Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that the Justice Department's civil rights investigation of the Cleveland police department has found members of the police department engaged in “a pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force.” During the same week the Justice Department also announced it would launch an investigation into the chokehold death of unarmed black Staten Island man Eric Garner. Meanwhile, a separate investigation is underway in Ferguson, Missouri, where an 18-year-old unarmed black man was shot to death by a white police officer.
"The Justice Department historically has an important role in the… issue of civil rights in the United States, ever since it’s creation in 1957… Especially the civil rights division in the department… really kind of gathered steam... during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s,” said Moshik Temkin, an Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
But despite its response to these and other killings of unarmed black men in the hands of white officials, experts say the Justice Department will not, alone, be able to address the civil rights issues facing the nation.
“The justice department cannot be the national leader in achieving civil rights progress,” said Temkin.
Christine Cole, Vice President and Executive Director of the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice in Boston agrees that tackling the civirl rights issues facing the nation will require more than litigation.
“It seems to me that collaborative reform is a way to do the work without the heavy stick of the litigation,” said Cole.
Tenkin says that one of the issues reaching beyond the Department of Justice is the country’s political leadership.
“In the 1960s we had very good leadership at the top – political leadership, national leadership – that made civil rights progress a real priority. And right now… we lack a strong national voice for making the kind of civil rights progress of the sort that we saw in the 1960s,” said Temkin.
The other issue, according to Temkin, is the lack of leadership within the modern-day civil rights movement.
“I think is that there’s not enough pressure in terms of organizing the civil rights movement… we don’t see, as far as I’m concerned, the same kind of leadership that we saw in the 1960s with the civil rights movement,” he said.
You can listen to the full interview above. Tune in to 89.7 WGBH at 7:20 a.m. all week for our focus series: From Ferguson to Boston.