Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Keynote Remarks at the 107th NAACP National Convention
Cincinnati, OH
United States
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Monday, July 18, 2016

Good afternoon, and thank you, Bradford [Berry], for that very kind introduction.  I also want to thank President [Cornell] Brooks, Chairman [Roslyn] Brock and the NAACP Board of Directors for the privilege to join you today.  And I want to thank you all for the work you do every day to make equal justice and equal opportunity real for all people who live in this country.

Let me begin by condemning, in the strongest possible terms, yesterday’s terrible violence against law enforcement officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  We extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those killed – Montrell Jackson, Matthew Gerald and Brad Garafola – and we send our thoughts and prayers to those wounded.  While the local investigation remains ongoing and there are many questions still to be answered, we know that violence against police is unconscionable.  It is never the answer.  The Department of Justice – through the FBI, ATF and U.S. Marshals – is offering any assistance to our local partners as they investigate this senseless act of violence.  And we will continue to support the thousands of police officers who work each day to keep us safe from harm.

Tragic events in recent days – from the fatal police shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota; to the ambush in Dallas that killed five police officers: Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Patrick Zamarripa and Brent Thompson, and wounded several more; to yesterday’s violence against officers in Baton Rouge – have been devastating and heartbreaking.  They have left our country overwhelmed by grief and searching for answers.  As someone who has devoted my entire career to civil rights – from my days as a young lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to my role today at the Department of Justice – I woke up on Friday, July 8, after three terrible days and felt like someone had kicked me in the gut.  I felt – probably like many of you – a sense of helplessness and anguish.  And as I followed the news out of Baton Rouge yesterday, I felt that sense of anguish and grief deepen even further.

Many people in recent days have questioned – some even doubted – whether we can heal the wounds and bridge the divides of racial tension that plague our communities.  In a broader sense, men and women wonder whether our public institutions still answer to the people they serve.  From protests to Twitter, young people of color question whether our country truly values their voices, their dignity and their lives.  Police officers feel unfairly maligned.  But the history of this country has taught us that faced with violence, we must respond with empathy, unity and action.  Surrounded by divisive rhetoric, we must insist on robust dialogue that brings us out of our corners.  Confronted by serious problems, we must drive real change that creates a lasting impact.

Since the ratification of our Constitution, “We the People” have walked a long, often painful, road to hold this country we love to its highest ideals.  Through slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction.  Through the long night of Jim Crow and mass lynchings, and into the daybreak of the civil rights movement.  And through the stark challenges of today and the unforeseeable challenges of tomorrow.  For 107 years, the NAACP has been central to that struggle.  You have fought uncompromisingly and unyieldingly for the simple and undeniable truth that all people deserve to be treated with dignity, decency and respect, regardless of color or creed.

Our luncheon today honors a bold leader who chose action and drove change to shape America’s civil rights movement: Clarence M. Mitchell – a man who loved the ideals of our Constitution so dearly that he always kept a copy in his wallet until the day he died.  Clarence Mitchell lobbied Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Civil Rights Division that I have the honor of leading today at the Department of Justice.  And in the years that followed, Clarence Mitchell urged Congress to pass more civil rights laws to ensure that people can live, work, learn and vote free from discrimination.  We must recognize the power of this progress.  And we must acknowledge the impact of these laws.

Yet, the promise of America and the mandate of the NAACP remind us of a simple truth.  Laws alone do not guarantee justice, eradicate hate or advance freedom.  People do.  People like you do.  Organizations like the NAACP do.  Fulfilling the promise of American democracy requires that people have trust in our government; that they fully participate in our government and that they receive equal protection by our government.  When people do not trust their public institutions, mistrust breeds cynicism.  And cynicism festers into despair that can profoundly undermine the quality of our lives, the integrity of our justice system and the legitimacy of our democracy.

Last week, I joined President [Barack] Obama, Attorney General [Loretta E.] Lynch – as well as a host of law enforcement and police union leaders; elected officials; civil rights leaders, including your esteemed President, Cornell Brooks; and Black Lives Matter activists – for a robust, nearly five-hour, candid discussion about the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.  Many met each other for the first time that day.  Imagine such meetings taking place in cities and towns across America, breaking down barriers, forging relationships between people who disagree and forcing people out of their corners.

In that room at the White House last week – and in conversations I’ve had with law enforcement and civil rights advocates for the past several years – I’ve heard people from different backgrounds and walks of life say that we need to find common ground for reform – reform that addresses mistrust, builds relations and transforms systems.  We need to recognize our nation’s painful history of racial injustice – from slavery, to Jim Crow and beyond – and understand its residual impact on race relations today.  We need to listen to young men and women who feel like the police look at them as criminals first, human beings second.  We need to respect the rights of peaceful protestors to speak their minds, as we appreciate the critical role of non-violent protests – combined with concrete calls for specific policy reforms – in shaping America’s journey for equality.  We need to listen to officers, the vast majority of whom perform their demanding – at times dangerous – jobs with integrity and feel like our society asks them to solve so many problems with so few tools.  We need elected officials to understand how the policies and priorities they set impact the line officers serving our communities.

