- Ben Crump is a civil rights attorney who has represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Andre Hill.
- Netflix’s upcoming documentary ‘CIVIL’ follows a year in his life.
- Insider spoke with Crump and director Nadia Hallgren about ‘CIVIL’ and police brutality in America.
Ben Crump has been dubbed “Black America’s attorney general” by the public for his work helping families in high-profile civil rights cases—like Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery—reach historic settlements and verdicts.
“CIVIL,” a new
documentary directed by Nadia Hallgren, follows Crump over a year from 2020 to 2021 as he takes on some of the most seminal cases for Black civil rights, including the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Andre Hill.
Hallgren, who previously directed the Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming,” said she felt galvanized to work on “CIVIL” after George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020. She said she uses storytelling as a way to connect viewers with people they may never get to meet.
“These are parts of America that most people don’t see. The intimacy of the homes we step into where people are going through the worst experience they’ll ever have in their lives, where someone in their family was killed by a police officer,” Hallgren told Insider. “We get to really be there and understand the nuance and the behind-the-scenes, what happens beyond the news cycle.”
“CIVIL” premieres on Netflix on June 19.
In an interview with Insider, Crump shared his path to becoming “Black America’s attorney general,” and where he believes civil rights in the country needs to progress. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What inspired you to dedicate your career to civil rights?
When I was in the fourth grade, we integrated the schools in my small town of Lumberton, North Carolina—a very conservative town. They would bus the little Black children across the tracks to the white section of town in North Lumberton. They had new schools, new facilities, new everything, from books to technology.
I remember coming home on the bus one day back to the Black section of town. As we crossed the tracks, I saw all the dilapidated buildings, all the houses boarded up and the cars broken down. And I saw my old elementary school and the poor condition it was in. I just kept thinking, “I wonder why they have everything so good, and we have everything so rough.”
My mother told me the reason we got to go to the new school with the new books was because of Brown v. Board of Education and attorney Thurgood Marshall. And I decided as a nine-year-old fourth-grader that when I grew up, I was going to be a civil rights attorney like Thurgood Marshall and fight for people who live in my community and people who look like me, so they can have an equal opportunity at the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
You started your legal career as a rent lawyer—how did that lead to where you are now?
I tell you, ignorance is bliss. My law partner and I turned down all our job offers and set up our own shop, because we wanted to do law that made a difference in our community. We were two young Black lawyers, and we took anything that came through the door. We started going to court and got good at what we did, and we got the reputation that we’d fight anybody.
So people started coming to us. We were doing criminal law, family wills and estates, everything. Criminal law was very interesting because Black people are disproportionately targeted by the prison industrial complex. We got real good at convincing juries about reasonable doubt and walking Black people out of the courtroom, versus them going out through the back in handcuffs.
That’s part of what I do today. You fight to explain to juries to give consideration to Black people too: Don’t write us off as guilty before we’re proven innocent. It should be innocent before proven guilty. I believe in the romantic notion of “liberty and justice for all,”even though I might be one of the few people in the courtroom who still believes it.
In the documentary, you call the George Floyd case one of the seminal cases in civil rights. Why was that the case that seemed to spark this global movement, when there are countless videos of people killed by police?
I believe everything in my career led me to George Floyd, because I’d been battling police abuse of Black and brown people for decades. Whether it was the boot camp case, where 14-year-old Martin Anderson was killed; Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was killed by police; 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson; or the 13 Black women who were raped in Oklahoma City by a white police officer—I fought all those battles over those decades.
But now we have this case, George Floyd, that was the most-watched documentary of torture in the world. The torture was a result of the excessive force of police officers on a Black person. And I said, this is my opportunity to show the world all the stuff we’ve been saying for years. You get to see with your own eyes. George Floyd was such a landmark case because it was so widely watched by the world.
You quote Thurgood Marshall in the documentary, saying, “do not argue what is legal, argue what is right.” So much of our understanding of the law today, and the way that major Supreme Court decisions are made, is based on a close reading of the Constitution. However, the Constitution was not created with Black and brown people in mind. Does this teaching of the law affect who is able to find justice?
Absolutely. They try to pin us in a hole and say you have to base everything on legal precedent. Well, if that were true, a lot of us would still be slaves, because the legal precedent in America established by the Supreme Court of the United States was that slavery was, in fact, legal. I heard somebody say, “Just because it’s lawful, doesn’t make it not awful.” And I think that is true. Many of the laws we look at today are just God-awful laws. Sometimes you’ll win battles, and the Court will try to take them back.
But Justice Marshall told us, “Do not go into court to argue what is legal. Argue what is right.” I believe that. At times, I get in trouble because of this. The courts don’t always look kindly to you arguing what’s right, because they’ve made these technical justifications to justify things that are discriminatory and wrong.
In your cases where you represent a family that has been affected by police brutality, you have been able to bring forth a verdict or a settlement. However, it still seems rare for police to ever receive a prison sentence. Without jail time, is there any sort of real accountability that can prevent situations like this from continuing to happen?
I think true accountability means preventing lives from being taken. The police and the prosecutors control whether somebody’s going to be arrested, charged, convicted, and go to prison. All we can do as private lawyers is use the Seventh Amendment’s right to civil compensation: We strategically employ everything at our disposal to make it financially unsustainable for them to continue to kill Black people unjustly. Because if there’s anything that America understands, it’s money. We understand capitalism. And so if every time they kill Breonna Taylor or Botham Jean or Andre Hill, they have to pay millions and millions of dollars.
At some point, they’re going to tell the police, “Hey, y’all gotta quit killing Black people in Jasper, and use the same restraint y’all used when they were storming the Capitol on January 6th. Y’all gave them the benefit of consideration, of doubt, and of humanity. More than anything, we want you to do the same thing with Black people. Don’t shoot our children first and ask questions later. We’re not asking for anything superior. We just want to be treated equally, whatever you would do for your children. We want our children to come home too.”
According to Mapping Police Violence, 1,144 people were murdered by police last year. That’s 48 more people than in 2019. Do you feel like there has been any real change made in policing since George Floyd?
I do. There were 100 Black people killed in 2020 after George Floyd was tortured to death. The Senate failed to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
But with all of that said, I believe we are making progress—incremental progress, but progress all the same. Cities, municipalities, and states have passed legislation that outlaw chokeholds and no-knock warrants. For the first time in history, we have a federal database that documents who the police are killing, where they’re killing them, and what reasons states are claiming they killed them for.
I think we are going to make progress. We will win this war. There may be some battles that break our hearts, but the moral people will win.