Governor Cuomo Delivers Remarks at NAACP Annual Convention in Philadelphia

Transcript: New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo

Good morning to all of you.

First, to Karen Boykin-Towns, she is a phenomenon in New York – let’s give her a round of applause. And your Chair Roslyn Brock and President Cornell Brooks – let’s give them a round of applause. Anybody from New York in the house today? New York had their coffee this morning. See, that’s New York. In New York, they don’t even need their coffee in the morning. We have Hazel Dukes, who is the New York President – Hazel, give her a round of applause. Hazel has been like a second mother to me. She helped raise me. And let me just say that Hazel was from the school of thought that said “spare the rod, spoil the child,” I can tell you that much. We have George Gresham from 1199. Let’s hear it for the whole New York delegation.

I don’t like to leave the State of New York. I believe I got paid to stay in the state and serve the state. Plus, I get a little nervous when I leave the State. You know, you never know what’s going to happen. Anything could happen. Maybe Jersey or Connecticut decides to declare war on New York and then I’m not there. I’m supposed to be the commander–in-chief. I’ve got to keep an eye on Connecticut and Jersey, too. I think they have been gearing up to attack. But a couple of important things that I wanted to talk to you about this morning and that’s why I’m very grateful to be here.

First to the NAACP. I have great respect for your organization because it has the two essential elements for progress. Number one, the NAACP recognizes the problem. It doesn’t run from it because denial is not a life strategy and you are never going to solve a problem that you are unwilling to admit. So the NAACP stands up and calls it like it is. And second, the NAACP is all about action because at the end of the day, talk is cheap and you’re either getting something done or you’re not getting something done and that’s what the NAACP is all about.

You’re going to hear from one of this country’s greats soon, President William Clinton. He appointed me as HUD Secretary. And it was a great honor of mine to serve in the Clinton Administration from the first day to the last day because we made this nation a better nation. And as HUD Secretary, I did a lot of work with the NAACP and the NAACP understood that for all the progress we have made as a society, discrimination was still alive and well. And discrimination can be at times just as brutal as ever. Let’s not deceive ourselves. Yes, we’ve made a lot of progress and yes, home ownership is up and yes, there has been progress in lending and employment. But, it can still be ugly and brutal and it has been.

We worked together on a case in Missouri where a woman moved into a neighborhood. The welcoming committee came and planted a seven foot cross on her lawn and burned it. Why? Because she was Portuguese, she was dark skinned, they thought she was African American. We did a case in Louisiana where there was an apartment complex and it had two sides, and if you walked in and you were African American, you walked to one side of the complex and if you walked in and you were white, you moved to another side of the complex. Two swimming pools, one for African Americans and ones for whites. We did a case against the Ku Klux Klan, who had a TV show on Public Access T.V., where they were spreading their hate.

So we know how ugly it can be. But we also know that discrimination can now be silent, and can be insidious. It can be the banker who says, “Well you don’t qualify for the loan,” but the only thing the banker actually saw was the color box on the form. It can be the broker who says, “Well that apartment is rented,” but he means that apartment really just isn’t available for you anymore in that building.

And the NAACP has been fighting that and has been posing the simple but profound solution: if you want peace, work for justice, if you want peace, work for justice. True justice, social justice and racial justice and economic justice, justice that says raise the minimum wage because if a person is working full time they shouldn’t have to choose between paying rent and buying food. True justice that says, address the crisis of young minority males who can’t find jobs, who are getting into trouble, we’ve done it in New York with a job voucher, where we say to private companies, “You hire a young minority male, we will pay for the training, we’ll subsidize the salary so they have a job and they can start on the career ladder.” Real justice like we did in New York where we stopped finger printing for people who wanted to be eligible for food stamps because just because you want to feed your child doesn’t mean you should be treated like a criminal.

True justice, which means let’s have a public education system that works for every child in this country regardless of their zip code, regardless of their color, regardless of their address and a sense of justice that recognizes the truth. We now have two education systems, not public and private. We have one for the rich and one for the poor. And if you go to a school on the rich side of town, they’ll show you how they are on the internet. And you go to a school on the poor side of town and they don’t even have a basketball net. You go to a school on the rich side of town and they’ll show you first graders and everybody has a laptop and their parents are communicating on their laptop. You go to a school on the poor side of town the most sophisticated piece of electronic equipment is the metal detector that you walk through on the way to the classroom. That is not justice. You have a government that is all too often more concerned with protecting the educational bureaucracy and the status quo than working for the students who they are supposed to be serving.

True justice that says we have to end this incarceration madness. In the State of New York we pay $50,000 dollars to keep someone in a prison cell. You could have sent them to Harvard University for what you are spending on a prison cell. 2.2 million people incarcerated, more than any country on the globe. I am proud to be able to say in New York we have worked on alternatives to incarceration and there are 6,000 fewer inmates today than the day that I took office and we closed 24 prisons because of it. I am proud to say that we are going to stop the abhorrent process of putting 16- and 17-year-olds into state prison which doesn’t even give them a chance to learn and make their lives better.

