George Floyd’s death one year later: Two voices, one issue

Part One: After five decades fighting brutality, activist Larry Hamm sees change but says police act as if they ‘feel they are beyond prosecution’
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
April 23, 2021, Damarra Atkins paid her respects at a mural at George Floyd Square in Minneapolis.

May 25 marked the one-year anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked the largest civil rights protest in U.S. history and forced America to reexamine racism and policing. NJ Spotlight News interviewed two leading figures in New Jersey’s debate on policing issues with contrary views on what has changed in the past year, what has not and where we’re heading.

First  is Larry Hamm, chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress, a Newark native who has been deeply involved in community activism for 50 years and is one of New Jersey’s leading voices against police brutality. Hamm said he believes America is now at a critical crossroads. 

NJ Spotlight News: In 1971, you were a 17-year-old high school student who led a student walkout at Arts High School in Newark. And you’ve been a committed community activist ever since. In 1983, you founded the People’s Organization for Progress. How do you summarize that 50-year “arc of the moral universe,” as Dr. King puts it, in Newark and across America?

Larry Hamm

Larry Hamm: I think that Dr. King’s use of that phrase is good, because the universe is a big place, so the moral arc must be pretty long. And what he said was that it ultimately bends toward justice. And I think that is true. I was born into Jim Crow-apartheid America. I was born in 1953. And so what have we seen since then? We’ve seen the abolition of legal Jim Crow segregation in America. We’ve seen the rise of Black political representation. We’ve seen some change in the socioeconomic condition of Black people, particularly that of the Black middle class. I mean, look at me.

My father was a truck driver, who passed away when I was four years old. My mother was a seamstress. And where did I get to go to college, Princeton University. Now, was I able to attend Princeton because I was a brilliant scholar? We know that that’s not the case, that most American universities did accept few to no Black people, even up to the 1960s. The doors of universities including that of Princeton University were either pushed open from being closed or pushed open wider because they may have been already cracked. But the civil rights movement opened the doors widely so that tens of thousands, maybe we could say up to this point, 50 years later, hundreds of thousands of other people could get a college education that their parents either could not get because of the color barrier or could not get because they could not afford to do so. Because we have to remember, not only did we have the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but there were other pieces of social legislation like the Higher Education Act, that, you know, most people don’t know, most kids today wouldn’t know, and it’s not because they’re not smart, it’s not taught to them.

NJSN: I appreciate that you’re emphasizing that the quest for equality is broad and complex. It involves health and education and housing and opportunity and poverty.  But for the sake of today’s interview, I wanted to concentrate on police reform.

Hamm: Police brutality historically has been an instrument of repression and oppression of Black people. The police, the military, militias, National Guard, etc., were always used to repress Black families. In the early part of our presence here in North America, they were used to put down slave rebellions and to keep us enslaved, during the era of Jim Crow. There was a brief period called Reconstruction when the country actually tried to begin to move in the direction of a multiracial democracy or at least a democracy with Black people to participate, that was short-lived.

NJSN: They pulled the plug on that.

Hamm: Right … As Blacks began to migrate from the South to the north, that’s when you really see the move from like the local constable and the sheriff to these modern urban police forces, as we know them today. In the 1960s that’s when people began to demand community control, Black people were demanding community control, because the urban ghettos in which we lived … were controlled by white people. And that demand was extended to the police.

Now in this metropolitan region, New York created the first police review board in 1965. … And as soon as the New York police review board was created, people in Newark were demanding a police review board. The person that led that fight in the late 1960s in Newark was Amiri Baraka and the members of his organization, which was the Committee for a Unified Newark, and they raised the demand for a police review board. I came into the political group at the age of 17. I met Baraka in August ‘71. From that point on, we were close friends and political allies … he was my political mentor. So the demand for a police review board was raised, but it was never realized.

NJSN: OK, you brought up Amiri Baraka as an important person in your life. So let’s keep talking about that arc. He had a son, named Ras Baraka, as you know, and he was more than willing to take the torch from his father. You know, he made headlines nationally and locally with his radical activism, primarily against police violence. Then at some point he decided to work from the inside. And he went inside the Newark City Hall that he used to march on. And he’s now, of course, Newark’s activist mayor, and he finally established a police review board for the city. So how do you assess his achievements and challenges in that role thus far?

Hamm: What he’s done with regard to police reform is very, very significant … The fact that he raised, that he is the man that actually created the police review board, he’s done something that no other politician could do. You know of any other politician that has done this? But people speak as if this project is over. It’s not over … we put together a police review board that would have subpoena power and that was challenged by the FOP (police union) … The state Supreme Court said Newark could have a police review board, but it couldn’t have subpoena power, that that would have to be bestowed by the state of New Jersey. So now there’s a bill in the state Legislature. They want to create a police review board that would have subpoena power. So I think what he did is outstanding, but the project is not yet finished.

