Longtime civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton called for reforms in the judicial system while presenting the keynote address Thursday at the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts Conference, being hosted through Saturday in downtown Buffalo.
Sharpton, who has often times been involved with cases involving police and African-American members of the community, also addressed his own activism before a room filled with judicial and legal professionals as well as college and university students.
He told the audience he does not actively jump to hotspots but rather goes when asked to be there by the families of victims. These families, he said, are the ones who wish to bring national attention to their respective cases.
"So when I got to a Ferguson, or Sanford, Florida or Staten Island, and they say you're going to stir things up, that's exactly why the families call me," Sharpton said. "The real issue is not why they call me. The real issue is why don't they have the confidence in calling the law."
That lack of confidence, it is suggested, comes from what Sharpton and others say is a widespread disparity in police actions, criminal charges and sentences. Sharpton adds that activists have historically been marginalized when bringing up their complaints, until there's an incident such as a death in police custody.
Among the judicial reforms he called for in his keynote address is a more public grand jury process. Citing the example of Eric Garner, he questioned how a New York City grand jury could find no wrongdoing in Garner's death, when a video shows him in a choke hold by a police officer as he says, "I can't breathe." Not knowing what the grand jury is handed to review, he suggests, fuels the mistrust.
"The secret proceedings only add to the level tensions and the level of those who have concerns that bubble up sometimes into explosive levels," Sharpton said.
He also criticized the recent remarks by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who said in an interview that his department has trouble hiring more black police officers because many of them have criminal records, disqualifying them from consideration. Sharpton suggested eliminating minor non-violent drug offenses would go a long way toward changing that.
He expressed his support for judicial elections, saying they keep judges accountable with the public.
After leaving the Hyatt, Sharpton spent the rest of the day fulfilling his broadcast obligations, a syndicated radio show and his program on the MSNBC network, from studios in downtown Buffalo. He hosted his radio show, Keeping it Real with Rev. Al Sharpton, from the WNED/WBFO studios.