Civil Rights Lawyer Conne Rice & Professor Robin D. G. Kelley

The civil rights lawyer and professor discuss police accountability as several cases involving law enforcement officers shooting and killing civilians have gone to trial in the last month.

Connie Rice is one of America's most influential lawyers. Rice has taken on public school and transit systems, death row, the states of Mississippi and California and the L.A.P.D. and won—in court, on the streets and in prisons. She's also known for co-authoring a report that revolutionized Los Angeles' law enforcement policies and outreach to gangs. Rice 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 organizations working for racial and social justice. Rice is a graduate of Harvard College and the New York University School of Law, she chronicled her life in the trenches of civil rights law in her memoir, Power Concedes Nothing. Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of history at UCLA. His research explores the history of social movements in the U.S., the African Diaspora, and Africa as well as black intellectuals; music; visual culture and contemporary urban studies. His essays have appeared in a wide variety of professional journals and publications, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, Black Music Research Journal, African Studies Review, New York Times (Arts and Leisure) and New York Times Magazine, to name a few.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation about misconduct, corporate misconduct, government misconduct, police misconduct. We’ll talk tonight about the demonstrators in Standing Rock, North Dakota and their fight against that pipeline. We’ll talk about Energy Transfer, the company building the pipeline that says it will still go forward.

And we will talk about police misconduct in South Carolina. You heard today about the case of Walter Scott where the cop who shot him as he ran away, another mistrial. All of that tonight with Connie Rice and Robin D. G. Kelley in just a moment.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome historian and professor Robin D. G. Kelley and civil rights attorney and community activist Connie Rice back to this program. They join us tonight to talk about policing and police accountability, or the lack thereof, in this country. Several trials have been underway around the country over the past few months involving law enforcement officers who have shot and killed civilians.

Earlier today, in fact, you may have heard a judge ruled a mistrial once again in the case of Walter Scott in South Carolina. This is the case where the guy was running away from the cop and shot him four or five times in the back, I think. A mistrial in that case today earlier in South Carolina.

But first tonight, we turn our attention to the very prominent show of police presence in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Yesterday, as you may have heard, word came of a victory for demonstrators at least for the moment as they tried to block construction of the Dakota Pipeline.

The Army Corps of Engineers put construction on hold, although Energy Transfer, the company building the pipeline, has since said that they fully expect to complete construction of the pipeline without any additional rerouting in and around Lake Oahe.

So Energy Transfer is not in compliance, at least publicly, with what they said they must do. We will see how this all works out. I was in Standing Rock just yesterday over the weekend filming and interviewing with my dear friend and Academy Award winning director, Jonathan Demme, as veterans showed up in force to protect demonstrators.

Tomorrow night, our entire program will be sights and sounds from what I experienced this weekend at Standing Rock as this all came to a head yesterday with the Army Corps of Engineers making its announcement. But for now, here’s a clip from footage that we shot just yesterday.


Again, tomorrow night, our full program will be various sights and sounds. You don’t want to miss it from what I experienced this weekend going to Standing Rock firsthand to be there as I knew that today, Monday, was the deadline for those protestors they’d been given today to leave the encampment.

So today was supposed to be the day they were supposed to leave and then yesterday, of course, word comes that they’re going to reroute the pipeline. We will see again how this fight unfolds in the coming weeks and months.

But tonight, I’m pleased to welcome Connie Rice and Robin D. G. Kelley back to this program. Before I get into this whole conversation about police accountability or the lack thereof, these two topics aren’t really that dissimilar for me because you have another set of people of color, Native Americans, being disrespected by government, being disrespected by corporate America.

This pipeline was supposed to originally run through Bismarck and the good white folk in Bismarck said, no, you’re not gonna bring it through here. So then they reroute it through these sacred lands of these Native Americans, this Sioux tribe, and they’re gonna run this pipeline literally through sacred burial grounds, etc., etc.

So this fight was taken up by the Sioux tribe and thousands of people. I met thousands of folk, saw thousands of folk, who came from all parts of the country and around the world to support the Sioux tribe there in this fight.

What do you make, Robin, of what this fight has been and what do you make now of the government saying we’re gonna reroute it, but Energy Transfer, the company that Donald Trump is invested in, President-elect, now saying, no, that’s not what’s gonna happen? We’re gonna build this pipeline and we’re not gonna reroute it.

Robin D. G. Kelley: Right. On the one hand, it’s a great victory, no question about this. It’s also a precedent-setting victory because you got to keep in mind this is not just a First Amendment issue. This is an issue about sovereignty. That is that these tribal lands belong to the Sioux people.

