With her staff of 58, Sherrilyn Ifill is ready to take on Jeff Sessions
By now, you’ve likely heard Trump’s official remarks on Black History Month, in which he opted to breeze past the accomplishments and struggles of African Americans in favor of rhetoric focusing on his own persecution.
Sherrilyn Ifill, civil rights lawyer and president of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, would rather not discuss that speech. “I choose not to comment,” she says with a wry little chuckle.
There’s a whole lot of chatter that Ifill would prefer to rise above. Rather than engage in the fruitless doomsday prophesying by pundits and academics or what she sees as ceaseless finger pointing and relitigating how Democrats lost the election, Ifill’s focus is simply to strategize for the months and years ahead. Her workload is enormous, and its importance cannot be overstated.
[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]We cannot burn out. We have to remain humans.[/quote]
The LDF—our nation’s oldest civil rights legal organization—has been involved with many of the biggest police brutality cases of our time: Baltimore, Ferguson and Charleston, among others. The group is currently colitigant (with the Department of Justice) in a landmark case against the state of Texas, alleging unconstitutional voter ID laws. They are also involved in dozens of school desegregation cases still being litigated throughout the South, and much much more. All this work predates the election—and most of it was done alongside the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
It’s likely this alliance is about to crater. Under Obama, the DOJ proved itself a capable and willing watchdog, uncovering massive systemic bias in the Ferguson Police Department, along with many other injustices. But now, with controversial attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions likely about to lead the DOJ, Ifill is geared up for battle. Sessions is a law-and-order nominee with a strong pro-police bent and an oppositional history with civil rights advocates (highlighted by Coretta Scott King’s scathing letter). Ifill says there are indications Sessions will back Trump’s sketchier agenda items.
“The DOJ is lead counsel in many of the desegregation cases, and co-counsel on our Texas voter ID case. We’re faced with the prospect of losing their counsel, or even having it turned against us,” she says. “On top of all the civil rights cases we’re already involved in, it looks like we may have to become the private Department of Justice.”
Tall order for Ifill and her staff of 58. Ifill says the U.S. attorney general is designed to be the people’s advocate, not the president’s (Sessions himself once seemed to value this line of thought). If the role were to function as she expects—as a de facto arm of the executive branch—yet another check on presidential power will be compromised.
And certainly there are many other reasons for legal concern. Particularly troubling to Ifill was the administration’s refusal to comply with a Brooklyn judge’s ruling on January 28—the Department of Homeland Sec essentially said “we will carry on”—that temporarily halted the Muslim ban’s forced deportations. Along with the firing of Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (another opponent of the travel ban), she sees movement towards a White House positioning itself above the law.
“Rule of law produces results we all stand by; that is what makes us a strong democracy. Evidence from the last week indicates we may be facing a very, very serious failure to understand that,” she says. “If that's not how we're going to operate, then we are no longer a democracy.”
Dark thoughts, but Ifill is a doer, not a fretter. With her modest cadre of staff, she has been developing a triage approach to which fights they take on in the months ahead. Where can their resources be marshalled most effectively? Which battles are most worth fighting?
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]This is a long game. Thurgood Marshall used to say that you fight to see another day. We've got to—to continue the battle.[/quote]
Luckily the public has been turning up to help. Like the ACLU, the LDF has seen a significant uptick in donations since November’s election. These funds are more vital than ever, as the stakes ratchet up and civil rights battles multiply exponentially. Ifill is heartened by all this support, and by the willingness of her staff to play David in the struggles ahead. Still, she worries it will take a toll.
“I addressed my staff after the new year, saying ‘We’ve worked the hardest we have ever worked over the last 4 years; there is no possible way we could work harder,’” she says. “But we need to work smarter, with greater intensity, against stronger headwinds than ever before … And we cannot burn out. We have to remain humans.”
This advice goes for the rest of us, too. Ifill is an unabashed cheerleader for the protests that helped draw national attention to racially motivated police shootings, as well as more recent actions against the sitting president. But these are not conflicts that will be settled overnight; we all need to fortify.
“This is a long game,” she says. “Thurgood Marshall used to say that you fight to see another day. We've got to see another day—to continue the battle.”