Watch CBS News

Sherrilyn Ifill: Why George Floyd's killing is a tipping point and how America can move forward

Sherrilyn Ifill: The 60 Minutes Interview
NAACP Legal Defense Fund president on why George Floyd's killing sparked nationwide protests and the impact of President Trump's response 13:23

Tragically more than 110,000 Americans have lost their lives to the novel coronavirus, but it was the taking of one American life, George Floyd's, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, that has shaken this country to its core. Mr. Floyd's videotaped killing shocked the conscience and triggered levels of protest and rage this country hasn't seen in half a century. Calling for law and order, President Trump launched a military response in the nation's capital. How did we get to this place and where do we go from here? We sought wise counsel from Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, an attorney whose organization has argued cases of racial injustice before the supreme court, and has worked with administrations of both parties.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Race lies at so much of the core of what is problematic in our society today and that, that is so easily exploitable. Because we have not had the courage in this country and particularly most white people have not had the courage to really decide that this is your job every day as a citizen is to deal with the fractures that ultimately if we don't confront them will destroy us.

Sherrilyn Ifill

We met Sherrilyn Ifill at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It's closed to the public because of the pandemic. The center sits just across the mall from Independence Hall and just down the street from scenes of protest and violence that wracked the city of Brotherly Love like so many others.

Seeing the life squeezed out of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin's knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds has brought to the fore, again, the ugly reality of racial injustice in America.  

Bill Whitaker: Why was this incident such a spark?
Sherrilyn Ifill: I've been doing this work for a very long time. And I've seen a lot of terrible videos. And this one actually struck me differently also. 

Bill Whitaker: What was different about it?

Sherrilyn Ifill: It was long. It was long. And-- to see someone's life being taken from them with that kind of excruciating deliberation. The officer looking out at us like that. 
Bill Whitaker: Looks at the camera, knows he's being recorded and doesn't seem to care.
Sherrilyn Ifill: That's important. Because it was believed and said by many that now that we have the videos things would be different. And so I think one of the reasons why the George Floyd video set us off so much was the realization that it's not different. We've-- we've seen the videos. And the videos seem not to make a difference. And that's why that officer could look like that. He wasn't afraid of being videotaped. He wasn't trying to hide what he was doing. 
Bill Whitaker: What about the other officers? What is their complicity?
Sherrilyn Ifill: The officer who killed George Floyd most directly, Derek Chauvin, who had 18 misconduct complaints against him already-- nothing can be done with that officer. But when I look at the officers around him, they seem to me like more of the people who probably are police officers. Who-- who stand and watch, who are bystanders. And that's why the other officers are so important. Because we will hear, once again, that this is about a bad apple. A bad apple. And it's not about a bad apple. It's about a system, a system of actors and those who are complicit with those actors.

Ifill on President Trump's response to unrest 04:10

Sherrilyn Ifill: There are moments in this country when there are photographs that are snapshots of the soul of this country. They almost hold up a mirror to this country. And when we see this picture of the nonchalance with which America will put its knee on the neck of black people and make itself deaf to our suffering, deaf to our cries, deaf to our desperation, that's the snapshot. That's America. That's America that can see African-Americans suffering from disproportionately from COVID infection and COVID death, can see us subject to housing discrimination, can see us as the lowest wage workers, can see us being victims of voter suppression, can see our desperation and still won't change. Still won't let the knee up one bit. 

George Floyd's killing reveals an America we haven't seen in generations: armed soldiers guard the Lincoln Memorial; looting across the country: on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, on Kensington Avenue in Philadelphia. And like the storming of the Bastille, the Third Precinct Police Station, headquarters for the officers who arrested George Floyd, was set ablaze. But as the smoke cleared, the images that emerged were these: Americans of every color, age and gender filling streets across the country in daily, massive, peaceful protests, like the one in front of the White House Monday that turned to mayhem when Attorney General Bill Barr approved plans for federal officers and armed troops to forcefully clear the streets.

Bill Whitaker: On Monday night after seven straight days of protests all over the country, President Trump said-- "I am the law and order president." What did you make of that?
Sherrilyn Ifill: It was, frankly, among the most appalling displays of power I really have ever seen. And certainly have ever seen in this country. And really constituted a moment of tremendous debasement for this democracy.
Bill Whitaker: What do you mean?
Sherrilyn Ifill: I mean that the president wanted to show that he was strong. He wanted to do a photo op in front of a church holding a bible. And he wanted to show and to demonstrate his version of strength, which is tear gassing peaceful protesters outside the White House.
Bill Whitaker: When you say his version of strength, it sounds like you don't think that that showed strength.
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, we call them strongmen because that's their goal is to appear strong. But actually there is so much more strength in the willingness to lead a true democracy. You are strong because you can hear dissent. And it is not strong to gas people and to stand in front of a building with a bible. That's not strength, that is a performance. 

