Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are talking about inviting the families of Eric Garner and Michael Brown to President Obama's State of the Union address in Washington next month.
The lawmakers, who have universally condemned the justice system's response to the killings of the two black men at the hands of white police officers, say the presence of the two men’s relatives would send a strong signal that Washington policymakers are serious about tackling criminal justice reform head on.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), another black lawmaker who has led the CBC’s charge against the militarization of local police forces, echoed that message.
“Those families are symbols of an issue that needs to be urgently addressed in America,” Johnson said. “I think it would be an excellent idea.”
The lawmakers emphasized that no such invitations have been extended yet for the president’s speech. But they're endorsing the idea of inviting the Brown and Garner families in order to amplify the questions their deaths highlighted about the justice system.
“It would be good that we put a face to the injustices that have occurred as a result of the criminal justice system that hasn't been lifted to a point of colorblindness,” Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) said Thursday.
“Appropriately,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson-LeeThe right person for State Department is Rudy Giuliani Overnight Regulation: House passes GOP bill targeting last-minute Obama regs House passes bill targeting ‘midnight’ Obama regs MORE (D-Texas.), “people who have experienced tragedies like that would be the right kind of guests to have.”
The CBC members have been outraged over grand jury decisions declining to charge either of the police officers involved in the Garner and Brown killings.
Garner, a 43-year-old from Staten Island, died in July after Daniel Pantaleo, a white New York Police Department officer, applied a chokehold during an arrest. The confrontation and Garner’s death were caught on a video that went viral on the Internet.
Brown, an 18-year-old from a St. Louis suburb, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer, after a confrontation in August.
Both incidents and the subsequent grand jury decisions sparked protests across the country and launched a national debate about racial profiling and the actions of police.
Obama is calling for strict new policies surrounding law enforcement tactics and a close examination of the system. He is expected to address the issues in his annual address.
“When it comes … to our criminal justice system, too many Americans feel deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis,” Obama said Thursday, referring to the pair of grand jury decisions.
Given the prominence of the issue in recent months, CBC members said the president will almost certainly make criminal justice reform a theme of his State of the Union speech.
“I think he must,” said Lewis. “And not just speak to the question of criminal justice, but where we are as a nation and as a people.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a former head of the CBC, said lawmakers are meeting with members of the Brown and Garner families to provide support in the wake of tragedy. He suggested they'd ultimately be invited to the State of the Union.
“Particularly, this soon after the grand jury reports, we shouldn't suggest anything that appears to be too political,” Cleaver said. “[But] I think, ultimately, we're going to want to have them here.”
Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who represents the district where the Browns live, said inviting the family would be “a good idea” but said he'd “have to check their schedule.”
Asked if there's a possibility, Clay said, “Could be.” Then he paused, smiled and said, “Yep.”
House lawmakers are each offered one guest ticket to the president's annual speech.
Both Lewis and Rep. G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldLa. rep picked to lead Congressional Black Caucus Black Caucus head won't commit in Dems' leadership race Black lawmaker troubled by Pelosi's caucus changes MORE (D-N.C.) suggested the invitations to the family members should come from Obama, himself.
“I think that would be a signal that this administration is laser-focused on the problem of police misconduct, and I would certainly encourage him to do it,” said Butterfield, who will head the CBC in the next Congress. “Optics always matter, and this would be a positive optic to have the families [here].”
The idea might not sit as well, however, with some Republicans who are defending the criminal justice system in the face of the recent criticism.
In the wake of Wednesday's grand jury decision in the Garner case, for instance, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), who represents Garner's district, issued a statement expressing his “full faith that their judgment was fair and reasoned.”
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) went a long step further, praising the police and blaming Garner's obesity and medical conditions for his death.
“You had a 350-pound person who was resisting arrest. The police were trying to bring him down as quickly as possible,” King told CNN Wednesday. “If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this.
“I don't know where the racial angle comes in,” King added.
Other Republicans, however, have suggested congressional hearings could be held, particularly on the grand jury’s decision in Staten Island, which has raised more bipartisan criticism than the Ferguson incident.
The American public “deserves more answers” about the deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers, Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbying World 'Ready for Michelle' PACs urge 2020 run News Flash: Trump was never going to lock Clinton up MORE (R-Ohio) said Thursday.
He also said he was open to the idea of Congress holding hearings on the deaths in New York and Ferguson, Mo.
“Both of these are serious tragedies that we’ve seen in our society. I think the American people want to understand more about what the facts were,” BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbying World 'Ready for Michelle' PACs urge 2020 run News Flash: Trump was never going to lock Clinton up MORE told reporters at a news conference. “There are a lot of unanswered questions that Americans have and, frankly, I have.”