Attorney-activist Connie Rice

The veteran civil rights attorney, out with her memoir, Power Concedes Nothing, discusses why the poor have to make demands and hijack power.

One of America's most influential lawyers, Connie Rice has taken on school and bus systems, death row, the states of Mississippi and California and the Los Angeles Police Department and won—in court, on the streets and in prisons. She was co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's L.A. office and co-founded the nonprofit Advancement Project, which provides support for community organizations working for racial and social justice. A grad of Harvard and NYU's law school, Rice chronicles her dedication to the fight for human rights in her memoir, Power Concedes Nothing.


Tavis: Connie Rice is a veteran civil rights attorney based here in Los Angeles and the founder of the Advancement Project, a group dedicated to issues of racial and social justice.

She is also the author of a new memoir. It’s called “Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones.” Connie, good to have you back on this program.

Connie Rice: Great to be with you, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start the obvious. I love the Frederick Douglass quote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” But why “Power Concedes Nothing” as the title for this memoir?

Rice: Because, Tavis, every single fight we’ve ever taken on, it’s had to be mainly demanding from our friends who took power. Get with it and help solve some of these problems for our clients. If you don’t ask and you don’t ask loud and clear, they’re not gonna give you anything.

So it takes an aggressive demand, not just any old demand, but it doesn’t concede anything and you have to kind of hijack the power and do jiu jitsu on it and then demand it and sometimes you have to hijack it and kind of infiltrate it. It just depends on how big the mission is and what you’re trying to do for folks.

Tavis: I’m not naive. I assume that that strategy is necessary, given the kinds of clients over the years that you’ve taken on.

Rice: You take the poorest of the poor, Tavis, and you know. You know better than we do that, when you’re talking about that bottom echelon of folks, I don’t care whether they’re in Appalachia or whether they’re Native Alaskan up in Alaska or whether they’re poor, poor, poor African Americans in the bottom of the well, as Derek Bell used to say, the poorest of the poor have been left behind.

You can’t just make a demand. You actually have to engineer it [laugh] and kind of get in there and take over the levers of power and kind of infiltrate so that you’re doing an inside-outside game.

Anybody can win a case in court. We’re all good lawyers, okay? We can win a case in court, but what I discovered was the lawyers were winning. We were winning in court, but our clients were losing their lives on the street. So you got to look at it and you got to say, okay, this isn’t enough. Court cases aren’t enough.

You know, Martin Luther King said, “We’re not gonna find the future in a courtroom.” You’re gonna have to get out in the streets and you’re gonna have to organize people to demand the levers and the ladders so folk can bring themselves up and out of poverty.

Tavis: The Los Angeles Times some years ago referenced you here in Los Angeles, which is high praise, as one of the persons in this town continuing the work of Clarence Darrow. Now Clarence Darrow, that’s high cotton when you talk about fighting for those who are politically and socially and economically and even culturally disenfranchised.

Your point earlier is that so many good lawyers can win a case in court, but individuals make choices to become lawyers for different reasons and then, once they become lawyers, they decide to be different kinds of lawyers for different reasons.

I say all that to ask how it is and why it is that you chose to be the kind of lawyer that you are, fighting for these kinds of clients, dispossessed people?

Rice: ‘Cause I’m a lawyer, third. I’m a solutions lady. I mean, I want democracy to work for those with the least. If you keep your eye on that mission as opposed to winning a case [laugh], you’ll get a very different result because I’m looking at we had all the results. We were win-win-win-win. We beat LAPD, we beat the sheriffs, you know, we sued on Death Row and got people off Death Row.

We could win the cases, but then you look at the conditions that the children of our clients were living under, Tavis, and they were losing, they were losing. They were still dodging bullets, the gangs were still taking over what I call the kill zones, there was no constitution.

The only amendment in operation in the kill zones is the Second Amendment and that’s because everybody has a gun. You can’t find fresh vegetables and there’s no First Amendment ’cause, if you exercise freedom of speech, you can get shot. There’s no Fourth Amendment. Police search whatever they want to. Eighth Amendment, everybody’s cruel.

So, you know, when you’re looking at these little tiny hotspots, the ecosystems where neither you nor I would want to live, I’m sitting here and I’m thinking this is the greatest democracy known to woman in the history of the planet and we can’t do any better than this? I said, oh, no. So if your toolbox isn’t big enough, you leave and you get a bigger toolbox, and that’s what we had to do.

