The Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed African American man on May 25 last year set off a nationwide wave of mostly peaceful protests demanding an end to the ugly, unchecked pattern of police violence committed against people of color. The mostly young, racially diverse protesters who took to the streets in more than 100 U.S. cities were often met with indiscriminate physical assaults by police who used tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Media camera crews and journalists were often police targets.
Moved to action by these massive Black Lives Matter protests, many cities and states across the U.S. undertook efforts to pass police reform legislation. While the House passed the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, the bill was opposed by Senate Republicans and then President Donald Trump.
The longtime social justice activist co-founders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield recently launched a campaign to end qualified immunity — the Supreme Court doctrine that shields law enforcement officers from being personally sued for actions performed in the line of duty. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with ice cream mogul Jerry Greenfield who talks about the campaign and explains that if qualified immunity ended, it would make it easier for Americans to sue police officers who abuse their authority.
JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, you know, Ben and I got involved with this campaign in particular after the murder of George Floyd. But I think as we all know, there have been ongoing cases of unarmed black people being brutalized, maimed and murdered for years. And it continues to go on. And I think the murder of George Floyd was just an example where not only the entire country, but the entire world was outraged.
We felt like there was a need to do something about it, to move from protest to policy. And that’s what we’ve become involved in. You mentioned qualified immunity. It is this legal doctrine that essentially was concocted by the Supreme Court that requires lower court judges to ignore whether any laws were broken and dismiss cases unless another police officer had been found guilty previously in a similar situation. So what it does is it shields from police from accountability. And I’m sure as you can imagine, there’s so many detrimental aspects to that. Not just around accountability, but in terms of breaking down trust between communities and police and it protects bad cops. And it’s got to go.
SCOTT HARRIS: I just wanted to put out there that you often hear from police when this topic comes up of ending qualified immunity — that police have very dangerous jobs, which of course is true. And that they often have to make split-second decisions. We’re told that you really can’t second guess a police officer’s actions in a life and death situation. And if you want them to put their lives on the line for you and the community, you’ve got to give them this legal avenue to protect themselves. Certainly, that’s something you’ve heard a lot since you launched this campaign. What’s your response to that?
JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, I absolutely agree that police have difficult jobs and they do need to make split-second decisions. They have very good constitutional protections. If they make reasonable good faith mistakes, that is not a problem for police. The problem is if they intentionally break the law or make unreasonable mistakes, they are still protected. And the only people that that helps is bad cops. Good cops don’t need that protection. It just undermines everything that policing and law enforcement is about. And, you know, Ben and I are business people and we understand as all business people do, that accountability is the key to getting desired results. If you don’t have accountability, those results do not follow.
SCOTT HARRIS: What action could Congress take in the realm of ending qualified immunity in Congress right now in this new session with the Democrats holding the House, the Senate and the White House?
JERRY GREENFIELD: Well, actually during the last House campaign, there was a bill introduced, a bipartisan bill from Reps. Ayanna Presley and Justin Amash to end qualified immunity that did not get passed. I think the general feeling is that there will be some type of police reform bill that comes up before Congress this year. What we’re trying to do is make sure that the idea and program of ending qualified immunity does not get stripped out of there. I think often when bills are proposed, people are compromising and taking things out and ending qualified immunity is so fundamental and so essential that we need to make sure that it stays in there. And that’s why we’ve formed this campaign to end qualified immunity. Our website is just that — CampaigntoEndQualifiedImmunity.org. And our work is to lift up the stories of thousands of people who are being impacted negatively.
We have a letter signed by over 650 business people. There’s this letter from 1,400 athletes. We’re recruiting performing artists and musicians. Killer Mike is on board. Porsha Williams. Mark Ruffalo. And in business, we have the founder of Shake Shack. The CEO of Converse, the former CEO of Patagonia, the CEO of Seventh Generation. So there are very public and high profile people who are going to be writing op-eds and letters to the editor using their social media campaigns. And what we want to encourage people to do is come to the website, put your email down. And when there are opportunities to get engaged and be in touch with your Congress people or whatever, we want to be able to reach out to folks.
For more information, visit their website at campaigntoendqualifiedimmunity.org.