When the Dawes Act was passed in 1887, the Sioux tribe did not agree with that, to divide up the land. And slowly their sovereignty had been encroached upon and these are, as you say, sacred lands.

So to me, the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers decided to reroute the pipeline suggests that it may set a precedent for other tribal lands in other acts of sovereignty because these are treaties that were agreed upon a long time ago.

One other thing to keep in mind, this is why it’s connected, one, Black Lives Matter was there at Standing Rock protesting very early on and then, two, indigenous peoples also have a higher per capita rate of police killings than any other group in the country, but we don’t always talk about that.

And the fact that the police could come onto sovereign territory to protect a corporate interest backed by state funds that are paying for the police is a real dilemma. What’s going to happen after Trump takes office remains to be seen, but it doesn’t look good.

Tavis: Connie, what do you make of this?

Connie Rice: It’s just stunning to me that we’re still fighting the last battle of the Civil War in our election. As I was saying to the professor in the green room, we’re still fighting the Indian Wars. It’s truly extraordinary that–and it just fills you with such a sense of the immensity of what we refuse to look at in our history, and you start with the original sin.

The original sin was that it was grand theft nation [laugh]. We basically stole this country from the Native Americans and we’re still fighting those wars, breaking those treaties, refusing to listen to the voices of the nations.

And this whole issue of sovereignty is something that the country’s never come to terms with, just as it’s never come to terms with why the Civil War has never ended in the south, and why it has shaped our politics from Jim Crow forward. You know, the first betrayal and reconstruction was to reinstate slavery in all but name, and we are still living that, like I say.

Everything from the southern strategy to–it’s hard to connect those dots for most Americans because we don’t teach our history. We’re afraid of our history. We’re afraid of the African American Museum [laugh]. We’re afraid to face it, both the Native American history and the African American history. And until we do, we’re going to be fighting these wars.

Tavis: I’m glad you used that phrase, original sin, because, respectfully, everybody from President Obama on down, although well-intentioned, continue to refer to slavery as America’s original sin. Frankly, we love our people, but it was not. The original sin is exactly what you’ve just laid out now, what we did to Native Americans.

So I know, again, people are well-meaning when they say that slavery was–it really wasn’t. It’s what we did to them and it’s just fascinating to me that all these years later that, to your point, Connie, we find ourselves still fighting this same fight. One of the things thatagain, tomorrow night we’ll talk about this in great detail and show a lot of footage of my trip to Standing Rock this weekend.

But one of the things, Robin that I was heartened by was to see so many people, again, from around the country and around the world who came to stand in solidarity, not with these protestors as they prefer to be called, but these water protectors who were there. Every now and then, it’s good to get a victory and it’s good to see the Native Americans win one.

But, again, it’s such a tepid and tenuous victory because, to your point, given the President-elect Donald Trump has a vested stake in this company, to his credit, he has said–if you believe him, take him at his word–he said that that has nothing to do with his support of the pipeline, is what he’s said.

But it’s clear to me that, when Energy Transfer says we’re gonna build this pipeline and we’re not gonna reroute it, we’re gonna continue just the way we started, it’s clear to me that they must have word from somebody in the Trump camp. Just sit tight for a few weeks and, when President Obama leaves, we’re gonna hook you up. Is that your sense of this?

Kelley: I think that’s–now they have said that before. They’re full of bluster. My concern is that…

Tavis: By they, you mean Energy Transfer?

Kelley: Yeah, Energy Transfer Partners, full of bluster. So they’ve said, you know, we’re gonna do this no matter what. We don’t really care. They even said that an easement is just a formality. We don’t even need that, and I think that’s true.

On the other hand, my concern really is about the rule of law and I’d love to hear what you think about this, Connie, because in some ways the president constitutionally should not be able to overrule a federal court or a Supreme Court ruling on the legality of drilling.

In other words, the question I have, and it’s a real question, is whether or not Trump even has the authority to go beyond what could be a court ruling if the court rules that this is illegal, that you can’t drill there. I mean, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but that’s sort of a question I have.

Tavis: What do you expect can, Connie, or will happen? I mean, how likely is it what the Army Corps of Engineers, a government entity, how likely is it that what they have said will stand, never mind what Energy Transfer has said in response?

Rice: It’s unclear because the company probably doesn’t feel like it has to pay any attention to what a court order says.

