Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and CNN contributor LZ Granderson joined Michael Smerconish on State of the Union to discuss the 50th Anniversary of the Selma march and the recent report released on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri.
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SMERCONISH: The subject of race in America came full circle this week with the 50th anniversary of the Selma march for voting rights and a scathing new justice report on Ferguson. Joining me now is Alberto Gonzales who served as President George W. Bush’s attorney general and is now the Dean of the Belmont University Law School.
First off, great to see your boss in Selma yesterday with the former first lady. I thought that was appropriate.
ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL: I do, too.
You know, President Bush is really someone who believes very strongly in building relations with the people in this very, very diverse country. And I think that sent a very powerful message to have him there as well.
SMERCONISH: General, with regard to Ferguson, we’ve all seen the data. I want to put it up on the screen for the CNN audience if we might, how 67 percent of the population in Ferguson is comprised of African-Americans, pardon me, and yet 85 percent of those who are pulled over for car stops are African-American, 93 percent of those arrested, African-American. Another data set, 95 percent of those African-Americans who have a citation are charged with walking in the roadway, 94 percent of those charged with a failure to comply are African-American.
Here’s my question for you, is there any benign, nondiscriminatory explanation for this data, such as economics?
GONZALES: Not to the percentage that we’re seeing here, that’s why the numbers are very troubling to me, and I believe that the Department of Justice was correct in raising this as a civil rights violation system wide in the police department, in municipal courts in Ferguson.
And so I believe that this is something that needs to be — has been identified as a major problem and now a corrective action needs to take place.
SMERCONISH: Do you wonder, general, if we went to police department anywhere USA if we would find a similar finding?
GONZALES: I would hope not quite honestly.
We obviously made significant progress in race relations since Selma, and obvious — and there are a number of — I don’t want us to paint with such a broad brush in terms of what happened in Ferguson that we ignore the very positive work that’s being done by police departments and community leaders all across the nation, but we still have racial problems in this country. That’s why we have civil rights laws, that’s why we have a civil rights department at the Department of Justice to address these kinds of issues.
But I do think it’s important for people to understand that our laws cannot change people’s hearts. Our laws can’t change people’s behavior. It’s going to take grace. It’s going to take communication and understanding before we change people’s hearts.
I’m hopeful that we can do that soon. We’re making progress. I’m hopeful this country will have a leadership to take us there.
SMERCONISH: How do you rate Attorney General Holder’s response to the situation in Ferguson and his handling of this case?
GONZALES: I think that, you know, he received some criticism about the fact that he went there and perhaps raised expectations about — with respect to civil rights prosecution. But again the Department of Justice, the feds were invited into that community after the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and I think his presence there — General Holder’s presence there, I think, sent a soothing message to very (ph) (INAUDIBLE) feelings in that community. So, I don’t fault him for that.
The only concern that I might have is, again, acknowledgment that all around the country every day police officers put their lives on the line irrespective of the color of the victim or the person that might be involved in the committing of a crime. And I think we need to acknowledge the very fine work that is ongoing but also understand more work needs to be done.
SMERCONISH: I agree with you.
By the way an irony of this particular case is that — but for the shooting and the killing of Mike Brown, we wouldn’t know what we know about Ferguson and yet in that particular instance, Police Officer Darren Wilson will not be charged by virtue of the conclusion reached by the attorney general’s office.
GONZALES: Not only by the attorney general’s office, but also by the grand jury there on the ground.
So obviously going in, my understanding was based upon the civil rights laws and the expectations that we have in the Department of Justice, that’s a very tough hurdle to try to meet. But now the facts have been looked at and now we need to see what we can do to address system wide problems here in Ferguson.
SMERCONISH: General, let’s also talk more about the parallel between Ferguson and what we saw yesterday at the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary from the march from Montgomery to Selma. President Obama spoke passionately about inclusion and voting rights but also briefly made reference to recent racial tensions across the country.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Together we can raise the level of mutual trust that policing is built on, the idea that police officers are members of the community they risk their lives to protect and citizens in Ferguson and New York and Cleveland, they want the same thing young people here marched for 50 years ago, the protection of the law.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: I want to bring in to the conversation CNN commentator L.Z. Granderson.
