Sherrilyn Ifill, Director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), said that America has entered a period of protests and social reckoning akin to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
“We think about the traditional civil rights movement… there were many, many reasons why many people had reason to question some of the traditional institutions in our country,” Ifill said in conversation with TIME’s Justin Worland as part of the TIME100 Talks: Finding Hope series. “We’re in that moment now.”
“These are the conditions in which transformative change can happen,” she added.
Ifill cited the outpouring of grief and anger following recent incidents of police brutality and violence as an example. The video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin was “so devastating for so many people,” Ifill said, noting that “the officer who engaged in the act of killing George Floyd clearly is confident enough that he believes nothing will happen to him.”
Coupled with the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic, Floyd’s death, as well as the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans has led to this moment of reckoning, she explained.
“If Black lives did matter then you would not be able to take them with impunity,” she said. “There is value to the life of [Black men and women]. Our legal system permits a regime that suggests that their life has no value by allowing officers of the state to take their life.”
Ifill called for criminal prosecution and convictions for officers who kill unarmed Black people, and the revocation of “qualified immunity” protections for police officers in civil rights suits or actions. Alongside these reforms, Ifill believes there needs to be a large-scale reimagining of what public safety looks like.
“There are other people who contribute to public safety and who could be resourced to contribute even more effectively,” Ifill said. With police departments’ budgets decreased, she argued that funds and resources could go instead to other social service agencies and community agencies to better help community members.
“Litigation still remains a very, very important tool — and sometimes the only tool that we have available to us,” Ifill continued, noting the importance of the courts system in the fight against systemic racism. She pointed to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which states that programs receiving financial assistance from the federal government cannot discriminate “on the ground of race, color, or national origin,” nor deny the benefits of their services to members of those groups.
As police departments get federal funding, Ifill says that the Act should be enforced in instances of racist policing. “That Title VI provision has never really been enforced against police departments,” Ifill said.
“We have a tool meant to deal with systemic discrimination,” Ifill continued. “We need the will to enforce it.”
This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.