Recent fatal shootings have drawn intense public attention in large part because of cell phone videos and social media.  For many communities of color, the videos have validated what they have been trying to give voice to for years.  Anytime a police officer abuses his or her authority and breaks the law, it erodes public trust.  Where the facts and circumstances call for a federal investigation of possible police misconduct, the Justice Department does so in a thorough, fact-driven and impartial way.                  

In partnership with our outstanding U.S. Attorneys around the country, the Civil Rights Division also works tirelessly to address breakdowns of trust in community-police relations.  We do this in part by leading comprehensive, evidence-driven investigations into police departments around the country, from Ferguson, Missouri; to Baltimore; to Chicago.  In our report on the Ferguson Police Department last year, we found that community trust in the police deteriorated and frayed long before the shooting of Michael Brown.  In Ferguson, we uncovered the city’s undue focus on policing as a means to generate revenue.  And we found the city issuing multiple citations with excessive fines and fees for minor violations.

Our report also documented a disturbing, painful pattern of discriminatory policing.  We found that although African Americans made up 67 percent of the population, from 2012 to 2014, they constituted 85 percent of those subjected to a vehicle stop, 90 percent of those who received a citation and 93 percent of those arrested.  During our investigation, we spoke with city officials and residents who explicitly distinguished Ferguson’s African-American residents from the city’s “normal” residents or “regular” people.  We heard repeatedly from African-American men and women who said that all of these practices – from racial bias, to unlawful stops and searches, to excessive fines and fees – led them to lose trust in their police and lose faith in their government.  What we found in Ferguson, and have seen in other parts of the country, is that the fissure in trust between law enforcement and communities can occur over time.  A fatal shooting by police that creates significant unrest in a community may be the tip of the spear, exposing a much deeper breakdown in community-police, and even community-government, trust.  Our Ferguson report resonated so widely because it gave voice to the sometimes subtle, but dangerous ways that the justice system can corrode a community’s belief that its government operates – and treats people – fairly.  And when that happens, that is not good for anyone.

Just as we did in Ferguson, and just as we do in other police departments around the country – from Cleveland; to Newark, New Jersey; to Seattle – after conducting thorough investigations, the Justice Department works with communities to implement impactful reforms through our consent decrees.  Our consent decrees – which mirror the outstanding report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing – can serve as blueprints for reform around the country.  We focus on policies, training and guidance so that officers can prevent racial bias, de-escalate tense encounters and reduce the use of unnecessary force.  We work with police departments to invest in officer wellness so that men and women who wear the badge get the care and support they deserve.  We promote community-oriented policing so that all stakeholders get a voice in the process of ensuring public safety.  We improve accountability mechanisms, supervision structures and data collection measures, to ensure adequate oversight.  Because we all recognize that without accurate, consistent data, we can’t measure and identify the problems.  We also help facilitate partnerships between law enforcement and mental health professionals to help people with mental illness and substance use disorders access treatment from community-based services.  For too long, public officials chose to criminalize a host of social and health issues: mental illness, substance use disorders, school discipline, homelessness and disabilities, among others.  And for too long we have asked police officers to be the first responders for these social issues with one set of tools to respond: arrest and incarceration.  By addressing these issues, we can alter systems.  We can transform community-police relations and thereby promote public and officer safety.  We can advance justice.  And we can save lives.

Across the justice system, we use a range of additional tools to address harmful policies and practices.  At the front end, we combat the school-to-prison pipeline, where discriminatory discipline practices – like those we found in Meridian, Mississippi – too often result in children of color and children with disabilities getting sentences of incarceration rather than diplomas from school.  We address unlawful and harmful fine and fee practices that end up criminalizing poverty.  As I mentioned earlier, our Ferguson investigation last year shined a national spotlight on these practices.  And this past March, we issued a dear colleague letter to help state and local judges reform these harmful practices around the country.  Along with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, we also recently launched a new research initiative to identify barriers that undermine diversity in law enforcement.  Through this project, we will be highlighting promising practices that help police departments better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve.

And following President Obama’s call at this very convention last year to review “the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons,” we issued a landmark report in January recommending a range of reforms.  We called for a cultural shift in the use of solitary confinement.  We called for using solitary confinement rarely, not by default; for never applying solitary confinement to juveniles; for treating – not punishing – mental illness and for prioritizing reentry to the general prison population and free society.  These changes will make us all safer.

No matter what policy issue we care about most – local, regional, national or global – we get closer to these goals through the ballot box.  For centuries – from Philadelphia, to Gettysburg, to Seneca Falls, to Selma – through struggle and sacrifice, passion and patience, resiliency and resolve – people fought for the right to cast their ballots, to speak their minds and to share their views about the future of our democracy.  Through voting, we chart our course.  We shape our destiny.  And we build our future, together.

