This election cycle, the first high-profile Democrat to announce a statewide run in Texas is also one of the nation’s leading civil rights lawyers. Lee Merritt, who this summer announced he would challenge indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in 2022, represents families of people killed by law enforcement in Texas and across the country. In recent years, Merritt, who calls himself “the people’s lawyer,” has represented the families of Botham Jean and George Floyd, who were murdered by police; Marvin Scott III, who was killed in the custody of Collin County Jail this year; and others whose tragedies have prompted international outrage. Merritt spoke with the Observer about running for attorney general, the families he represents, and reimagining public safety in Texas.
Why did you decide to run for AG, and how does that office intersect with your work?
I didn’t exactly see politics in the cards for me, but there’s such potential for the AG’s office to do so much good for Texans, and right now it’s vulnerable. Our current AG has worked in opposition to causes and families I represent. I’ve worked with prosecutors across Texas, whether conservative or progressive. We all seem to agree that police use force way too often, particularly in circumstances where individuals are in mental health crises. We also agree that law enforcement officers are asked to do too much. If we had leadership in the AG’s office, I think we would see real progress on policing in Texas. I’ve seen that happen elsewhere. In Minnesota, we had a progressive attorney general, Keith Ellison, who I worked with representing George Floyd’s family and who secured a murder conviction for Derek Chauvin. I was hoping someone would run for AG in Texas that these families could work with. Eventually I just decided to run myself.
How are mass incarceration and criminal punishment personal issues for you?
I grew up expecting to go to prison at some point in my life. Every male that I knew went to prison at some point—my father, all my brothers, my grandfather. Then I graduated from high school and went to Morehouse College and began to study why that is, why we live in such a carceral society, particularly for Black men. I realized that this level of incarceration is relatively new, that in the last 50 years, the national prison population exploded. Our government decided to respond to drugs with incarceration and violence. It’s a strategy that has failed and I’ve seen it personally. My father is currently in prison for drugs, serving a three-year-sentence for a $10 quantity charge.
Why did you dedicate your law practice to primarily representing people harmed by police violence?
One of the most offensive things for me has always been that a lot of the violence is taxpayer-sponsored. I purchased my first home in McKinney a few years back. I’m a part of this beautiful community in Collin County, where I also pay extraordinarily high property taxes. Those tax dollars sponsored the murder of Marvin Scott III this year. He was in mental health crisis but taken to jail because allegedly he was in possession of a joint. Then he was restrained to death in a way that we’ve seen happen over and over again. The lack of training, the lack of mental health resources, taking him to jail instead of a mental health clinic where he belonged—those are all decisions made on my dime, with my tax dollars. I don’t want to be a part of a society that uses my resources to sponsor that kind of violence and racism.
What’s changed since George Floyd’s murder sparked mass protests?
We’re short of reaching our goal of reimagining public safety in Texas and a larger racial reckoning around law enforcement, but I’m encouraged that folks are not simply moving on. The hope was that we would finally begin to address systemic causes. That people would begin to review these policies and realize it’s not just, say, the hyper-criminalization of drugs, but more broadly how enforcement is specifically geared toward Black and brown people, that we criminalize Black existence in the inner city. We have to undo policies we’re finally now talking about, like mandatory minimums and sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine. Protests and going after individual bad actors continue to be important for accountability. But we also need to look at who we’re dealing power to in this system and what we’re demanding. We are the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation in recorded history.
How do you navigate the language around public safety, such as “reform” versus “defund” versus “abolish”?
I truly believe that we’re in the middle of a crisis, a slow-moving genocide. So I understand why the word “reform” feels too weak. It suggests that we tweak existing policy. It doesn’t acknowledge that when these policies were instituted, they were specifically designed to disenfranchise Black and brown communities. You can’t reform that. You need to completely revolutionize that. You can ban choke holds, ban no-knock warrants, and hope that the whole militarized culture of policing and drug enforcement goes away. It won’t work.
But the opposite of “reform” can’t be “abolish.” The opposite of “reform” can’t be language that is so hostile and destructive toward the idea of public safety and policing. The right will use the language of “demolish” or “abolish” or “defund” to imply lawlessness, and their base feeds on the idea of law and order. The term I’ve come to rely on is “reimagine.” Imagine if instead of fighting a war on drugs we considered it a public health crisis. Imagine if our response to people in mental health crises wasn’t state violence.
You’ve talked about the need to combat the “perfect victim” narrative. What do you mean by that?
I say this as someone who has grown very close to George Floyd’s family, but no one believes that he was a choir boy. He is not typically the kind of victim that you’re going to see a national response for. It usually takes someone like 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, or Botham Jean being shot to death while eating a bowl of ice cream on his own couch, or Atatiana Jefferson, who was just playing video games in her home. Botham was an accountant at one of the largest accounting firms in the country. Jordan was a straight-A honor roll student, just a really, really great kid. Atatiana was a medical professional and was helping her grandmother.
Part of the reason I’ve even been given access to congressional platforms and other opportunities to speak on behalf of victims of police brutality is because these people I’ve represented are seen as worthy of justice. And I think that’s a terrible way to look at it. I think everyone is entitled to justice. We should spend a lot less time looking at the character of the victim and a lot more time looking at the behavior of law enforcement and the patterns and policies that encourage brutality. Pamela Turner was a grandmother, unarmed and elderly. A cop told her to stop, she didn’t, and so he shot and killed her. People don’t understand that when someone has a diagnosis like Pamela Turner, paranoid schizophrenia, complying becomes very difficult. We cannot continue this culture of “comply or die” policing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Top image: Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt represents families of people killed by law enforcement in Texas and across the country. Credit: Chris Tuite/imageSPACE/MediaPunch /IPX