Sherrilyn Ifill on today's black codes 03:30

Bill Whitaker: The president has called the violence across the country domestic terrorism. And he has said that he will be dominating the streets. 

Sherrilyn Ifill: You know, more concerning to me than the president saying we have to dominate the streets was listening to that phone call and hearing our attorney general, Bill Barr, say, "But we must dominate the streets." The attorney general of the United States saying that on a phone call with governors. Part of the thing that has been so alarming is not Mr. Trump himself but the amount of people, who have been willing to go along with things that we would have regarded as beyond the pale. And who have been willing to be part of this unraveling of our democracy.

Bill Whitaker: Is that what you think is going on now?

Sherrilyn Ifill: I do think that's happening. What we have seen now is how fragile a democracy is. It requires work. It requires people to be vigilant. It requires people saying no to a leader who's out of control. And so I do think that that is where we are.
Bill Whitaker: But even so, we have not seen protests on this scale. Certainly in a generation. Doesn't something like this call for an increased use of force?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Responding to protests that emanate from anger about the excessive use of force with an excessive use of force strikes me as not a good strategy for law and order.

Bill Whitaker: Has Attorney General Barr reached out to the Legal Defense Fund?
Sherrilyn Ifill: No.
Bill Whitaker: At any time?
Sherrilyn Ifill: No.
Bill Whitaker: Has anyone in this administration reached out to the Legal Defense Fund?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Not that I can think of.

Ifill: Protesters “lost faith in the justice system” 01:57

Sherrilyn Ifill is used to talking truth to powerful men and institutions. For the last seven years she has directed the Legal Defense Fund, founded 80 years ago by Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. She and her staff of 100 fight civil rights cases all over the country. She told us the job isn't getting any easier.

Bill Whitaker: But this is 2020.

Sherrilyn Ifill: This is 2020. But you know what happens when you don't deal with things that you should've dealt with in the past is that you keep reliving the past. We keep saying, "This is 2020, how can this be happening?" People are so shocked. It can be happening because we haven't dealt with this. And so we'll constantly feel like we're being thrown back in time. When you saw those men in a truck chasing Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and taking what I've been calling a hunt video 'cause that's what it looked like, that looked like something from another century.

Ifill is a former board member of the Constitution Center in Philadelphia. She told us she believes deeply in the law, and the U.S. Constitution, which she sees as an incomplete document written by 18th century revolutionary idealists - many of whom held slaves.

Sherrilyn Ifill: Yeah, they didn't get the job done, you know. They left-- this work for the rest of us to do. 

Bill Whitaker: To make America live up to its ideals?

Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, at the very least. And we should be creating new ideals. You know, the Constitution doesn't have to just be that static document. We've amended it many times. We amended it to give women the right to vote. We amended it to extend the vote to 18-year-olds. We always have the possibility of improving the republic. But the p-- the people have to have the will to do it. And the consequences of not doing the work are what we've been seeing. So for anyone whose lamenting what we've been seeing over the last two weeks, ask them how much they have worked to improve this country.

This Instagram post by LeBron James reminded us that before the knee on the neck there was the knee on the ground. When professional football players silently protested police killings of black Americans they were condemned by the president and the NFL. Friday, the league conceded it was wrong. 

Bill Whitaker: When peaceful protest is cut off, how are legitimate complaints to be heard? 

Sherrilyn Ifill: When we peacefully protest we're called ungrateful, we're called unpatriotic when, in fact, to do the work of trying to make this country better is the highest form of patriotism. The highest form of patriotism. And in fact, it is the lack of patriotism in this country, the unwillingness of too many Americans to work to make this country better that actually accounts for the condition in which we find ourselves.

And this is where we find ourselves - in just the last decade an endless stream of images of black men and women killed at the hands of law enforcement or armed vigilantes: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher, Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Bill Whitaker: After all you have witnessed about race relations in the United States, what gives you hope?
Sherrilyn Ifill: Well, I don't know of anything in the history of black people in this country, in which I've read some account in which it ended with, "And then they gave up." That's just not what we do. I know that we work for the future of our children, and our grandchildren, and their children. That's our obligation. We don't have any other choice.

Editor's Note: Several days after Bill Whitaker's 60 Minutes interview with Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ViacomCBS announced that it was making donations to a number of organizations that support communities of color, including the one that Ms. Ifill heads. ViacomCBS, the parent company of CBS News and 60 Minutes, makes charitable contributions that are wholly separate and apart from 60 Minutes and our editorial decisions.

Produced by Graham Messick. Associate producer, Jack Weingart. Broadcast associates, Emilio Almonte and Sheena Samu. Edited by Sean Kelly.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.