If they went to court saying that the easement doesn’t matter or we already have the easement or they were waiting on the EPA to give the easement so that they could still go ahead with the pipeline for that mile that they don’t have the easement for, the company recklessly went ahead with everything else. They built the other however many…

Tavis: It’s 90% done.

Rice: It’s 90% done. And they figured it doesn’t matter whether Obama is in or anybody else. Nobody’s going to hold us up. With that attitude, it is kind of above the law, isn’t it?

Kelley: Right.

Rice: But then what else was above the law for being in this whole context when I think about what the Native American nations and the activists are facing in North Dakota and what African Americans feel can’t be found in courtrooms if you’re waiting for cops to be criminally charged. It’s case after case.

The outcome just isn’t what you would expect in a murder indictment. But look at the difference between how Cliven Bundy was treated when he took over the National Park Outpost…

Tavis: I thought that same thought yesterday, yeah.

Rice: With his guns and the rifles and the whole bit. They were protesting the whole notion of the federal government owning all that much of a state and being able to act like a tyrant to people like Mr. Bundy. Well, he goes to trial and…

Tavis: Acquitted of everything…

Rice: Everything.

Tavis: Taking over federal government property and acquitted of everything!

Rice: And there was never a hose put on him. There was never a charge with horses and Humvees. There was never any violent reaction. So you contrast those two, again, like, okay, one is protest on federal land. This may be protest on private land, but before it was private land, it was the nation’s land. It was the Sioux Nation’s land.

A court has said, you know what? You need to go to the framework where the indigenous peoples’ views are accorded more weight. And if they challenge that case, you know, EPA could withdraw its–if EPA is saying, yes, we have standing and, yes, we can make them switch paradigms here so that it isn’t just you just do a checkbox, you hold a Town Hall and that’s enough.

Under another provision of the Impact Statements, you want to go to an Impact Statement, not just an assessment. And under the Impact Statement process, the community’s voice has more weight. So it just depends on which legal issue is being challenged and I really don’t know.

Tavis: So we talked earlier about the fact that what we did to the Native Americans, the natives peoples was the original sin and slavery certainly could qualify as number two. As I said earlier, to me in my mind, at least, Robin, there’s a link between these two.

So here on Sunday, you think that there’s a victory for the Native Americans when this pipeline is stopped at least temporarily, and then the very next day on Monday, today, you get a mistrial in the killing of Water Scott.

Again, this is the man in South Carolina who, we’ve all seen the story, was running away from the police officer posing no harm to the cop and was shot, I think, four or five times in the back as he ran away from this cop.

A mistrial, and this is not the only mistrial that’s on the books at the moment. So even as these cops, you know, are starting to be prosecuted, we are seeing, Connie, mistrial after mistrial. What do you make of that?

Rice: It’s like I told you last time, Tavis [laugh.

Tavis: If you’re depending on the courts, yeah.

Rice: It’s too late. You’re not going to find accountability in less than 1% of the prosecutions for murder. Cops don’t go to jail for killing. They have a license to kill, so most juries won’t convict. Most prosecutors won’t even bring a charge because they don’t want to mess up the record.

What you are seeing is a more savvy political response in actually choosing to charge. These prosecutions, half of them would never–the indictments would never have happened. There would never have been any charges brought in the first place.

But what you’re seeing, and I’ve said this before, it’s very hard to get a conviction against officers and most prosecutors don’t want to do it anyway because they rely on police to make their cases. It’d be like me suing my law partners. Our system is not set up to get accountability through the criminal law system.

Tavis: So is it then courageous or cruel to bring the charges in the first place? Courage because heretofore they haven’t even brought charges? Or cruel because, to your point, they’re not gonna get a conviction anyway?

Black folk get their hopes up, or just justice-loving people, period, get their hopes up and you end up in a mistrial or the cop being acquitted. So is it courageous or cruel to bring these charges in the first place?

Rice: It’s neither/nor because there are some situations. If you’re gonna call murder, murder, no matter who does it, there’s some prosecutions that just have to happen whether they’re gonna win them or not. Because they’re a moral statement to be made and there’s a political statement to be made.

Sometimes there’s a riot to be prevented. Sometimes this is totally political. I’m not going to deny that at all, but most trials are political, so it just comes with the territory. Bottom line, though, is that you have to start at the beginning.

What’s the mission you want your cops to do? Insist politically that they carry out the mission of being guardians, not to be suppressors, not to be mass incarcerators, not to be people who humiliate Black men because they think that’s part of their charge.

No, you want guardians who respect the community and are part of the community. Once you decide that’s your kind of policing, you have to promote people for generating trust. So you have to start at the beginning.

