The House Judiciary Committee late Wednesday approved a major police reform bill on a party-line vote, the first step by Congress to address a crisis that has roiled the country since George Floyd died in police custody on May 25.
Yet for much of the day, the panel was ensnared in acrimonious cultural and political quarrels that had little to do with the underlying issue of police brutality, which the legislation is supposed to address.
Lawmakers fought over “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”; whether antifa is a terrorist group that should be investigated by the FBI or if the far-right boogaloo movement is a greater threat; whether Congress should require the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies to tape their interviews with suspects, citing the Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort cases as prime reasons for doing so; and if the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle is a mortal danger to the rest of republic.
Sometime around dinnertime, the two sides fought for 40 minutes over the security of the southern border.
But the most incendiary exchange took place between the normally low-key Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), an acolyte of President Donald Trump who specializes in throwing rhetorical bombs at Democrats.
The spat took place as Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.) offered an amendment to order federal agencies to consider whether antifa, the militant anti-fascist movement, is a terrorist organization. Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) dismissed the proposal as “arrant nonsense” — itself an extraordinary comment by a chair in the middle of a markup — while Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) claimed that antifa was a “figment of Donald Trump’s imagination.”
Richmond, for his part, had clearly had enough of what he believed was Republican stalling. Richmond — an African American lawmaker who is the House Democratic liaison to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — lashed out at Republicans for trying to distract from the underlying issue of police violence.
“To my colleagues, especially the ones that keep introducing amendments that are a tangent and a distraction from what we are talking about, you all are white males, you never lived in my shoes and you do not know what it’s like to be an African American male,” Richmond declared. All the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are white.
Gaetz interrupted Richmond to ask whether he was “certain that none of us have nonwhite children, because you reflected on your black son and you said none of us could understand.”
But Richmond cut off Gaetz: “It is about black males, black people in the streets that are getting killed. And if one of them happens to be your kid, I’m concerned about him, too. And clearly I’m more concerned about him than you are.”
That enraged Gaetz, who angrily declared: “You’re claiming you’re more concerned for my family than I do? Who in the hell do you think you are? You don’t know how much we care about our families. This is outrageous.”
“Was that a nerve?” Richmond asked.
“You’re damn right it was a nerve,” Gaetz responded.
The exchange was one of several heated moments in the daylong session. The Judiciary Committee, just six months removed from impeaching the president, includes some of Congress’ most ardent Trump critics and defenders, and the hangover from that battle still reverberates.
There were numerous detours from the issue of police brutality, as Republicans brought up topics such as Big Tech censorship, anti-abortion rights and “lawlessness” in Seattle’s protest zone.
The "Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone," in fact, was a recurring theme throughout the proceedings. Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) at one point offered an amendment to cut off federal police grants to any municipality that allows an autonomous zone to be created within its borders.
Rep. Pramilya Jayapal (D-Wash.), whose district is home to the Seattle zone, was upset by Republicans’ repeated attempts to raise the issue. She blamed Fox News and “right-wing media pundits” for what she said was “misinformation” being spread about her hometown.
“I don’t know how to keep telling people that what they’re saying are lies,” Jayapal said, growing exasperated as she again slapped down Republican accusations of a “law-enforcement-free micro-state” in her district. “Please stop this nonsense and let’s get back to the bill that's at hand.”
Multiple Democrats, meanwhile, repeatedly used their time to call out Republicans in the hearing room who occasionally took off their masks — in violation of a guidance circulated by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday. Under the new coronavirus guidance, Pelosi permitted chairmen to instruct the sergeant-at-arms to bar anyone who refuses to cover their face from a hearing room.
After several stern reminders, Nadler told Republicans he wouldn’t recognize anyone who is not wearing a mask. Despite the warning, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), remained maskless for much of the hearing. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) declared that he didn‘t wear a mask because he didn‘t think contracting coronavirus was any more a health threat than getting the flu, and he dared Nadler to cite a House rule that required masks to be worn. But McClintock did bow to Nadler‘s demands and put on a mask so he could be recognized to speak.
Still, it was a historic day for the subject matter alone — a debate on systemic racism and police brutality consuming both chambers of Congress amid nationwide demonstrations.
For many Democrats, the issue is intensely personal. Eight lawmakers on the panel are African American, including the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), and the House Democratic Caucus chair, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Many have been introducing bills for years to rein in police power.
The Democratic roster also includes freshman Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), whose teenage son, who was black, was murdered by a white man over the volume of his music. McBath sat in the front row on Wednesday, just steps away from Gaetz.
And it was those voices, other Democrats say, they intended to showcase.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who is white, said his “first instinct” was to introduce his own legislation on policing reforms. But he said he was urged by black friends and staff to leave it up to the CBC.
“I think Cedric [Richmond] said it best, speaking to Republicans: ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be in my shoes,’” Swalwell said in an interview. “I’m not in the shoes of my CBC colleagues. Their ideas are going to be more meaningful, so I’m just trying to listen to debate, rather than interject.”
But the panel’s meeting on Wednesday also made history as the House’s first-ever virtual markup amid the global pandemic.
The proceedings took place in a cavernous room in the basement of the U.S. Capitol, with members spread 6 feet apart, only a handful of staffers and even fewer reporters. Roughly a dozen members took part in the hearing via remote hookups from their districts.
With each roll-call vote, the clerk looked not only to each member in the room, but also to a massive TV screen that showed the livestream video of members in California, Washington and Texas.
The bill was ultimately approved with zero Republican amendments, sending it to the House floor for a vote on June 25 when it is expected to pass largely along party lines. It will then likely languish in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the chamber will take up the GOP’s own version of policing reforms.
In both bills, the biggest challenge is how to overhaul decades of systemic racism in police departments without causing permanent rifts between officers and the communities they serve.
“They’re being hunted down like they’re the enemy of society. Yes, we want to protect black lives, and all lives, including those who put theirs on the line,” Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) said, noting members of his own family who are in law enforcement.
“I’m sorry, I get emotional about this, but it’s an emotional subject.”