Tavis: How does one go from – I want to ask a broader question in a moment about what there is for the rest of the country to learn about the reforms that the LAPD has been undergoing.

LAPD is still a long way from perfect, to be sure, but since the rest of the nation often looks at LAPD and so many movies and TV shows are based on LAPD, I think there is something to learn about the reforms the LAPD has undergone post the Rodney King beating.

But how does one go from suing the LAPD consistently, and oftentimes successfully, to working with the LAPD for a reform and transformation. How do you make that switch?

Rice: Well, it’s because you figure out what works. You figure out, okay, we had to do hand-to-hand combat. We woke up every day and we were in war. I mean, everybody from Johnny Cochran to the Police Misconduct Bar.

We were in day-to-day combat because LAPD was impervious. They were like the Borg on “Star Trek” [laugh], you know, I mean the Spartans. They were Spartans. You could not talk to them, you could not reason with them, so you had to sue them. I mean, there wasn’t any other choice.

So while communicating with them wasn’t possible, you fought them because they were terrorizing the Black community, they were emasculating our men, especially our poorer men, but they didn’t care if you were a senator, a judge or an ex-convict. They were pulling you out of the car if you were African American and proning out judges and senators.

I mean, I don’t know whether you remember those days, but LAPD was arrogant and it was cruel and it was aggressive and it was excessive in terms of its force and they saw the community as a target.

They did not see the community as a partner. They didn’t see the community as someone to protect. They saw the Black community as you’re a danger to the good communities, therefore we’re gonna contain and suppress you just like the slave plantation police did. That’s where our modern policing really comes from is slave plantations.

So how did we go from warfare? Well, it took a couple of change agents from the lawyer side and from the cop side. The African American officers and the women officers would quietly call us from payphones. You know how long ago this was.

They would call us from payphones and say, “Miss Rice, Miss Rice, I’m sorry. We’re gonna have to lie in court tomorrow. I’m very sorry, but I’ve been told, I’ve been ordered to change my testimony” or “Miss Rice, Miss Rice, get so-and-so out of the county because graveyard’s getting ready to move on him.”

They were whispering in the phone because they were terrified of what their department, their fellow officers, would do to them. So every PD was a fearsome power military, unforgiving force even to other cops. So when you’re in that situation, you don’t have any choice but to hand-to-hand combat.

But as we started our Serpico practice because Deputy Chief Brewer said, “Connie, you can’t touch LAPD from the outside with lawsuits representing the public. You have to represent cops, you have to move and infiltrate inside and then officers who are your clients will give you a new platform with the court.” So it was moving inside representing cops. I learned what cops faced.

We represented African American female cops, some of the bravest officers you’ve ever seen. We represented African American male cops who were tired of being told “You can’t be an undercover narcotics detective because you’re Black and you might be closer to the Black gangs.” They wouldn’t let African American males promote.

So when we took those things on, we began to take on the eye of our clients and then my mindset changed because I said, “You want to know something? These people are putting their lives on the line to try to keep some of us safe in the community. I need to learn why they behave the way they do. Why do they go after the community?”

Once I started asking a different question which was “What do you need to change so that you can police more humanely and with more compassion and you can stop rototilling the community?” You want to know something, Tavis? They finally said, “Okay, that’s the right question. Here’s what you need to change for us” and we were off on a new track.

Tavis: I want to come back in just a second and follow up on that question as to what cops in this city and, for that matter, around the country, what do they need to police more humanely. That’s a critical question, I think.

But there’s a part of the book that I found fascinating where you talk about the similarities between rogue cops and gangsters in the streets. I mean, similarities between rogue cops and gangsters. The similarities were, are, what?

Rice: Well, you know, first of all, very male. You know I’m a feminist. I’m a Black Murphy Brown, you know. But even a feminist knows that, if you take the man out of a community, that community’s gonna die.

We’ve been taking Black men out of the underclass community for 40 years now. Mass incarceration, drug addiction, no jobs. I’m talking about five generations of no work, 50 or 60% unemployment. Our little recession, that would be a vast improvement for 20% unemployment.

