When black Americans are killed by police and street protests start to simmer, it usually isn’t long before Ben Crump gets a call. The Florida lawyer has represented the families of some of the most high-profile victims of police violence, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Daunte Wright. How did he become the go-to man?
Tiffany Crutcher was sitting in a restaurant in Montgomery, Alabama, in September 2016 and had just taken an unexpected call from her cousin. “My hands were shaking,” she said. “I told the restaurant that I had to leave. I just didn’t know if what I was hearing was true.”
Terence, her twin brother, had been shot dead by a police officer back home in Oklahoma. “He had just left Tulsa Community College,” she told the BBC. “The day he was killed he was planning a slumber party for his youngest daughter. I just couldn’t understand it.”
Terence was shot as he stood next to his broken-down SUV on a quiet road in the north of the city. Footage from the moments before he was killed shows the 40-year-old walking away from a group of police officers with his hands in the air. “That looks like a bad dude,” one officer can be heard saying in a recording from a helicopter overhead.
Lawyers would later argue that Terence ignored commands from the police before attempting to reach into his driver-side window. The officer who eventually pulled the trigger said she feared he was reaching for a gun. But there is no definitive footage of the moment he was killed and critics have said the window was closed. Either way, Terence, who was unarmed, was stunned by a taser and then fatally shot in the lung.
The shooting triggered street protests that lasted for several turbulent days. “Terence’s killing prompted one of the largest protests Tulsa had ever seen,” Crutcher said. “I’m so grateful to the people who came out. It meant so much.”
But the attention soon became overwhelming. “Being bombarded by the media was so surreal,” she told me. “I just wanted to go and hide. To have to tell your story over and over again was a lot of pressure.” Crutcher checked into a downtown hotel in an effort to escape the cameras and the hype.
The family had hired the civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who was on the ground in Tulsa within three days of Terence’s death, marching with protesters and holding bombastic press conferences in his melodic southern accent. “I told [Crump] that I didn’t want to do any more media,” Crutcher said. “But he told me: ‘Your community is counting on you. Your family is counting on you. Terence’s children are counting on you. And I will be with you every step of the way.'”
“Knowing that he had my back made it easier to keep speaking out,” she added. “He encouraged me to keep going.”
This is a familiar story that has played out time and time again in the years since. Crump, who has become one of most prominent figures in the Black Lives Matter movement, has recently represented the families of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Daunte Wright; enthralling the media and supporting the bereaved in much the same way he did for the Crutchers.
The 51-year-old works tirelessly – using what he calls the “mediasphere” – to ramp up the pressure on a city or police force until they agree a financial settlement. And Crump has won payouts in the vast majority of the cases he has taken on. George Floyd’s family settled for $27m (£19.1m). Breonna Taylor’s did so for $12m.
He is now established as the go-to man for the relatives of victims of police violence. “He is everywhere,” explained Kenneth Nunn, a law professor from Florida who has followed his career closely. “But if anything were to happen to me or my family – he would be the number I’d call.”
Crump grew up in the small town of Lumberton, North Carolina, as the eldest child in a large family. He was raised primarily by his mother, who worked in a hotel by day and a shoe factory by night. He has recalled how Lumberton was racially divided, writing in the introduction to his book, Open Season: ‘I wanted to understand why people on the white side of the tracks had it so good and black people on our side of the tracks had it so bad. This began my journey toward becoming a lawyer.’
He remembers being bussed to the wealthier part of town in 1978, when school desegregation finally came to Lumberton. ‘I soon learned that this was the work of a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall,’ he wrote in his book. Crump has often spoken about how Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, is his legal lodestar.
The other memory Crump tends to recall is of a white pupil at his new school pulling out a $100 bill as he was queuing with some friends for free school meals. ‘We looked at the money in astonishment!’ he wrote. ‘I was stunned that a ten-year-old girl had an allowance that was the equivalent of my mother’s weekly income.’
Crump moved to Florida aged 13 and, after attending high school there, won a scholarship to study law at Florida State University where friends say he quickly forged a reputation as an activist. “He always stood out as the person fighting for our black population on campus,” explained Sean Pittman, who met Crump at FSU and has been friends with him ever since.
“Ben organised and led two marches,” Pittman said. “One was related to an effort to tear down the black student union house – which was our place of comfort and our place to convene. He led that fight and the house remained for much longer.”
“His whole make-up is related to fairness and equal justice,” Pittman continued. “I don’t know if he had a choice in making a career out of civil rights, because he would be doing it whether it was his job or not.”
After university, Crump and another friend set up a small personal injury firm in Florida that won millions of dollars in settlements. But it was in 2012 that he rose to national prominence while representing the family of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was shot dead as he was returning home from a shop with some sweets. George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch volunteer who shot Martin, claimed the unarmed teenager had looked suspicious. He was eventually acquitted of murder.
While a criminal conviction eluded the Martin family, Crump helped them reach a seven-figure settlement with Zimmerman’s homeowners association. That case had all the Crump hallmarks – dramatic press conferences, media scrums, marches, protests and powerful rhetoric. “Ben did a masterful job of keeping that in the public view,” Mark O’Mara, who represented Zimmerman, told USA Today last year. “I was fighting for a client. Ben was fighting for a cause.”