The Department of Justice engages in a range of efforts to vigorously defend the right to vote.  The Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision dealt a powerful blow to our efforts.  It severely curtailed a core provision, Section 5, of the Voting Rights Act.  Section 5 used to require many of the jurisdictions with the most troubling histories of discrimination to run changes to their voting rules by the Justice Department or a federal court, before those rules could hurt voters.  Shelby County stripped that protection away.  When the Supreme Court issued its decision in Shelby County, it also made clear that Congress could choose to create a new system for picking which jurisdictions must submit election-related changes for review before they take effect.  And just as the Attorney General said last week – and the Justice Department has said repeatedly since Shelby County, I repeat that same call today for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full and proper strength.  As we approach the first presidential election without the full force of the Voting Rights Act, voters around the country will feel the impact.  This issue transcends partisanship.  The Department of Justice works to ensure that every eligible voter can cast a ballot.  It makes no difference to us what candidate a voter selects or what party she supports.  We want to have – and will work to protect – the most robust democracy possible.

We continue to litigate cases in North Carolina, Texas and elsewhere to combat discriminatory laws that drown voices in districts and block voters at the polls – measures that, prior to Shelby County, we used to prevent before they took effect.  To take one example: in 2011, Texas passed a discriminatory voter ID law.  At first, a three-judge federal court blocked the law.  But with Shelby County on the books, Texas no longer had to run new voting laws by a court.  Within hours after the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas began to enforce the law.  So we turned to our other tools in other parts of the Voting Rights Act.  In late 2014, a federal judge agreed with us that the law violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  And the day before the Voting Rights Act’s 50th anniversary, last August, a panel in the Fifth Circuit unanimously agreed with us too – a panel that included judges appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents.  The full Fifth Circuit took up the case earlier this year and we expect a decision any day.

Shelby County also significantly curtailed our election monitoring efforts.  It limited the number of observers we can send into the field to watch the election process, to collect evidence, to deter wrongdoing, to defuse tension and to promote compliance.  And make no mistake – we will continue to monitor elections to the extent that we can, but the impact of Shelby County means fewer people with fewer capabilities out monitoring elections in the field this fall.  Of course, beyond the work we do in the field, we need you as our eyes and ears on the ground to help us make sure elections comply with federal law.

Beyond the Voting Rights Act, protecting eligible voters also means vigorously enforcing other statutes to combat the vestiges of lingering inequality.  It means protecting the registration process – as we did in Alabama this year – by ensuring that eligible voters can easily register and stay on the rolls.  It means protecting the rights of people with disabilities to cast a private and independent vote.  And it means ensuring that our servicemembers get ballots with enough time to make their voices heard, so that they can participate in the democracy they risk their lives to defend.  We all know that anytime an eligible voter can’t cast a ballot – can’t stand up and voice her view and shout that she matters – that hurts all of us. 

Yet even as we combat unlawful, discriminatory barriers to the ballot box, we also need to recognize how many eligible voters still do not vote.  Regardless of one’s political views or party affiliation, when eligible voters don’t go to the polls, they lose their voice in our government.  America’s promise of self-governance doesn’t get fulfilled on its own.  It requires people to participate at the polls and to choose a future for our country.  But I also know that people need to believe in government – and believe that it treats them fairly – to feel invested and a part of it.

On Feb. 12, 1909, roughly 60 people gathered – black and white, men and women – to launch the NAACP.  One hundred and seven years ago, they saw a dramatic gap between constitutional amendments and lived experiences.  Thankfully, the gap looks far different today than it did on that February day in 1909.  Yet even here in the 21st century, we still see how America’s promise remains unfulfilled in our communities.  We still see how people find their rights violated, their lives threatened and their dignity neglected.

I see these challenges clearly.  Sometimes in this work, it feels like you take two steps forward and then suddenly other events can you push you one step back.  But in this moment of vulnerability and anguish, I also see incredible momentum.  Tragedy has not just created opportunity but also responsibility to drive progress and to heal.

Here at the NAACP – as we stand on the shoulders of leaders like Clarence Mitchell – let’s celebrate his legacy by saying that in the face of fear and division, we will choose empathy, unity and action.  Let’s honor the lives we lost this month – the lives of civilians and officers alike: in Baton Rouge, in Falcon Heights and in Dallas – by pledging that long after the hashtags stop trending on Twitter, long after the cameras leave, we will stand firmly together to end the violence, to advance justice and to ensure equality.

In these times of pain and challenge, let’s summon the strength to continue the ever evolving, always demanding work of building America into a country that lives up to its highest ideals.  A country that treats all people – every life, every vote and every voice – with dignity, decency and respect.  With your commitment and your work, I know we can build that country.  And I know we can make the civil rights challenges of our time one of America’s proudest moments and brightest chapters.  Thank you.

Topic(s): 
Civil Rights
Component(s): 
Updated August 18, 2016