And my friends, what we must address and we must address now, is the rash of police shootings against unarmed civilians, overwhelmingly African American, because this is the social schism that is breeding mistrust, disenfranchisement and alienation. We have seen it painfully in New York. We are celebrating the one year anniversary of the Eric Garner case on Staten Island that the nation got to see on video tape from a camera. The City of New York just settled paying the Garner family damages, but they can’t bring back Eric Garner and replace the damage of losing a family member. We saw it New York with the Ramarley Graham case, and the Akai Gurley Case and the Sean Bell case. But it’s not just New York. It’s Michael Brown, an 18 year old in Missouri. It’s Freddie Gray in Baltimore. It’s Walter Scott in South Carolina. And this is not new. It is not new. It is just worse.

There was another Governor Cuomo. I look nothing like him, I want you to know. He had bags under his eyes; he had a big nose. He was a great, great man and greatest governor in the history of the State of New York, Mario Cuomo. In 1983 Mario Cuomo takes office. Michael Stewart, a young graffiti artist, gets killed by six police officers. They get indicted, nobody gets convicted. Eleanor Bumpers is a grandmother. Police serve eviction notice, they wind up killing her. Anthony Baez dies in a choke hold by a police officer after his football hit a patrol car. This is not new. It’s not New York, it’s nationwide and it’s getting worse.

The answer is not to litigate this case by case and who’s right and who’s wrong, because there is a pattern and the pattern spells distrust and the pattern spells a system that has lost the trust of many communities in this country. That defies the principle of if you want peace, work for justice because there is no more relevant form of justice than in the criminal justice system.

Lady Justice we look at is blind folded. Why? Because justice is not supposed to see color of skin or income or class. Too many today question the impartiality. And we have seen it with thousands of people all across the nation and it’s spreading and getting worse and we took action in New York.

The basic point is people distrust the state attorneys, the DAs, the prosecutors, from prosecuting the police because they believe the relationship is too close. The prosecutors are working with the police day in and day out, and they feel that the prosecutors favor the police in these cases of unarmed civilian shootings – 500 according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

Now, I’m a former Assistant District Attorney, I’m a former Attorney General. I believe in the State of New York. The overwhelming majority of our prosecutors are good men and good women. But in some ways, it doesn’t matter. Because if people don’t trust the system that is a problem in and of itself. They talk about a conflict of interest. A conflict of interest can be real; a conflict of interest can be perceived. The appearance counts. And as a lawyer they teach you to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. There is an appearance of impropriety and conflict. So say to the prosecutors, “You know what, when it comes to a case where an unarmed civilian is killed, we don’t think the prosecutor should handle that case because people don’t have trust.”

In New York, we appointed a special prosecutor – the Attorney General of the State of New York – who has no relationship to the police, and let that special prosecutor handle police cases where a civilian who is unarmed was killed, and let the community know justice for all, justice is blindfolded.

You get justice whether you’re white, whether you’re black, whether you’re gay, whether you’re straight, whether you’re a police officer, whether you’re a civilian – every life matters the same way. This is your country and your system and you should have confidence in it. That’s what the special prosecutor is going to do. And we did it in New York and you can do it all across this country.

That will go a long, long way. Because if people believe the government is biased, then we have a real problem because the government is supposed to be the solution, not the problem. And it starts with the criminal justice system. I believe this is going to work in New York. Hazel Dukes believes this is going to work in New York. The mothers of the victims who were lost believe it’s going to work in New York, and I believe this can work nationwide and I believe it’s a step that can start to restore confidence and trust, and tell communities that feel left out and left behind, “We are with you.”

My friends, times are tough. There’s no doubt about that. We have our challenges. But I believe at the end of the day in the goodness of the American people. I believe we have seen that goodness. We saw that goodness when they had the good sense to elect President Barack Obama. And we saw that goodness just last week, when the state of South Carolina experienced a tragedy where nine African Americans died needlessly at the hand of racial hatred. But South Carolina said, “We are going to take that Confederate flag, which has flown for a long time, reminiscent of a day when there was slavery and racial inequality, reminiscent of a protest against the civil rights movement in the sixties,” and South Carolina said, “We’re going to take that flag down. It’s not going to fly over the Capitol of South Carolina.”

Now we paid a terrible price for that victory, but it was a victory. And the American people will do the right thing at the end of the day. But it is a struggle and it is a fight and that is what the NAACP has always stood for. We can get to a place of justice, but we have to fight for it. It is a journey, but it is a struggle, and a struggle that we have to make together because we’re not home yet.

We have made a lot of progress but we are not home yet. And our founding fathers and Martin Luther King described home the same way. Our founding fathers said, “E Pluribus Unum”, out of many, one. We’re not black and white, we’re not gay and straight, we’re not rich and poor. We are one community, we are in solidarity, we have one future, we are interwoven, we are interconnected, and we are one fabric of society. Your child is my child, and your child’s success is my child’s success, and your child’s failure is my child’s failure. That’s E Pluribus Unum.

And Martin Luther King said, “Let us judge content of character not color of skin. See me for who I am and judge me for who I am and what I do.” That’s home and that is where the NAACP is leading us. That is the good fight. It is a fight, it is a struggle, we have obstacles, we have made progress, but we are going to get there together and I stand shoulder to shoulder with the NAACP in that fight.

Thank you and God bless you.