Crump’s combative, media-savvy style won further success when the parents of Michael Brown settled with the city of Ferguson, Missouri for $1.5m in 2017. He has rarely been out of the public eye since – juggling numerous headline cases at his eponymous law firm which opened in Tallahassee in 2017.
Ben Crump Law now has offices around the US. Crump told the Washington Post last year that he was now able to pick and choose cases that would “shock the conscience” of the American people. He reportedly turns down at least a dozen requests for every case he takes on, claiming a third of any settlement he wins and nothing if he loses which – according to experts – is the norm in this field of law.
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The question, then, is why always Crump? “A lot of it is momentum,” Nunn said. “You have a successful case and then there’s word-of-mouth after that. It’s a knock-on effect.” Indeed, several families that hired Crump told the BBC they were either recommended his services by other lawyers or had heard of him during previous cases.
“We see success and we see progress, and we don’t want our family’s name to be brushed under the rug,” Tiffany Crutcher said. “He is the go-to guy because he has shown up and answered the call every single time.”
Allisa Findley, whose brother Botham Jean was shot and killed by police in Dallas in 2018, also said her family had hired Crump because of his past victories. “With his experience from just being the attorney that most of these families call, he knows how to manoeuvre every situation because he has dealt with so many cases,” she told the BBC.
“He gets results and that’s what any family wants. We want closure and he gets us that.”
Crump’s omnipresence is also helped by a lack of willing competition. “There are not a lot of lawyers who want to take on these kind of cases,” Nunn explained. “The amount you have to spend – Crump will get a coroner and ex-police officers to testify and hold big press conferences – there are not a lot of lawyers who would think that is a good investment. There’s not a lot of people who shape their entire practice around this type of work.”
But – when asked why Crump is always called upon – the factor those who know him refer to most often is his ability to empathise and build trust. “He’s more than a lawyer,” Pittman said. “He’s a therapist. He’s a lobbyist. He’s a coach. He’s a pastor. And with the families he has helped through these difficult times, he becomes a family member.”
Allisa Findley became emotional when speaking about her relationship with the lawyer. “On Christmas morning we will get a call from Ben because he knows it’s a difficult time for us. He just calls to check on you – not to talk legal or strategy – but just to check on you as a person.”
“He is so much more than an attorney,” Tiffany Crutcher said. “He spoke at my mother’s funeral in January. We lost her to Covid-19. And even though he was in the middle of his cases with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, he made time to speak.”
Critics of Crump, however, have branded him an opportunist – someone who parachutes in to moments of tragedy and boosts his profile by doing the media rounds. Samaria Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was shot dead by police while holding a toy gun in 2014, released a statement earlier this year that decried Black Lives Matter activists and even named Crump explicitly.
“[They] need to step down, stand back, and stop monopolising and capitalising [off] our fight for justice and human rights,” it read. “In the case of Tamir Rice, it was even questionable as to whether Benjamin Crump knew the laws in the state of Ohio. I fired him 6-8 months into Tamir’s case.”
The deterioration in their relationship appeared to stem from a sense – on Rice’s part – that she was being left out of key conversations. “My attorneys did not discuss many major strategic decisions with me about the civil and criminal matters involving my son,” she said in a court filing in 2015. “This upset me greatly.”
Crump has also been criticised for focusing on winning settlements rather than securing criminal convictions. He’s a civil lawyer, and so has no bearing on the criminal side to these cases which is usually handled by a different team of lawyers. Some activists have said police violence is unlikely to stop with cash payouts alone. This is a point Crump has even expressed himself.
“I used to think that if we made a city pay $5m or $10m every time they shot black or brown people, they would stop doing it,” Crump told New York Magazine. “But, as we’ve seen, the only way they’re going to stop doing it is if they go to jail.”
Others have taken aim at Crump’s relentless media appearances and sharp tongue. Mark O’Mara, the lawyer who represented George Zimmerman, told CNN at the time of the trial that his client had been targeted by a campaign “to smear him, to call him a racist when he wasn’t and to call him a murderer when he wasn’t”. It is hard not to view these comments as a direct attack on Crump.
Some, however, say attracting attention – and winning cash settlements – is what he is hired to do. “Yes he’s an opportunist, yes he’s a publicity hound, but that’s what his clients want,” Nunn said. “It comes with the job.”
And in the main, the families he has worked with recognise and appreciate his media savviness. “He really doesn’t do it to elevate his profile – he does it because he understands that the media is our biggest weapon,” Crutcher said. “It puts pressure on the power structure and holds a mirror up to America.”
“It’s so important to get ahead of the narrative,” she said. “The playbook from the state is to vilify the victims and dredge up their past, but Ben Crump has done so well at controlling the narrative. The media has been his secret weapon.”
Whether intentionally or not, Crump’s use of the media has raised his profile substantially. He has broadened out his practice and is at the forefront of some of America’s most notable civil rights lawsuits – representing families affected by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as well as those who have filed claims against Johnson & Johnson that allege its baby powder causes cancer (something the company strenuously denies). It is a remarkable workload.
“He wouldn’t be human if these cases didn’t tear away at the fabric of his humanity,” Pittman said.
“But when you’re motivated by something much greater than your own personal feelings, then you press on with aggression and with passion. That’s what I see from Ben – he is motivated by something far greater than himself.”