Right now, in most American cities, if you ask a cop what his or her mission is, they’re probably not gonna say, “To protect and serve.” They’re probably gonna talk about a war on gangs and a war on crime and that kind of thing. So you’ve got to start at the beginning. If you’re trying to put a cop in prison for murder, it’s too late.

Tavis: So to those persons, Robin, who see what happened today in South Carolina and can point to two or three other trials of late that have ended in mistrial and they take that as evidence to underscore their belief that black lives really don’t matter, what do you say to those persons?

Kelley: Well, I think, to go back to Connie’s point, I think the trials are very, very important because they are part of the exhibit to the public, not just the U.S. public, but internationally.

And I think that, you know, the activists who came out of Black Lives Matter follow a very long tradition going back like to Scottsboro in the 1930s where activists did not believe that you can achieve justice in the courts. So you had to go to the streets.

Not to say that the courts didn’t matter. The courts mattered enormously because that’s sort of the theater where you present the evidence, where you tell the story, and then you put pressure both on police departments, on the federal government, on judges, but especially on the public to say this is immoral.

And in this particular case, given the technology, we’re talking about all these cases, whether it’s Sam DuBose in Cincinnati, whether it’s Walter Scott, this is all on video or audio. We have evidence where you literally are seeing these crimes being committed before your very eyes. They’re circulating on the internet, social media.

So there’s a disconnect between what people think of as justice and what’s actually happening in the courts. I’m not sure what the ultimate outcome will be, but imagine what it means for organizations like We Charge Genocide based in Chicago to go to the United Nations and say, “Here’s evidence of violations of human rights.”

Unless we have the international pressure and the evidence of violation of human rights, then we’re always going to sort of wish that the courts would do better and always be disappointed. So I think the courts is just a space.

Tavis: What do you make of the data that the Southern Poverty Law Center has just released–and I’m paraphrasing here. But the data they released suggests that they are tracking more and more, if not hate crimes, just people being discriminated against and being piled on in a variety of ways since the election of Donald Trump. The data is starting to indicate that people are starting to catch hell.

Kelley: Oh, yeah, yeah. I forget the numbers, but within a couple of weeks is something like 900 incidents of documented incidents of hate crimes, including anti-Semitism, but especially anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant racism, and I think people feel emboldened. I also have to remember or remind myself that immediately after Obama’s election, there was a lot of, you know, racist crimes as well as retaliation.

The difference is that this is a license. You know, Donald Trump’s election is something of a license and it doesn’t mean that the majority of white Americans are racist. It means that that license suggests that maybe the future Justice Department will not prosecute these cases, that maybe what we’re looking at is not simply rogue police officers, but rogue gangs of violent neo-Fascist organizations attacking people who are vulnerable, you know.

Tavis: Connie, how scared are you to the extent you are that Jeff Sessions might be the next Attorney-General?

Rice: Stick a fork in it, you know. It’s over. No, I don’t want to be hyperbolic. It’s a terrible thing. He’s an unreconstructed racist and we established that. If you go through the transcripts of his federal judicial nomination hearings, he couldn’t make it through those hearings. Racist incident after racist incident.

I mean, it’s okay. You know, embrace your racism. That’s what Trumpism is about. You’re now free to be racist again [laugh], free to be racist.

But the only people who are free to be racist are whites, you know. They were ready to disqualify President Obama because of what his pastor said, not because of what he said [laugh]. Bottom line, though, I think that the policing–I have confidence that progress will continue on the policing because we don’t have a choice.

People are no longer going to put up with random shootings, targeted shootings, the mass stop-and-frisk. All that stuff, we’re not going back to that. And if police think that they can go back to that, they’re gonna have a rough ride.

Tavis: From your mouth to God’s ears. I hope you’re right about that. You usually are. I hope you’re right about that one.

Kelley: I hope so too.

Tavis: As they say down south, “For sho ’nuff.” I hope you’re right about that [laugh]. Robin D. G. Kelley, Connie Rice, good to have you back on the program. Thanks for being here again.

Yesterday, the remains of Fidel Castro were laid to rest in Santiago de Cuba. I interviewed Castro back in 1998 in his office in Havana and ended up having a fight with Mr. Castro over a book. To read the piece that I wrote for Time magazine about how I stood up to Castro for all of 15 minutes, go to our website at and you’ll see the story there.

We’ll continue, of course, to follow this story in Standing Rock as developments warrant. Until then–until next time, I should say–thanks for watching tonight and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 7, 2016 at 1:55 pm