conscious of the world and gave the movement a momentum to make changes.  To give us a Civil Rights Act, to give us a Voting Rights Act, to give us desegregation, to help us craft those strategies that our lawyers use before the Supreme Court.

And now, we are in a similar moment – so many of the images we see are so painful, but they are being used to show the world what people in the minority community have known for years.  About the different levels of interaction and the different levels of both respect and participation in the system that African-Americans have and that African-Americans feel.  And as painful as it is to watch someone suffering or possibly even dying, the result has been an opening of the discussion in ways that we have not had in significant years.  And so the onus is on us to seize this moment; the onus is on us to continue this discussion – to continue this debate.  Because now the world knows what we always knew.  That people in Ferguson were being taxed for walking down the street and being the wrong color.  The world knows what we always knew – that young men of color interactions with police are fundamentally different than other children.  And that as parents and as siblings and as family members, that we have the responsibility to point this out and to talk about it as well as to educate our children.

But we also have to acknowledge more than just the actions because there is something that goes on as well, there’s something that’s deeper when we have these situations, we have to acknowledge the anger and the despair; the feelings that develop.  People always talk about wanting us to handle things in a certain way and that’s true and this country was built on peaceful protests and it is a fundamental right of ours and it has achieved a great deal of change.     But we also have to acknowledge the anger and the despair that develops when these concerns that we now see on tape are still pushed aside by so many people as if they don’t exist.  You have to acknowledge the kind of pain that develops.  You have to acknowledge that feeling – and you know people say “I don’t think it was that bad,”  “Well I don’t think they meant it that way,” or even “That just didn’t happen – that just didn’t even happen”. And so when that happens to people – to a people, to our people – time and time again, you have within our community a sense of disconnection and despair that is a dangerous as any bullet or any billy club, it absolutely is.  But of course, I’m not the first to note that and honestly I would refer you back to that work of art by Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man –` and you will see all of that there and you will see the consequences of it as well.

And of course the reason why we have to face this and deal with these issues is of course because, as always, as it was with the movement 50 years ago and the issues now, is our children who are bearing the brunt of these issues.  It’s our children who are growing up without the sense of connection, without the sense of protection and security that they are entitled to have and that we want them to have.

One of the things I’m doing is a six city community policing tour.  And I’m going to different jurisdictions that have had very, very troubled and very challenging relationships between the police and the community between five and ten years ago.  Either a lawsuit, a shooting incident, a consent decree - where the Department of Justice had to come in and exert a considerable amount of either actual persuasion or actual litigation in order to manage unconstitutional policing practices.  But there are jurisdictions that have turned that corner.  When I’m talking to different people about how and why that is the case and of course things are still not perfect.  There still are people who feel on the fringes of what we are trying to achieve for them and those are the voices that I want to hear the most because those are the voices that I have to address.

When I was in Pittsburgh, I was talking to the young people, high schools students because they will tell you what is happening in their daily lives and they will tell you what they see and they will tell you more importantly how it makes them feel.  I was talking to a young man who told me he was afraid to walk in his particular Pittsburgh neighborhood.  He described it as a fairly rough neighborhood and so he felt threatened by forces around him who had other agendas – who were trying to draw him into gang life and draw him into violence or possibly put him in the way of being accidentally caught in crossfire.  But what he told me that was the  most painful thing was that it wasn't just the other residents who frighten him, who clearly were not on the path he was on - he was excelling in school and moving ahead with a bright future; he was also afraid to call the police when he felt that way.  Because he didn't know if they could tell the difference between him and the people trying to do him harm.  And what I say is we have to acknowledge is that no one should feel that way, not in America, not today, not our children.  For those of us who spent a career in law enforcement and the people that I know on this panel and also in this room, anyone in law enforcement who hears that should say, “I do not want that feeling in a child of mine,” because they are all our children. They all have to be and this has to be the starting point for our work.

 Do our children feel safe and if they do not, what are we doing to change that dynamic for them?   What are we doing, not only to make them feel safe but to make them feel that there are people and forces that look out for them in, that are supporting them and that are coming into the community to protect them.  Now, not only does the Department of Justice recognize this issue, we are determined to do our part to prevent the unequal application of the law and to try to end violence and conflict and to try to heal the divisions in our neighborhood that have resulted in stolen lives and broken communities. I very much view our role as working to amplify the voices that are here in this room. Community, resident, law enforcement, activists – all alike. We’re also working to deliver essential solutions and to cultivate the opportunities to let people come together, not to just have these conversations but to do the real work, the hard work that results in safer communities and a more just society.

