Bethany Krajelis Dec. 12, 2014, 6:23pm

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a group of Illinois judges and lawyers Friday that recent protests over the decisions not to charge a pair of police officers in the separate deaths of two black men have led to “absolutely necessary national conversations.”

“With the tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City, millions of people have come together, driven by grief and driven by anguish to make their voices heard,” Holder said at an Illinois Judges Association (IJA) event.

From these “heart-rending tragedies,” Holder said, comes “a singular opportunity for our great country to confront difficult issues that have too often been ignored and too easily swept under the rug.”

“We must not squander this opportunity,” he said, adding that “We must not presuppose that the events we’ve seen are so isolated, or the concerns they expose are so parochial that they don’t need to be actively confronted in a constructive and inclusive manner by citizens and criminal justice leaders working together throughout our great nation.”

Holder gave the keynote address and accepted an award at the IJA luncheon --which was part of the group's midyear meeting with the Illinois State Bar Association at the Sheraton Hotel—before going to the federal court building to talk with city and law enforcement officials, as well as a group of area students and church leaders.

Chicago was one of a handful of cities chosen for Holder’s police-focused roundtable discussions, which grew out of nationwide demonstrations over first, a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson cop Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown and most recently, a New York grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo for Eric Garner’s death.

Saying that the protests were an important first step in starting the discussion on trust issues between police officers and some of the communities they serve, as well questions over fairness in the criminal justice system, Holder said Americans should not to shy away from the conversations.

In embracing the debate, Holder said Americans need to “reject the stale points,” affirm the idea that all lives matter and recognize that police deserve respect. After all, he told attendants of the sold-out event, fairness is not just an essential part of their jobs as attorneys and judges, but likely the reason they chose their career.

Since becoming the nation’s first black attorney general in 2009, Holder said he and the DOJ have been working to bridge racial divides in the system and just this week, announced new guidelines to prevent the FBI from considering, in addition to race and ethnicity, gender, religion and national origin when it opens up cases.

In introducing Holder, who announced his resignation in September, First District Appellate Court Justice and IJA President Michael B. Hyman said the attorney general has been courageous and helpful in starting tough conversations.

As an example, Hyman pointed to one of Holder’s first main speeches, in which he said America has thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, but believes it is actually a nation of cowards when it comes to racial issues.

And in speech given earlier this year, Hyman said Holder told a group of students that dialogue was not enough and what the nation needed was concrete actions.

“Attorney General Holder has not let the enemies of change undermine the progress,” Hyman said. “And under his leadership, our nation’s legal and criminal justice systems have grown more just, equitable, unbiased and humane.”

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