L.Z., the point that I just made to the general that — but for the Michael Brown incident we wouldn’t know what we know about Ferguson. Do you fear there are many Fergusons out there and that Ferguson might be typical of what you find when the spotlight is shown?
L.Z. GRANDERSON, CNN COMMENTATOR: I don’t know if it’s typical to that extend but certainly you will find some racial behavior that I think would have some resemblance with that you saw in Ferguson. If you look at what happened with Cleveland with Tamir Rice, and if the Department of Justice went in there twice in the past 10 years to criticize the department about the behavior that was (INAUDIBLE), then look at what’s going on in Chicago. Just two weeks ago there was a report about this so-called black sights where police officers are taking suspects and basically hiding them for two days while interrogating them off the books. So, when you start looking at what’s been going on in major cities and certainly you can think at some of the smaller towns particularly in the south, there are some Fergusons. Maybe not to the extent but certainly some of the elements there.
SMERCONISH: In the buildup to the march in Selma, John Lewis, general, made the point that he worries lessons of nonviolence and nonviolent protests are being lost on America’s youth.
GONZALES: Well, we saw that in Ferguson. That was very, very unfortunate. And so there are ways to get the message out, have your voices heard. I think John Lewis is exactly the right messenger to try to educate our youth about, how do we make change? How do we achieve change in this country?
SMERCONISH: I was thinking, L.Z., as I watched the footage yesterday from Selma that John Lewis was billy clubbed for the right of people to go exercise the franchise, many of whom aren’t carrying that out.
GRANDERSON: Well you know, I always kind of burst a little bit at this notion of nonviolent protests because even when Dr. King was leading a nonviolent protest there was still violence present. (INAUDIBLE) we’re marking bloody Sunday because there was violence present.
So, I agree with the attorney general we shouldn’t villainize all of the police departments. But when we talk about what happens in response to people who are exercising their constitutional rights, is there violence happening on the other end? And if so, how are we shining a light on these problems so that it doesn’t happen again? We didn’t solve it 50 years ago and I was in Ferguson. I was tear gassed. I can tell you it didn’t happen, you know, last summer either.
SMERCONISH: I guess I’d link all of this together for the obvious reason that you look at the population statistics, 67 percent African-American and yet I think only four black police officers out of a force of 50 or so. And you wonder, well, how can that be? Presumably it’s because people aren’t exercising the franchise. Only I think 12 percent came out to vote before the Mike Brown incident. They’ve got to exercise that right in order to have power in the system.
GONZALES: No question about it. People have to participate. And that’s not solely true with the black community…
SMERCONISH: All communities.
GONZALES: …the Hispanic community. No question about it. You know, you think about a black individual and looking at that police force, they’re not going to be encouraged to join. And so when they look at the numbers, to be one of just a few. And so, I think the department and the city needs to do a much better job in sort of welcome black recruits. And there is much more that, you know — that the community can do, that the police department can do to make progress in that community.
SMERCONISH: Are you personally uncomfortable with the so-called ballot security initiatives that many states have initiated in response to the voting rights act? Voter I.D. and limiting when people can go exercise the franchise?
GONZALES: I believe that our vote is one of the most precious assets that we have and we need to protect it. I really do. I have no problems with doing so.
But to use voter I.D. laws to discourage minorities from voting that is something that is intolerable. There is a right balance here and every state has to find the proper balance.
GRANDERSON: Mike, if I could just add, you know, as I already (ph) said (ph) I was in Ferguson, I spent some time reporting there. One of the things that really shocked me, you know, part of the way that I report is that I can go into the community.
And so, I ate at some of the restaurants that were black owned. I got my haircut at one of the barber shops in town. I just sort of asked, have you ever cut a police officer’s hair? Have you ever served a police officer? I couldn’t find a single person that was in the community that talked about serving the police officers there. They were not of that community.
So, when you look at what happened with Officer Wilson and the fact that his previous department in Jennings was disbanded because of racism, (INAUDIBLE) to go to Ferguson you can’t find anyone in the police department who actually worked or went to the businesses in Ferguson, you begin to see that the police department wasn’t necessarily representative or in the community that they served. They came from outside the community to impose. Those are two different relationships.
SMERCONISH: Gentlemen, it’s a great conversation. I wishing we had more time. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, L.Z. Granderson, good to see you both.