But we know our work is not done and we have to do more.  One of the things that I mentioned that we are working on – one of my top priorities as Attorney General – is dealing with the breakdown in trust between law enforcement and the communities we are sworn to serve. I spent a lot of time talking to both sides of the debate and I spent time talking to people who had these experiences with law enforcement.  And they share it with me.  It really is a gift when someone shares their pain with you, you really have to understand that it is a gift.  They are giving you the ability to understand what happened to them and understand what they need.  I've also talked to law enforcement officers who say to me, what I want to do is help people and I became a cop because someone helped me.  Or I became a cop because I saw people in my community going the wrong way and I want to prevent that.  And increasingly I became a cop because I see the way that things are going and I want to make it better.  So, bringing those voices together and letting them find a place in which to talk and interact is a very, very key part of what the Department of Justice is looking to do.  At the end of the day we are all part of the community and it is from the community that our responsibility to it grows and should, of course, blossom.

Now, there are a number of things that we’re doing by way of initiative.  Now I’ll take a few minutes and talk about that.  Just last year, we launched the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice.  This is a comprehensive approach to training, to policy and to research intended to advance procedural justice and to  promote racial reconciliation and eliminate implicit biases.  Trying to go to the roots of some of the problems we are seeing.

Our Civil Rights Division continues to work with police departments across the country to ensure constitutional policing in their jurisdictions.  And I have been so heartened by the fact that a number of police departments have told us that they are making the Ferguson Report required reading for their entire department.  Required reading for their entire departments because they know that in order to prevent the problems of Ferguson – or so many of our communities – you have to not only acknowledge them, but look at the root causes of them and move away from those root causes.

Our Office of Justice Programs is partnering with law enforcement agencies at the state and local levels and through them, we providing grants, training and technical assistance.  Through our Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and Ron Davis, my outstanding director of that office is here – we’re helping to hire officers, to train officers, to promote safety and wellness and to support the state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies as they implement the recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; which carries within it many of the maxims of community policing that we've seen be effective over the years.

Those of us who are from New York know about NOBLE and its organizations – our president is here as well – but also the impact of a cadre of devoted and dedicated African-American officers.  Lloyd Sealy, who pioneered the concept of knowing the people whom you are sworn to protect; becoming a part of the community.  It is your obligation to serve and thereby providing real service and real protection.  Through this Task Force, we’re seeking to extend these principles across the country and we've been hearing from extraordinary individuals and exceptional organizations like the ones that are represented on this panel.

But the key and I will say the biggest lesson certainly that I’ve seen on my own community policing tour and that I think, I don’t know, but I think that this panel will tell you and I think people in this room know – is that the  real solutions come from the places that are seeing the problems.  This is not a problem that will be solved by Washington imposing some policy from on high.  It will be solved by us empowering people who are living in these areas where these problems are occurring to work through these issues by providing resources and assistance for people to come to the solutions that lead to better days.

I was talking with my father this morning as we were driving in.  I was asking him how the conference was going, how the panels were going and what was the best part was. What he said to me did not a surprise me.  The best part in every panel he has seen – and I am sure it is true for today’s, people are talking about their real lives and real issues – not just a study being brought to bear.  They are talking about the real problems and finding real resolutions for them.  That is why our community policing roundtables are so important.  I’ve been to a number of cities already and am looking forward to going out to the west coast next week and also extending this tour to look at the best practices; the ways in which people have found a way out of these challenging situations.  Not to a perfect solution but to a working solution and we are looking forward to being able to share these with all communities.

Now of course we do more than that at the Justice Department, we also have to bolster trust in institutions that make up our criminal justice systems and we are doing that in part with the Smart on Crime Initiative.  This is an initiative that was launched two years ago by my predecessor and your great friend; Attorney General Eric Holder.  Who took a visionary approach across the criminal justice system and looked at ways in which we may have had a well-meaning program 20 years ago but looked at the consequences of the actions that we took then on our communities now.  Of course we talk about the over incarceration of young men of color for the non-violent drug offenses that have so decimated our communities.  Not just problems of the drugs themselves but the removal of these young men from communities and families –has been a hole that has been created.  And so the issue for the Department of Justice under Eric Holder and under myself, is how can we use our power and authority?  What can we do to go about filling that hole?  And frankly we feel that we can do that in a way that protects public safety but also takes into account these important issues.

