Marian Tolan is still texting civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump six years after helping her family resolve a longstanding federal lawsuit against the Bellaire Police Department.
Through Crump, she connects with families who have lost loved ones to police violence and provides support in difficult legal disputes. It’s a way, her son Robbie’s violent encounter with a Bellaire police officer in 2008 can make a lasting difference, she said.
“He seemed to hear me when other people weren’t,” she said. “Because he was black and he understood a black mom and what she wanted for her child – and what her hopes and dreams were for her child.”
Crump, 51, went from being a Florida-based personal injury attorney to an attorney for black Americans who were injured or killed by the police through making these critical connections. He represents families in some of the most famous civil rights cases in the country, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
His work increasingly led him to Houston. He represents the families of Danny Ray Thomas and Pamela Turner, both of whom were killed by police, in civil rights suits. He led a march in Galveston for Donald Neely, a man struggling with mental illness who was arrested in 2019 and led on a rope pulled by two police officers on horseback. Last year, Crump appeared at his funeral with Floyd’s Houston family and later helped the family secure a $ 27 million settlement from the City of Minneapolis. He recently delivered the opening address at Texas Southern University and took on another case involving Harris County’s bail practices.
Dubbed “the attorney general of Black America” by Rev. Al Sharpton, Crump’s reach extends well beyond the courtrooms. He uses Twitter to share news about racism and systemic oppression. He wrote a book about his work and co-wrote and produced a Netflix documentary about NASA’s first astronauts. He hosted an A&E series about Tupac’s death and is expected to appear in a Netflix documentary promoting a behind-the-scenes look at his career. He started his own media company and sits on the boards of several nonprofits that advocate for social justice.
Critics have called him an opportunist looking to steal the spotlight, but people close to him say his growing public image is part of a real desire to make change.
“The moments make the man, and that moment – as a result of the past four years, as a result of so many new atrocities made public and as a result of police body cameras – the volcano was ready to erupt,” said Bob Hilliard. a Corpus Christi attorney and co-attorney with Crump in the Thomas case.
‘That One Case’
Crump declined interviews for this story, but posted a long statement in response to a list of emailed questions from the Houston Chronicle. Critics follow “anyone who questions the status quo,” he said, but he doesn’t care about the pushback.
“I feel like I have a short time to move the ball across the field,” he said in part of the statement. “So I have to use every available route to make a difference.”
In his book, Crump writes his passion for social justice, which began in 1978 in his hometown of Lumberton, NC, where he grew up as the oldest of nine siblings and step-siblings. In elementary school, Crump marveled at his white classmate’s ability to use her weekly pocket money to buy lunch for him and his friends: a $ 100 bill. He was used to standing in line for a free lunch, even though his mother had two jobs.
Crump told the Washington Post that as a child he witnessed police brutally abuse his uncle for allegedly speeding. Crump believes it was because he went to college and drove a nice car.
“You set an example that it doesn’t matter who you are wherever you go, you will always be a second-class citizen,” he told the Post.
Crump attended Florida State University for college and law school. He started his career with personal injury and medical malpractice, according to the Post. He began filing civil rights cases back in 2002 and rose to prominence in the National Bar Association, the oldest and largest network of predominantly black lawyers and judges in the United States.
His name spread nationwide as he represented the family of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, who was fatally beaten by guards at a bootcamp-style detention center after he stopped running during an exercise. The attack was captured on video. Crump won a $ 5 million settlement for the family, and the case prompted Florida to overhaul its juvenile justice system.
Then, in 2012, Crump represented the family of Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by a Florida neighborhood guard while walking home from a supermarket. Gunner George Zimmerman was found not guilty. An unlawful death was settled for an undisclosed amount.
The case helped make Crump a household name.
“There’s a lot to do with chance in this business,” said John Morgan, a well-known Florida personal injury attorney who helped Crump start his law firm. “You’re getting this one case … that stimulates the public imagination. They see you without make-up and then accept or reject you. “
Crump went on to represent the families of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. Both died in 2014 by the police. The murders became the test of a renewed national movement against police brutality.
Crump’s consistent involvement in the country’s most controversial cases has drawn comparisons with Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice and founder of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Marshall played a vital role in ending racial segregation during the civil rights movement.
“Lots of people won’t be able to copy Ben, just as many civil rights lawyers won’t be able to copy Thurgood Marshall,” said James Douglas, law professor at Texas Southern University and past president of NAACP Houston. “It’s about being in the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. I think because he’s willing to take responsibility – and he’s been successful – people are more likely to call him in situations like this. “
“A voice in public”
Crump performed as the voice of the Tolan family in Houston in 2014. A Bellaire police officer shot and killed Robbie Tolan, an aspiring major league baseball player, in his driveway in 2008. He survived with the bullet in his liver.
After a six-year legal odyssey against the Bellaire Police Department, Marian Tolan turned to Crump because he could draw more attention to the Martin case. The family reached an agreement with the city for $ 110,000. But for Marian Tolan, Crump made the case bigger than any court decision.
“He connected me to other mothers and we help each other and that’s the only thing that gives me a little peace – helps,” she said.
Crump continued to make his mark in Houston by making lawsuits at court levels and rousing speeches at rallies and funerals. “Where’s the humanity for Danny Ray Thomas?” He asked during a 2018 press conference announcing a lawsuit on behalf of Thomas’ family.
Thomas, who is Black, was unarmed when Cameron Brewer, the former deputy sheriff of Harris County, fatally shot him in Greenspoint. The case caught national attention when video surfaced showing the 34-year-old walking the street with his pants around his ankles just seconds before he died.
The officer was found not guilty of grievous bodily harm by an officer. Harris County’s federal citizenship lawsuit is pending.
In May 2019, Crump took up the case of Pamela Turner, a 44-year-old Baytown woman suffering from schizophrenia. Baytown policeman Juan Pedro Delacruz shot her in the parking lot of her apartment complex where he was working as a security guard. The officer intended to arrest Turner on several pending arrest warrants.
During a May rally in Baytown, Crump stood next to Houston rappers Trae tha Truth and Bun B while speaking to a crowd of about 150 people.
“Malcolm X said the most disrespectful, unprotected, and most neglected person in America is the black woman,” he said. “Well, today we say we’re not going to let them disregard Pam Turner.”
Not all of Crump’s past customers view him positively. In a public statement, Rice Crump’s mother and several other civil rights activists called on them to “stop monopolizing and capitalizing on our struggle for justice and human rights.” His recent fame also doesn’t go well with the family of Anderson, the teenager who died in a juvenile prison, the Panama City News Herald reported.
Crump doesn’t take money from clients upfront, according to his law firm’s website. In the event of a settlement, his company receives a third of the payout. He has won more than 200 police brutality-related cases alone, the website said.
During the Floyd case, Crump got close to some of his relatives. Following the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin – who killed Floyd after kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes – Floyd’s brother Terrence referred to him as an uncle.
“We have established a connection throughout this trip,” Terrence said during a press conference.
Crump’s legacy will be a civil rights activist, said Linda Reed, professor of African American Studies at the University of Houston.
“The legacy really is to be a voice in the public eye; being a presence in the courtroom for people who have not been treated fairly in a long time, “she said. “It really is a tragic historical fact that African American lawyers had to do this, but luckily for the community that we have a Ben Crump at this time.”