So we have rototilled our poorest of the poor and it’s not just African Americans. It’s all racial groups, but the poverty stuff is devastating. You want to know what comes out of an ecosystem like that.

You get these ferocious cultures of survival and I’m not excusing it because I don’t make any excuse for the violence, I don’t make any excuse for the gangs. They are a plague on the community and they endanger children, they endanger women and they kill upward mobility because the kids can’t even walk to school because they have to dodge the bullets.

So I don’t make any quarter and I’m not making any excuse, but to understand those macho cultures, well, I saw it in the gangsterdom, gang, gang, gangland and I saw it in the police. I mean, they had the same swagger, they had the same tattoos, they have the same us versus them attitude that the gangsters did.

I was in danger from both the cops and the gangs almost equally. So I said, “You know something? One’s a blue gang and the Crips and Bloods may be red and blue, but we also have a green gang.” They would protect one another and lie for one another and they would kill for one another. So is there a difference between the cops and the gangsters? Absolutely.

I’m not saying they’re the same, but I am saying that that us versus them bunker mentality that made us deal with cops who were willing to plant evidence on people and view the community as a target as opposed to a partner, there was enough similarity. They’re very different, but there’s enough similarity and you got to deal with the mindset of both.

Tavis: While you’re on this point about similarity, there’s some other fascinating stuff in the book, “Power Concedes Nothing,” about some conversations you had and some work you’ve done with some people pretty high up in the Justice Department – the Defense Department, I should say – and some similarities that they saw between what happens in streets like Los Angeles and New York and Chicago and what they see in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tell me about some of those similarities.

Rice: Well, you know, when we started the gang intervention academy, the Urban Peace Academy and the LAVITA Academy that the city first did saying we need gang intervention, former gangsters, who can stop the retaliation shootings and work parallel in tandem with the cops to keep the community safe, my journey through gangland was with these men who had left the gang and said, “You know what? I used to terrorize the community, but now I’m gonna try and keep the kids safe.”

They taught me the streets. They taught me the gang culture and, as I learned to help shield them from the cops, the cops began to see that, you know what, they’re a resource. We need to work with them as opposed to trying to annihilate them. But that took a good 15 years, Tavis.

As we went down this road of trying to figure out, okay, what in our toolbox do we have to change? We have to create an army in the community that focuses on wrapping these kids up in safety. And to do that, I had to get the cops who have the power – police are the most powerful entity in Los Angeles.

When I realized the politicians were just looking for their next seat most of the time and they weren’t gonna focus on long-term problem-solving, the cops would focus on long-term problem-solving because they wanted to be safe. They wanted to be able to make it home at night.

What I learned from the officers was, “Miss Rice, we’d love to be able to trust the community, but we don’t think the community’s gonna back us because they hate us. We understand why they hate us because we’ve proned them out, we’ve humiliated them and we’ve locked too many of them up, but we don’t know how to change.” That’s when I realized I could be a go-between, a go-between the gang intervention workers and the officers.

The officers would say things like, “Miss Rice, what you call lying, we call survival because we’re asked to do something that politically isn’t even possible and we’re told don’t provide safety for these poor people, just keep communities that are of the upper echelon, keep the good communities safe, but contain and suppress the violence inside the hot zones.”

Once I realized that they didn’t want to do this, the cops wanted to provide safety because, you want to know something, Tavis? The safer the poorer communities are, the more likely a cop is not gonna get shot on their watch. They can go home safely if the community backs them. So that became the mission in the early ’90s, no, late ’90s, when Bratton came and that opened it up and we could really try some new stuff.

Tavis: When you met with these officials at the Defense Department and they came in to look at what was happening in Los Angeles, what kind of comparisons were they making to what they were seeing in places like Iraq?

Rice: Well, you know something, Tavis? This was amazing. These were the conversations that kind of left me speechless and you know it’s hard to leave me speechless [laugh].

But DOD called one day after the Sheriff’s Department had gone to Washington and they did a briefing after our big cold action report which told Los Angeles this is why you’re stuck on stupid in terms of not reducing the number of gangs and spent $34 billion dollars and you have ten times as many gangs. There’s something wrong here and you’re not doing what’s right.