The Smart on Crime initiative has been one of those rare points of bipartisan accord, as we talk about the over incarceration rates in this country – whether it is from a financial perspective or from a human capital and cost perspective.  Federal prosecutors are now using their resources to still bring the most serious wrongdoers to justice, but using their discretion to find more effective ways. Drug courts focusing on alternatives to incarceration, for those for whom other methods will still provide personal accountability without the devastating consequences that we've seen in the past.  And of course the benefit has been that the overall crime rate has declined for the first time in four decades.  This policy continues strong and will continue.
We are also focusing on reentry because as we work out ways for these young people to return home, some of them will not be so young when they get out.  And so as we work out ways for them to return home, we have to also work out ways for them to rebuild a home.  We have to work out ways for them to return, to not just their families and communities - but to society.   That is through education programs in prison; when just a month ago I stood  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as he announced a pilot program to allow colleges to utilize Pell Grants for those who are currently incarcerated because we know that we've seen one of the greatest prevention of recidivism or someone being pulled back into that life is to provide them an education while they are incarcerated and opportunities once they are released.

But of course it's not just participating in your family, not just participating in your community and not just participating in your society.  The ultimate participation in the American experiment called Democracy is of course the right to vote.  That is why the Department of Justice continues to call for all states to revisit the issue of felon disenfranchisement – let them vote.  Let them vote.  We are talking about our country's most sacred right and the protection of voting right calls for our most sacred engagement; and voting rights cases in particular I’m proud to say the Justice Department has participated in more than 100 voting cases over the course of the Obama Administration.

Now, we are all aware of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County that took away a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.  An  Act that has stood for 50 years and that worked and a provision that allowed the department to look at  statutes before they were enacted and determine their impact on the minority communities voting rights, whether there would be a dilution or diminution thereof. And with that we were able to prevent the rollback of this important right.  Well alright, the Supreme Court has spoken and we’ve lost part, but only part of the Voting Rights Act and we've kept up the charge and we have not been idle.

Just recently we successfully challenged Texas strict photo I.D. Law.  In a separate action we sued to block two of Texas’ statewide redistricting plans  And in my home state of North Carolina, we are challenging several provisions of the state law that curbs early voting and restrict same-day registration.  As the president has said why do we want to restrict the right to vote, the right that makes us free and independent, the right that gives us frankly the envy of other countries.  When they talk about the benefits and the values of America, one of the things you will hear when you travel outside this country is frankly their awe at the fact we can have a peaceful transition of power that we have every four or eight years.  And that is because we invest in this democracy.  So why do we want to do anything to curtail anyone’s participation in what has been an example to the world and has to be the beacon that we use to ensure freedom in this country?

But the message from the Department of Justice is clear; we will not stop in these efforts. We will not be deterred and we will not rest until we have secured the right to vote for every eligible American.

And of course that extends beyond the courtroom and the actions that we bring working with many members who sponsoring this wonderful weekend and other members of Congress as well.  We have promoted legislative proposals to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full and proper and intended trail.  We’ve also proposed legislation that would expand access to polling places for those living on Indian reservations and Alaska native villages and other tribal lands. We cannot have a situation in this country were the original Americans are kept out of the participation in the bounties of this land.  We cannot have that.

We do this also through our monitoring program, we monitor federal elections and we have actively enforced the National Vote of Registration Act to protect who registering to vote as well as rights of our uniformed American members of military and overseas citizens who seek to vote as well; keeping onto to what makes them quintessentially American.  We will always protect their rights as well.

And of course the right to vote follows from one of our nation’s most fundamental promises that no one should have to endure discrimination or unfair treatment based on who they are, where they live, or what they look like.

The Justice Department is proud to stand on the front lines of the fight against hatred and intolerance and we are working aggressively to combat biased motivated violence.  We have some tools that have been very affective, the Matthew Sheppard and James Bryd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by our president, President Obama in 2009.  With this law, we have enhanced our ability to hold accountable for those who victimize their fellow Americans because of who they are and we’ve worked with our state and local partners to make sure that hate crimes are identified and investigated and we have continued to bring and will continue to bring federal hate crime charges; including our current prosecutions of Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine people of faith, nine people of God, at  Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, just a few months ago.

