The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ben Crump has become the go-to attorney for racial justice: ‘I feel like I’m running out of time’

In Tallahassee, Ben Crump poses for a photo at his alma mater, Florida State University College of Law. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)
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A week in the life of Ben Crump — last week, to be precise.

Tuesday in Houston to attend George Floyd’s funeral, where the Rev. Al Sharpton introduced Crump as “black America’s attorney general, probably because we don’t feel like we have one.” Wednesday in Washington to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on racial profiling and police reform. Thursday in Louisville, to convince the city council to pass a law in Breonna Taylor’s name banning no-knock warrants, which passed unanimously. Friday, a return to Houston.

The coronavirus pandemic slowed much of the world but the killing of black Americans continued, often at the hands or bended knee of the police. And it didn’t slow Attorney Crump, as he’s known to clients and associates.

Ahmaud Arbery jogging in Brunswick, Ga., on February 23. Taylor in her Louisville apartment in the early hours of March 13. Sean Reed, who live-streamed his own death in Indianapolis, on May 6. Floyd, whose final, agonizing eight minutes and 46 minutes became a global call to action, in Minneapolis on May 25.

Crump represents all their families. Each case remains singular, with its own set of horrendous circumstances. Yet a shared mission runs through all of them. Crump turns down a dozen requests for every case he takes, selecting ones that will “shock the conscience” of the American people.

“I’m not stunned that this is happening in 2020. It takes extraordinary effort in America for black people to get simple justice,” says Crump, 50, during an evening phone interview from his Houston office. “I feel like I’m running out of time.”

Crump is an attorney of our times, as much a creature of the green room as the courtroom. In a nation lousy with lawyers, he has become the go-to advocate for families who have lost relatives to police brutality, as though his is the only name on the list. He accomplished this by being fluent in the language of the church, tort law, racial inequality and what he deems “the mediasphere,” paired with an indefatigable drive to be everywhere.

While Crump scores civil monetary awards — “we never lose these cases” — criminal justice has proved largely elusive. “We can’t depend on the justice department,” he says. “It’s become up to the people who have been on the front line.” Local prosecutors, state and city officials, activists.

Cited as “the black Gloria Allred” in The New Yorker, Crump appears to have never met a camera he didn’t woo. The Ben Crump Law website is placarded with numerous recent cable news appearances, many conducted from his Tallahassee home during quarantine. The firm has grown to eight offices, 12 lawyers and a network of more than 100 national co-counsels.

Crump hosted the six-part A&E documentary “Who Killed Tupac?” (2017) and scored a three-project deal with Netflix, partnering with “Blackish” creator Kenya Barris to produce documentaries and drama rooted in his cases. During his spare time, he’s co-writing and producing a special on Nichelle Nichols. Yes, the black actress with a pioneering role on “Star Trek.”

Critics argue such Hollywood peregrinations weaken Crump’s legal wallop. But television is the firm’s new business generator, where he serves as proxy for current and future clients. It’s not a diversion. It’s part of the quest.

“We’re creating content for social justice. If Thurgood Marshall was alive, that’s what he would be doing,” he says, citing his hero, his conversational North Star.

“When Tupac was killed, he was treated like any other black man,” Crump says. “They never charged any of his killers in one of the most public drive-by shootings. I bet you if that was Elvis Presley, they would have found them.”

Bob Hilliard is an attorney based in Corpus Christi, Tex., and Crump’s sometime co-counsel. “This moment has tapped Ben on the shoulder,” he says. “He will slow it down. He will slow down the violence and anger. He is like a blanket of reassurance.”

He’s an old-fashioned Southern gentleman, his language salted with “yes, m’ams,” but Crump owes his prominence and winning record in part to his harnessing of new technology. Cellphones, video surveillance and police body cams, a continuous loop of can’t-look-away evidence, altered the trajectory of his practice. “Ocular proof that black people weren’t lying, that police were brutalizing them,” he says. Winning comes through mastering the storytelling, building on a grand oral tradition, Crump says, “We are changing the narrative.”

Floyd’s death became the crucible of global protest, Crump says, because “coming off the coronavirus pandemic, people were looking at social media more than ever.” The video “is a documentary of his death narrated by him.”

Crump likes to say — he likes to say many things repeatedly, the necessity of staying on message — that he argues cases twice: first and relentlessly “in the court of public opinion,” then in civil court, where jury selection is paramount.

He knows the math. This is a predominantly white nation with a preponderance of white jurors. Key is securing white jurors “who believe that the black person is equal,” he says. “If you can’t get the equal consideration, then we’ve lost even before we begin.”

Police brutality in America, Crump argues, dates its origins to colonial slave patrols in the early 18th century. But “videos have changed everything. They’ve shifted believability,” says Kenneth Mack of Harvard Law School. Generating publicity in advance of trial has a history among civil rights attorneys, including Marshall, Mack says. “Crump’s engaged in multimedia advocacy,” he says. “Putting pressure on state authorities to investigate cases that otherwise would not be investigated.”

