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U.S. Attorney Damian Williams Announces Civil Rights Push

Citing a rise in hate attacks, Damian Williams, the new U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the creation of a civil rights unit in the office’s criminal division on Friday at a ceremony at the Harlem Armory, signaling a new focus for one of the country’s most powerful prosecutor’s offices.

“White supremacist groups are on the march,” said Mr. Williams, the first Black person to hold the post in the office’s 232-year history. “Antisemitism is on the march. Anti-Asian violence is on the march. Abuse of the most vulnerable in our society is on the march.”

Enforcement of civil rights violations in the office has largely been handled through civil lawsuits rather than criminal charges. But at a time when calls for a reconsideration of the way the justice system confronts issues of race and discrimination have grown louder, Mr. Williams said creating a civil rights unit within the office’s criminal division would elevate the work and “make us more effective.”

Mr. Williams, who was confirmed by the Senate last month, assumed his post roughly 17 months after the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer and mass protests that followed in New York and across the nation calling for an end to racism in the criminal justice system.

In recent years, the office has brought notable criminal civil-rights prosecutions, like the conviction of a Rikers corrections officer who fatally beat a seriously ill prisoner while other guards held him down; and a 2019 federal hate crimes case against a man accused of stabbing five Hasidic Jews — one victim, a rabbi, later died — during a Hanukkah celebration in Monsey, N.Y.

But much of the office’s highest-profile civil rights work has been handled through lawsuits. In 2014, for example, the office investigated New York City over widespread civil rights violations in the treatment of adolescent inmates at Rikers Island, which led to a settlement and a court-appointed monitor.

Mr. Williams said on Friday that other priorities would be gun violence and reconnecting with the communities that his office serves. He said he would be “equally relentless” in prosecuting financial crimes.

“I use the word equally, by the way, on purpose,” he added, “because I don’t believe that there should be one justice system for white-collar crime and another justice system for blue-collar crime.”

Mr. Williams’s remarks, amounting to a statement of principles and purpose, were unusual for a newly appointed U.S. attorney, although many who have held the post in recent decades have delivered speeches to community and business groups and spoken at news conferences to announce new cases.

Sometimes called “the Sovereign District” for its long-asserted independence from Washington, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District has handled some of the nation’s most complex and high-profile cases, including terrorism, financial crimes and prosecutions that reached former President Donald J. Trump’s inner circle.

The office was wracked by turmoil during the Trump presidency. Two of its previous four top prosecutors were fired by the Trump administration. The New York Times has also reported that the Trump-era attorney general, William P. Barr, and other officials had tried to interfere with crucial Southern District cases and investigations.

Mr. Williams’s predecessor, Audrey Strauss, became the acting U.S. attorney in Manhattan last year after a chaotic 24 hours in which Mr. Trump fired her predecessor, Geoffrey S. Berman, after Mr. Barr had tried unsuccessfully to replace him with a political ally.

Ms. Strauss, Mr. Berman and Joon H. Kim were among the former U.S. attorneys in attendance on Friday, along with Preet Bharara, who was fired from the post in March 2017 when he refused to quit.

Saluting them each, Mr. Williams made it clear in his comments that he, too, would defend the office. Citing Mr. Berman, Mr. Williams said, “When the hour demanded true courage and independence and the demonstration of what it means to be a Southern District of New York prosecutor, he showed all of America what that meant.”

At the ceremony, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland spoke about the Justice Department’s founding in the midst of Reconstruction, and the role it had played in confronting the Ku Klux Klan, and later on, protecting voting rights and prosecuting civil rights violations and hate crimes. He also praised Mr. Williams, a onetime law clerk of Mr. Garland’s when he was a judge, as a wise and humble colleague.

And he noted that today, prosecutors confront a range of threats, from white-collar crime to violent crime to domestic violent extremism.

“Those threats, if left unanswered, will also undermine our democratic and economic institutions as well as our citizens’ support for the rule of law,” he warned.

In choosing to hold his oath-swearing ceremony at the Harlem Armory, Mr. Williams underscored the Southern District’s connection to the historic building, which was once the home of the Army’s distinguished 369th Infantry Regiment, a regiment of thousands of Black soldiers formed in 1916 who fought in World War I and became known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

The Hellfighters were commanded by Colonel William Hayward, a white lawyer who in 1921 was appointed as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District. In his early weeks in office, he hired James C. Thomas Jr., who had fought with the Hellfighters, as the office’s first Black assistant U.S. attorney.

“The historical symbolism is amazing,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic majority leader who had recommended Mr. Williams to the White House for the prosecutor’s post and who also spoke at the event.

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