Now for many of us as we sat and watched the event, we watch the aftermath and it took us back to a time we thought was over.  This is a new day.  Look who is in the White House, look who is at the Department of Justice.  We thought that we have moved past those stark reminders that there are people there who live in a world of hate and will seek to act on it.  We thought that we have moved past the history of bigotry and brutality. We thought that we left behind the pure intimidation and cruelty of the Night Riders; those who come into the night and trying to beat you. We thought we had move past that.

For many of us it took us back to another time that thought we had erased away forever. A time when just 52 years ago this week four little girls went to church one morning.  They went to Sunday school one weekend and they were there attending a sermon entitled the Love That Forgives and they didn't come home that day.  They didn't come home to those four families who live on with the loss of their children, who suffer the bomb at the 15th  Street at the church in Birmingham.

Now just the days after the bombing, 52 years ago, I was four years old and my father, like all parents, looked at me and my two brothers and wondered, “How do I protect my children? How do I keep them safe?”  Not just from the enemy next door but the world that wants to tell them they are they are less than.  A world that wants to tell them that they are different.  A world that tells them they don't matter and that they are simply cannon fire.  And he, like all parents, who were committed to the cause, decided what he had to do was keep working, keep marching, keep pushing, keep advancing.  And there were no guarantees 52 years ago before four little bodies didn’t come home.
People did not know if we were going to get a Voting Rights Act, didn’t know if we were going to get a Civil Rights Act.  Nothing was guaranteed but with a deep faith and commitment, people push forward, and we are at that same point again.  And in the days just after that bombing, more than 8,000 people, people of all colors, people of all creeds, people of all backgrounds, races and religions attended a memorial service for those young victims and one of the individuals who gave one of the many stirring eulogies of the day was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  And of course he was familiar not just with the town, the church, but with the families and not just the families, but the four little girls.

In his address, at a time of great tragedy and great challenge, he urged his fellow citizens to channel their grief, to harness their energy and he said we have to work passionately and unrelenting for the realization of the American dream

 Now the people sitting in the pews on that dark day, 52 years ago, as my father looked at his children and wondered how could he keep us safe?  Could hardly have imagined the progress we’ve made thanks to their efforts and the work that would follow.  They could hardly have imagined this group, the Congressional Black Caucus itself, its size and strength.  They could’ve imagined this weekend, of over 40 years, of comments and thought and philosophy of teaching.  They couldn’t see who would be sitting in the White House today and sitting in a meeting with the Attorney General who was that little girl whose father looked at her 52 years ago and said I have to protect.

But they knew there were better days coming.  They knew that if they pushed forward they could move past the pain of a bomb that tore apart a church and they knew that their work wasn't over, just as ours is not also.

And we have more work to do and we are here today to get started.  By that I mean people who are here will continue.  Those people who are younger and new to the cause will join in and we will keep pushing ahead because every American has the right to grow up in a community in a world that offers not just responsibilities to uphold, but also opportunities to succeed.  Because every American has the right to live in a country that will support them and will protect them, no matter where they live, what they look like or who they are.  And every American, every American, has the right to a justice system that gives them a fair opportunity to grow, to learn, to improve and to contribute. And every American has the right to make his or her voice heard

This isn’t just what I believe or what you believe, it is what this country believes.  It is what this country means, it is what this society believes and it is what America has always promised to every man, woman and child in every community across this nation.  And I’m here to pledge to you today that neither I, nor the department that I am so proud to lead will ever abandon our work to make that promise real.  But we need your help and your partnership.

Just as we have in decades past to bring our country closer to its highest ideals.  And if we do look out and see dark days and times, as people did 52 years ago.  But just as they did then, they looked around and they saw strength, they saw support, they saw fellowship, they saw commitment; they saw what I see when I look out over this extraordinary gathering today.  And they saw what I see today, which is a people that won’t be stopped.   A people that will not be silenced.  A people that will not be held back and a people who will always, always reach back and lend a hand and pull someone along with them because that is what we do.  That is how we have made America great today.  That is how we make America live up to its promises to all of us.  And that is how we will go forward with all of the challenges that we have to face.

Thank you for your time.  Thank you for your attention.  Thank you for your commitment to this important event.

Updated November 10, 2016