NJSN: What else has he done besides the review board?

Hamm: His actual participation in the police brutality movement, in the Black Lives Matter movement, has helped to draw attention in this state and give legitimacy to the anti-police brutality movement. You know, Baraka marched with us more than once.

NJSN: And don’t forget, it was in the first couple of weeks after he took office that he opened the doors for police oversight from the U.S. Justice Department to move forward with a consent decree.

Hamm: Police brutality has long plagued the City of Newark. You know police brutality marked the Rebellion of 1967 and there’s a long line of police brutality cases post-1967, until today … I think that Baraka’s agreement to the consent decree was absolutely essential, in terms of the current state of police brutality in the City of Newark. Police brutality has not disappeared from Newark, but anecdotally, we have seen fewer complaints. We have seen fewer families coming to us from Newark with police shooting deaths than we did prior to Baraka agreeing to the consent decree and agreeing to the federal monitors…

The consent decree is actually going to expire this month. And I heard the mayor say some things that might lead people to believe that he would like to see it expire, you know, that he doesn’t think that the federal monitors’ terms should be extended. We differ … We think that the consent decree and federal monitor should continue until all the reforms have been implemented. One of the dangers we feel might occur is institutional drift. However, it is unfair for the federal government to mandate changes to a police force, then expect the city to put up all the resources.

NJSN: Yeah, it’s expensive.

Hamm: The city has put up $7.5 million. And we think that’s wrong. We think if the federal government is going to mandate these changes, it should put up all or most of the resources to make it happen.

NJSN: I don’t know how long Mayor Baraka intends to stay in that office, but in the area of police reform, what do you think he needs to accomplish other than the subpoena power? What do you think is the major step that that’s needed in Newark?

Hamm: Well, that is the major step. Everything else pales in comparison. Body cameras, record transparency, everything else pales. You know, it’s like, ‘Let’s do the small things in the room, but let’s ignore the elephant-sized problem.’ You know what I’m saying?

The problem right now is that the police continue to operate in a manner that makes people believe that they feel they are beyond prosecution, and when you look at the number of police brutality complaints against the number of complaints that actually involve the police being indicted and then the number of indictments that actually lead to a conviction, it’s minuscule. The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the Floyd case is no way an exoneration of either the system of policing in this country, or the criminal justice system. In fact, I would say Chauvin is the exception to the rule. There are very few police brutality cases where the family win both a civil settlement and a guilty verdict. Very few cases.

NJSN: So you don’t think it’s a sea change?

Hamm: I think that there has been a big change in public opinion, but there has not been a sea change either in legislation or institutional processes or functions.

NJSN: It appears that negotiations over the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act are stalling in Cogress and that they’re about to go home for a three-week recess. President Biden had wanted this to be a wrapped up by the May 25 anniversary of George Floyd’s death. And now it looks like it’s not going to happen. The major sticking point is, as you know, qualified immunity, which shields police from civil lawsuits. You know, the argument that police unions and Mitch McConnell raise. He said he can’t see how anyone will be able to hire a cop if you remove qualified immunity. What is your take?

Hamm: That we support the removal of qualified immunity totally. They don’t get it.

NJSN: Totally?

Hamm: Yet. [It] should be removed.

NJSN: In today’s climate with Congress being what it is today, are they really going to be able to accomplish anything on police reform?

Hamm: Probably not anything significant, right? They will accomplish some small things. But the big things they want, the things that really matter to make things change their behavior, those will go by the wayside … But the problem is not just between the Republicans and the Democrats. The problem is within the Democratic Party because you’ve got these conservative Democrats like Manchin … making it very difficult to get anything done.

NJSN: That said, do you still think that that arc is bending the right way?

Hamm: But listen, this conversation you and I are having right now is not a conversation we would have had 20 years ago, right? Twenty years ago, the public perception of police brutality victims w[as] that they were wrong, and the police were right. … The polls show that there has definitely been a significant shift in thinking on this matter. But because there’s been a shift in thinking, does it mean there’s been a shift in legislation or shift in policy? … I really think we’re at a critical point in this country — a critical point when everybody realizes that this is a moment. Pregnant with possibility, right? But the question becomes whether or not the baby is going to be delivered.

TOMORROW: In Part Two, Pat Colligan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, reflects on the far-flung effects of George Floyd’s killing, including in New Jersey.

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