A conversation with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s associate director-counsel Janai S. Nelson
As demonstrators continue to call for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death, certain cities and states have started to take steps towards dismantling former systems. For decades, organizations have planted the seeds and formed the foundation for this kind of movement, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).
Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter (subscribe here!) spoke with associate director-counsel Janai S. Nelson about why this is such a tipping point. Plus, we discussed the outpouring of support the LDF has received — and the work they’re doing during this pivotal moment.
Wake-Up Call: Can you explain what LDF does generally, but also break down some initiatives that your organization is currently involved with?
Janai S. Nelson: The Legal Defense Fund was founded in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall, and became a wholly separate entity from the NAACP in 1957. We’re the only other organization that shares the NAACP moniker, which as you might imagine, is a source of confusion for many. But we are a civil and human rights law organization, and we use the law and the legal system to effect change through policy, organizing, public education, research, but first and foremost through litigation.
We have litigated landmark cases that have helped transform our democracy from one that was defined by state-sponsored racial apartheid, to one that is still fighting the issue of racial inequality, injustice, and the myth of white supremacy. And we’ve done that largely through targeted litigation aimed at dismantling structures and systems within our country that’s continued the subjugation of black people. And in doing so, we’ve been able to expand the rights of all Americans and other marginalized groups. That’s something we are very proud of and take very seriously as part of our contribution to American democracy.
Right now our work centers around four primary areas. The first is education equity — building off of the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education, but covering issues ranging from the school to prison pipeline, to preserving affirmative action in higher education, fighting over-reliance on testing for access to elite institutions, and inequities in K-12 education.
We also do work in the area of political participation. We have litigated countless cases under the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution to ensure that African Americans have an equal right to vote. We engage in election day and pre-election day advocacy, and poll monitoring under a campaign called Prepared to Vote. We’ve worked with communities over time to ensure that they’re not only mobilized around elections, but that they understand the broader political system. Our political participation work is wide-ranging. It also includes work around the census. We’ve been doing a lot of work to ensure that black and brown communities are not under-counted and that’s become even more urgent in light of the pandemic.
We do work around economic justice as well. We fight against employment discrimination, like criminal background checks or discrimination based on hair formations. We’ve also done critical research around access to water and water affordability. We have a report that we issued last year called Water/Color, which talks about the disparities in access to clean water. We’ve brought litigation in different cities to ensure that African Americans have access to water, and that tax liens and water liens don’t jeopardize their home ownership. Those are just some of the examples.
Finally, we work on criminal justice, which involves our longstanding opposition to the death penalty, and work around mass incarceration and prison conditions. Most central to this moment, in the past five years, we’ve worked on a policing reform campaign that’s looked very hard at ways in which to reimagine public safety and to restructure and re-envision the role of law enforcement.
Let’s turn to police reform. Can you tell us what has happened in the past few weeks, in regards to cities or states making strides towards police reform — and what needs to happen next?
There have been some really important developments in the past few weeks. I credit the work of the organizations that have been laboring and have laid the groundwork so that this moment of opportunity could be seized and leveraged appropriately to ensure that these important and critical reforms were readily available to be adopted. So I can give just a couple of examples. New York, for example, which has the largest police department and budget in the country, has already begun to make changes in calling for greater accountability of police officers and redirecting funds. The mayor announced a commitment to redirecting funds from the police department to youth services.
We’re still waiting on the details of how much of that $6 billion will be redirected. Youth services are critically important, but they are just the beginning, and not the end of the agencies that need additional funding to supplement the work that law enforcement does.
We’ve also seen some legislative changes here in New York that have been incredibly powerful, like the repeal of the rule 50-a. It’s important because it brings officers’ disciplinary records out of obscurity and into the public domain where they can be fairly observed and interrogated.
We also had the New York state legislature just passed the Special Prosecutor bill, which calls for a special investigation and prosecution when deaths are caused by a police officer. That means we no longer have to worry about local prosecutors, who may have ties and relationships with police departments, investigating potential police misconduct. It removes conflicts of interest and potential bias. There’s now a neutral arbiter of the facts. That gives that process greater integrity and public greater assurance that justice will be served. There’s also one other — the Safer NY Act.
We also know that the city council in Minnesota has voted to dismantle the police department. And during that time they will be contemplating what alternative to put into place. We’re hearing conversations across the country about ways to reimagine public safety and ways to divert funds from law enforcement agencies into communities.
You and your organization have been fighting for police reform for so long. It must feel like the rest of the country is finally waking up to this issue. Can you talk about why this is a tipping point for the country, and how we can keep this momentum going?
I think this is a tipping point. There are so many organizations, so many activists, who have known this truth for so very long and have done the work of laying a credible foundation, that when this spark ignited — when this tragic incident of George Floyd’s killing was disseminated across the country and touched the hearts and minds of even the most doubtful and the most cynical among us — there was already an infrastructure in place. There were already voices that have been shouting from the rooftops about these issues. We’ve been ready to talk about new ways of thinking, about how racism, discrimination, and the myths of white supremacy have hampered our democracy and the trajectory of all Americans. We’ve been ready to talk about the toxicity of racial discrimination, not just for Black, Brown, Native American and Asian communities, but also for white people. So this is a conversation that we have been ready for for quite some time.
I also don’t think that we can decouple the pandemic from this moment. People have experienced a degree of vulnerability in this moment that is greater than anything they’ve ever experienced in their lives. We’ve all become acutely aware of how much our choices, at the ballot box or in our own daily lives, impact our own safety and security as a country. The pandemic, and of course this policing price crisis, has laid all of that there in a way that people are finally willing to observe without blinkers on — without excuses or denial. Now of course this isn’t everyone. We still see many deniers across the country, but there’s a growing number of people who are ready to confront this truth.
We’d also really love to hear about the support that LDF has received in the past couple of weeks. How do these funds actually go towards making a difference?
Out of these extraordinarily tragic circumstances, there’s been an outpouring of support for organizations like us. And we’re very grateful. We will continue that fight, and this has opened up new opportunities for us to deepen our work and challenge the role of law enforcement and society. It has also required that we pull together resources to support protestors and protests to ensure that constitutional freedoms are not trampled upon in this moment, because we must credit the protests, the activists and organizers, who brought us to this tipping point. We’re also working to dismantle the structures that have created inequities in our criminal justice system — that have criminalized black identity and locked away the potential in this country for decades on end — by thinking about alternative ways to bring a new concept of justice to this country.
We hope to fight against the trend of an increasingly militarized police force, that is also increasingly hostile to its own citizens, and fight against the separation between local, state and federal government, and the populace that elects them. Those are some of the key priorities for us. That is how we hope we can leverage the support and interest that we’ve been receiving in this moment, in addition to supporting the other work that we’ve done to disrupt — resegregation in our schools, the hoarding of economic opportunities away from communities of color. Of course, we want to ensure that each and every person has an equal and unobstructed right to vote.
Read more about the NAACP Legal Defense Fund here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared on Medium.