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Rep. James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, told Yahoo News on Tuesday that he fears that the racial justice movement now underway could be derailed if overly broad slogans like “Defund the Police” are allowed to define the national conversation. Clyburn compared “Defund the Police” to “Burn, Baby, Burn,” a street slogan that caught on during the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles.
“We lost that movement because it got hijacked — it got hijacked by sloganeering,” Clyburn said in an interview with the Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast. “‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ became the headline.”
Clyburn, D-S.C., called on leaders of the movement to defund the police to hone their message or risk being caricatured by the media.
“If we mean restructure the police, say restructure; if we mean deconstruct policing, say deconstruct,” Clyburn said. “The problem is if you allow the soundbite to lead then you're going to lose the argument.”
Clyburn said he has strong memories of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which he said he participated in with John Lewis, the civil rights icon and longtime congressman from Georgia.
“We were trying to desegregate transportation,” Clyburn said. “Desegregate public accommodations. Open up schools. The 1954 Supreme Court decision had still not been adhered to, and we were trying to get schools integrated. So, how does ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’ contribute to that? It doesn't.”
Asked about today’s young protesters who have cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 speech “The Other America” in which the civil rights leader described rioting as the “language of the unheard,” Clyburn scoffed at what he called a misunderstanding of King’s philosophy.
“He wasn’t justifying rioting,” Clyburn said of King. “He was explaining it.”
Clyburn said that the protesters should instead quote King’s revered “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which lays out his nonviolent. direct-action principles.
While Clyburn said that he favors major and systemic law enforcement reform, he also made a point of citing an example of good policing, underscoring the complexity of the police reform movement now underway. Clyburn recalled the officers who arrested the white supremacist responsible for killing nine African-American churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston five years ago.
“They took him out of the car in a very civil way,” Clyburn recalled. “He said he was hungry, and they took him to a Burger King ... before taking him back to Charleston to face justice. That’s the first instruction on how to conduct an arrest.” (The arresting officers actually brought Roof food from Burger King as opposed to taking him there).
Calling the June 17, 2015, slayings of the churchgoers “horrific,” Clyburn added that he has found inspiration in the response of the victims’ relatives.
“When those family members looked at this guy, who had just murdered their family and their friends, and they said they forgave him?” Clyburn said. “That, to me, started a reexamination of what this country is and what this country could be.”
But Clyburn said President Trump’s response to the protests has been inadequate, particularly Tuesday’s executive order designed to encourage local police departments to adopt best practices by incentivizing them with grant money. Trump’s order also creates a national database to track excessive force complaints and encourages mental health professionals to be involved when police are responding to calls involving addiction, the homeless, or mental illness.
“I don’t care what the president may do with his executive order — if he signs an executive order, he can rescind it,” Clyburn said. “If he is really serious about this, then encourage Mitch McConnell to take up the Justice in Policing Act. It got 220 sponsors in the House. There are about 35 or 40 in the Senate. Tell him to come out, support that. Mitch McConnell, put it on the floor. And then, he will sign it. That's when I'll know he's serious, not an executive order to encourage. The Bible ‘encourages’ every day.”
Clyburn, who has been an influential adviser to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and whose endorsement of Biden in the pivotal South Carolina primary fueled his resurgence as a candidate, also looked ahead to November. The congressman made headlines in March when he told the media Biden should pick an African-American woman as his running mate because “we've reached a point in this country where African-American women need to be rewarded for the loyalty that they've given to this party."
Clyburn told “Skullduggery” that he has not advocated for one particular vice presidential pick, but that as “the father of three African-American women, nothing would make me more proud than to see an African-American woman on this ticket.”
“I think we gotta do the vetting,” Clyburn said. “We gotta do the polling. And be instructed by that. And then [Biden] must let his heart and head take a look as well.”
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