First black U.S. attorney in Manhattan sworn in, immediately announces new civil rights unit

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan is now being led for the first time by an African-American, and he is settling into his new role by immediately implementing some changes.

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams, now head of the influential Southern District of New York,  announced he was forming a new civil rights unit within his office after being sworn in on Friday, the New York Post reported.

Williams, whose ceremony was held at the Harlem Armory, said that as long as he leads the Manhattan office, he will, among other issues, prioritize what he deemed “civil rights enforcement.”

“You know and I know we are living in troubled times,” Williams declared, according to the Post.

“White supremacist groups are on the march. Anti-Semitism is on the march. Anti-Asian bias is on the march. Abuse of the most vulnerable in our society is on the march,” he continued.

“So I am proud to announce today that I have created a brand new civil rights unit in the criminal division of my office,” Williams said, adding that the new office will build out work that an existing civil rights unit has been engaged in for decades.

Attorney General Merrick Garland and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), also spoke at the ceremony, which was held at the armory where the “Harlem Hellfighters,” an all-black U.S. Army regiment, trained before deploying to fight under French command during World War I.

William Hayward, a white attorney who commanded the unit, also served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York following the war and while in office appointed the first black man and first woman to serve under him as assistant U.S. attorneys, The Post noted.

Notably, Williams will now lead several high-profile probes and prosecutions already underway in his office. They include the trial of the late Jeffrey Epstein muse and accused underage sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell and a continuing investigation into another of Williams’ predecessors, Rudy Giuliani.

Earlier this year, the Southern District of New York launched an investigation into Giuliani, who served as New York City mayor and former President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, for allegedly representing Ukraine without first registering with the government.

Federal agents raided Giuliani’s Upper East Side apartment in late April; he told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson afterward, “I looked at the warrant and I said, you know, this is extraordinary because I’ve offered to give these to the government and talk it over with government for two years. I don’t know why they have to do this. The agent seemed somewhat apologetic. I might say they were very, very professional and very gentlemanly.”

As for Williams’ assertions, the FBI reported that hate crimes increased by about 1,000 in 2020, a year that saw rioting and violence throughout the country stemming from the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in late May. Of those, 63 percent were related to race.

“Of the attacks, a staggering 279 hate crimes were anti-Asian — a 73% spike from 2019. Meanwhile 2,871 hate crimes were anti-Black or African American, that’s up 45.5% from last year. Anti-Semitic attacks decreased 29% year over year, FBI data show,” Fox News reported.

It’s worth noting, however, that “hate crime” designations can be arbitrary, according to critics — meaning what some may see as a ‘hate crime,’ others would not, making the definition somewhat difficult to define.

“It’s notoriously difficult” to prove a hate crime, said Benjamin Wagner, a former U.S. Attorney for California’s Eastern District, in an interview with PBS in 2017.

“You need to prove not just the incident, but the state of mind of the defendant — that what they intended was hate-motivated,” Wagner, who had 25 years’ worth of experience then, told PBS. “That’s never easy and often involves not just looking at the incident, but going back and investigating the background of the defendant.”

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Jon Dougherty

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