But this guy from the DOD called me and he says, “Hi, ma’am. I’m from the Department of Defense.” I said, “Oh, no, you want my cousin. She is at the State Department and she’s around the corner from you. You got the wrong Connie.”

Tavis: Connie, Condoleezza, cousins, but two different people, yeah. As a matter of fact, Condi wrote on the back of the book which we’ll talk about later.

Rice: That’s right. Those blurbs will tell you everything about this journey. But he said, “No, ma’am, no ma’am, we understand that you have a gang intervention academy. We need to come out and see your academy because your gangsters are former insurgents and they are helping you reduce the violence and we need to learn how you do that.”

Tavis, I was speechless. I said to myself, if folks in the green zone think we can help them, well, we’re in trouble in Iraq. But then again, I thought, you know something? Let me understand this, let me understand this.

Then another commander came out. He was Petraeus’ brain on counterinsurgency, real, real smart guy. I call him Commander Gann in the book, but that’s not his real name. It’s not his real rank either.

But when Commander Gann came out here and he spent four days assessing on the ground our gang problem out here – we got 1000 gangs, over 100,000 gang members, we got prison gangs, we got international mafias, we got the Russian mob, we got everything out here in Los Angeles, and it’s where the first world meets the third world in terms of the gang stuff.

We’re kind of following what Italy did in terms of assimilating our gang stuff, which is very dangerous and that’s part of the warning of this book.

But the bottom line was for this commander. He was basically telling me, he said, “Connie, sit down, shut up, take out a legal pad and don’t say a word.” We were arguing back and forth for three days. He said, “Don’t argue with me. Just take notes.”

He said, “Let me tell you what you have out here. I cannot believe that I’ve been doing counterinsurgency, defending this country for the last 30 years and I come to my own back yard and find out I’ve got the exact same thing here that I’m fighting in Afghanistan. Let me tell you what you have out here in Los Angeles.

You have what in my business we call a sustained, incipient, parasitic insurgency. It’s full-blown and here’s the bad news. You’ve got some of the best law enforcement in the world, but they are doing sustained tactical, elegant responses to sustained tactical responses, but it’s a too enduring strategic threat and it can’t work.”

So he’s basically saying you got an insurgency and what your cops are doing can’t help it because you’ve got to get into these kill zones, secure the population, build a safety net around them, dig the wells, build the school, do exactly what we’re doing in Afghanistan and make sure that the population trusts the mainstream government and trusts the counterinsurgents that are helping you, your gang intervention workers, and trust the police because that’s the only way to inoculate a community from being taken over by gangsters.

Tavis, when he told me that we had a full-blown insurgency, I went to bed for three days ’cause I said, oh, no, I can’t deal with this.

But the bottom line is, that’s why I wrote this book. It’s a wake-up call. We got to wake up and smell the cordite here [laugh] because what will happen is, we’ll keep thinking we’re safe, our neighborhoods are safe, we can build private security, we can build walls and we can go behind our gated communities.

Well, Chief Bratton, who endorses this book, says no, you cannot build enough walls to keep this stuff out. Look at what’s happened in Latin America. Look at what’s happened in Italy.

So if you think that you can secure your neighborhood and leave these children in the gang zones to perpetual peril, guess what happens? They end up incubating a threat that’s gonna come out at upper middle class folks like us like a cat out of a bag and it’ll be too late at that point.

So the reason – and I’m very proud of this. I’ve got Condi [laugh], I’ve got General McChrystal and I’ve got Chief Bratton all saying this book is important because it’s a warning.

It’s a warning that you could delude yourself that you’re safe, but if you keep these poorest children in gang zones, you’re gonna incubate a real danger that’s gonna come back at you.

Tavis: Sometimes, as you well know, being a brilliant lawyer, people do the right things for the wrong reasons. I’d be happy if those persons who are well-to-do, the rich, the lucky, the elite, would understand the argument that you’re making in “Power Concedes Nothing.”

If they’d understand it, accept the argument for what it is, as opposed to doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, which is my personal safety, that’s all I care about is my personal safety, how do we get them to do the right thing for the right reasons? Does that make sense?

Rice: It does make sense, but I don’t want to waste my time doing that. I don’t have to have hearts and minds. The same thing for racial stuff. I don’t have to have somebody feeling all kumbaya and loving Martin Luther King, Jr. No, I just need to engineer upward mobility and resources for folks who are, as a result of racial discrimination, locked out.