In a case like Floyd’s, while Minnesota is prosecuting the officers, Crump appeals to the House for reforms and the U.N. to intervene. The legal team often files or sues for public records, advocates for tougher sentencing and uses the media to challenge police accounts.

Americans want justice for George Floyd. Keith Ellison is in charge of getting it.

Crump has won more than 200 police-violence cases, his firm earning a third of each settlement.

And yet the deaths continue. He realizes that with so many killings, cases like Reed, who was shot by Indianapolis police during a car chase, can be overshadowed in the wake of the latest deaths.

More than a thousand Americans were shot and killed by the police in the past year, a pileup of fatalities that does not include Floyd, who died of “asphyxiation from sustained pressure” as stated in the independent report ordered by Crump and the family to dispute the official coroner version. Black people account for less than 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet are more than twice as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by law enforcement.

Crump gained national renown representing the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. In both cases, he won civil judgments while Martin’s shooter in Florida was acquitted and Brown’s in Ferguson, Mo., was never charged.

“It’s infuriating,” Crump says, his voice perpetually hoarse. “It sends a message to society that when this person is not convicted and imprisoned that it’s okay. It does not stop people from doing it again.”

“It’s open season, always-justified legalized genocide of black Americans,” Crump adds, “Open Season” being the title of his 2019 polemic on criminal injustice. “They kill us in the courtroom with all these qualified immunities for the police.”

After Martin’s shooting, “Ben knew back then in 2012 that this case was going to wither on the vine unless he kept it in the public eye,” says Mark O’Mara, who successfully defended Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, and took issue with some of Crump’s maneuvers to try the case in public. “Justice is not going to come from silence. Justice is only going to come from loud voices and that is what Ben is good at.”

At age six or seven, Crump’s not sure, he witnessed his uncle being brutalized by the police, allegedly for speeding but Crump believes it was because he was college-educated and driving a nice car. “They were making an example that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you go, you will always be a second-class citizen,” he says.

He has idolized Marshall since attending the fourth grade at an integrated school in Lumberton, N.C. Crump was the beneficiary of the civil rights giant’s legal triumph in Brown v. the Board of Education but the school was also his first encounter with racial and economic inequality. Law was his only dream.

Crump moved to Florida in middle school, and attended Florida State University for college and law school, but Lumberton, his mother Helen and his church remain primary influences. He prays before every meal. He promised his mother that alcohol would never touch his lips. His minister prays with him over his cases, and often invites him to share them with the congregation on Sundays.

“I don’t see law being his career. I see law being his calling. It’s pastoral,” says the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church. “He has been used to give people their voice, and a sense of hope and purpose, how to turn literal pain into purpose.”

Crump always appears nattily attired, a large eagle of justice pin affixed to his left lapel (he owns two, silver and gold), but he doesn’t sound slick. He is married to Genae Angelique Crump, who runs a juvenile justice education program, and father to a 6-year-old daughter, Brooklyn Zeta. How does his wife deal with his workload, his nomadic schedule? “She realizes I’m doing important work, and she has access to the bank account,” Crump says, laughing.

“Ben is more than a lawyer for these families,” says Sean Pittman, a friend of three decades. “He’s their pastor. He’s their therapist. He’s their best friend. Ben is devout in anything he’s involved in.”

Scott Carruthers, the firm’s white managing partner, calls Crump “a lawyer-preacher.” After Crump split with his original partner, Carruthers approached him in 2017 to help create a new national firm. Crump is the sole name on the door. “Ben is the brand. It’s his reputation and his trust he’s engendered with people of color around the world.”

Crump launched his career with medical malpractice and personal injury cases, the type of law advertised on bus-stop benches. His firm still handles plenty of these cases, winning handsome payouts.

“It was a way to fund the civil rights work,” he says, part of the mandate of “trying to get justice from the underserved.” He’s involved in class-action suits involving Flint, Mich.’s tainted water and Johnson & Johnson talcum powder, the latter he’s fighting on behalf of women of color with ovarian cancer. “I believe as passionately about the talcum powder case as I do about George Floyd.”

As he recites his vast caseload, Crump stops at Pamela Turner, shot by police in Baytown, Tex. Her family says she struggled with paranoid schizophrenia.

“Her case is getting lost. I don’t believe it’s getting enough attention,” he says. “What can we do to push the envelope to make America care?”

Turner was killed May 13 of last year, a year to the day before Taylor and a thousand police shootings ago.

“If we don’t seize this moment to make real systematic reforms in policing in America, it will be squandered,” he says. “If we don’t do something, I predict that, in the next 30 days, another person is going to be killed by the police and there will be another hashtag created.”

Crump’s prediction was off.

That Friday night in Atlanta, June 12, Rayshard Brooks was shot twice in the back by police at a Wendy’s drive-through. And a fresh hashtag was ignited.