New York Magazine

BLACK LIVES LAWYER

TRAYVON MARTIN, MIKE BROWN, TAMIR RICE—BEN CRUMP IS TRYING TO TURN A PROTEST MOVEMENT INTO A LEGAL CRUSADE.

In the lobby of a luxury hotel in Atlanta, Ben Crump is meeting a new client for the first time. His face is round and somber as a war mask. He’s wearing a dark suit, a crisp white shirt with French cuffs, gold cuff links, a heavy gold watch, and a thick gold wedding ring. On his left lapel, a gold Eagle of Justice spreads its wings.

Like many of the lawsuits Crump takes on, this one seems destined to make national headlines. But unlike the explosive battles that made him famous—he represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Alesia Thomas, and Terence Crutcher and has worked on many, many less notorious Black Lives Matter cases—this one doesn’t involve a grieving relative, police violence, or a dead child. The man seated across from him is a successful financial-services executive, dressed with casual elegance in a dark blazer and knit shirt, who was educated at a prestigious HBCU and is accompanied by an old friend who happens to be a former state representative. His trouble started, he says, when he went into the wrong bank to cash a $2,000 check and the teller told him to wait while he checked with the branch manager. “I asked him if there was a problem, and he told me, ‘No, it’ll just be a second,’” the executive says. “Then a policewoman comes up and says, ‘I’m here for you.’” He laughs. “I thought she was just being friendly! Maybe she’s a client, you know.”

“Because you’ve never been arrested,” Crump says.

“I don’t get arrested,” he scoffs.

“And at some point she said, ‘Don’t run’?”

“When she was handcuffing me,” the executive answers. “She said, ‘I can tell you want to run. Don’t run.’” Looking freshly astonished, he asks, “Run where? And why?”

The check was a distribution from his 401(k), so it had two bank names on top. One was his home bank’s, the other that of the bank that managed his company’s 401(k) fund, and he thought he could cash it at either one. A vice-president did call to apologize a few days later, but the bank must not have told the police it was a mistake, because the charges haven’t been dropped. The executive isn’t sure he wants to raise a fuss—in his business, “arrested for bank fraud” isn’t the best thing to have at the top of your Google search. He’s only here because the former state representative called Crump and set up the meeting.

Crump sits still, coaxing out the details in a soft voice that mixes legal terminology with phrases like “how they done you.” The executive tells him the bank’s official story, which is that a branch manager called a fraud line and got the wrong information. But he’s not sure he believes it. He was on his way home from the gym, still wearing his workout clothes, and the bank was in Cobb County.

The former state representative explains: In black neighborhoods, people say Cobb is short for “Count on Being Busted.” It’s the richest and whitest part of Atlanta, home to Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr.

Pulling out his phone, Crump shows the executive a video he’s already put together from the security-cam footage. The title, superimposed over the entire clip, is “Banking While Black.” He wants to set up a press conference in the morning and release it to the media.

“Let’s talk about that,” the executive says nervously.

“How did you feel in the back of that police car?” Crump asks.

“Obviously, I went through a variety of feelings,” the executive says, then changes the subject.

Crump lets it go. But after a few minutes, the executive suddenly pops out an answer. “You asked how I felt? I was terrified. Because, the day before, I watched the Sandra Bland movie. And I just kept thinking,

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