Tavis: That’s fair enough.

Rice: Because if you focus on changing hearts and minds, you might be at it your whole life and never accomplish anything. As I said to this one racist, I ended up representing Klansmen a couple of times.

I said, “Look, you don’t have to like me. You can cuss me out racially every day that you want, but I’m the only thing standing between you and that electric chair, and if we can join on a mission of keeping your butt out of the electric chair, then we’ll have a common mission.”

We don’t care about our morality. We just don’t. I’m talking about upper middle class African Americans; I’m talking about all the races of the rainbow, e pluribus unum, our American tapestry, right?

We don’t do things for the right reason, so why should I knock my head against that brick wall when I can make an argument that says I’m talking about your survival, Miss Upper Middle Class and Mr. Upper Middle Class I’m talking about my relatives and trying to translate their danger. It’s us and them. It’s color cast, it’s class, it’s all this complex stuff, but there’s us and them.

In my neighborhood, people walk their dogs at night at 11:00 and, in these other neighborhoods, kids can’t even walk to school. I said, “You know what? You keep that kind of disparity and this stuff’s gonna come at you out of the gang zones, which is what the police and the military generals are saying.”

So I’m not worried about a moral argument, Tavis. If people don’t want to do the morality and clearly we keep putting these kids in kill zones year after year after year, we keep letting their schools fail them, we keep letting them have to dodge bullets and obviously they don’t care about these kids, we don’t care about these kids, we’d have fixed it by now.

So I’m not worried about the right reason for doing the right thing for the right reason. I want people to do the right thing. I don’t care if it’s for a selfish reason.

Tavis: I’ve got just two minutes to go here and I wish I had more time. You mentioned Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State, earlier, who is your cousin, so Connie Rice and Condi Rice. Condoleezza does a wonderful blurb on the back of the book.

We know – and I’ve had a chance to, of course, interview her many times on this program and on my radio show. We know the country does a bit more about her history growing up in Birmingham and we know the story of how she started and how she got to Birmingham.

What was it about her upbringing versus your upbringing that put you on two different paths politically? Because you’re cousins and friends, obviously, and all that, but your politics are very different than her politics. Why is that?

Rice: You know, Tavis, I don’t know. We’re cut from the same bolt of cloth, we’re both commanding and demanding and total loners and aggressive feminists and people don’t particularly like us, but they do respect us [laugh].

So we’re kind of sort of cut from the same bolt of cloth. Condi cares about the poor. She’s just gonna go about solving it in a different way from me. But I think that one major difference is that I grew up all around the world. I did not come…

Tavis: 17 places.

Rice: 17 places, and you are I are both Air Force brats.

Tavis: Air Force brats, exactly, yeah.

Rice: We are. But I grew up all around Europe and Japan, so I grew up with much less of a sense of the notation than Condi did because she was in Birmingham and that repressive, oppressive system. To transcend that takes a whole other kind of jiu jitsu. So I think that we grew up with different tethers on us and that kind of shaped the difference in our outlook.

You know, my family has been Republican for a long time. My grandmother put my grandfather out of the bedroom. He had to sleep in a separate bedroom for about eight weeks because he put the “Goldwater for President” sign in the front yard. She says, “You’re not sleeping in our bedroom. You go to the other bedroom.”

You know, my family has been Republican, Republican for a long, long, long time. I don’t belong to any party. I’ve sued too many Democrats. I’ve sued my Board members. I’ll sue anybody if they get in the way of me helping the poor.

So I don’t belong. Condi, I think, is more of a belonger ’cause she grew up in a culture of belonging, so it’s a little bit different. But you want to know something? We’re more alike than not, which is kind of scary [laugh].

Tavis: Well, just for the record, I like you [laugh].

Rice: You’re one of the few.

Tavis: I like you a lot. Her name is Connie Rice. She is a brilliant attorney. Her memoir is out now. It’s called “Power Concedes Nothing: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones.”

It’s a powerful polemic, I think, of what we have to do in this country if we want to advance the cause of all of us and not just the rich and the lucky. Connie, good to have you on the program.

Rice: Great to have you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in, and keep the faith.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: February 20, 2012 at 11:37 am