Floyd’s brother urges Congress to take action

Greg Nash

The brother of George Floyd appeared Wednesday on Capitol Hill to implore lawmakers to take the reins in the fight against racial injustice in law enforcement, injecting a shot of high emotion into an historic debate over police brutality and Congress’s role in curbing it.

Fighting back tears, Philonise Floyd offered gripping testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, lamenting his powerlessness to save his older brother, killed last month in police custody, while urging the panel’s members to use the tragedy to crack down on racial disparities in criminal justice.

“I couldn’t take care of George that day he was killed. But maybe by speaking with you today, I can make sure that his death would not be in vain,” Floyd testified.

“George called for help and he was ignored. Please listen to the call I’m making to you now, to the calls of our family, and the calls ringing out in the streets across the world.”

Floyd described the anguish of watching the video of the police officer kneeling on his brother’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, despite his protests that he couldn’t breathe.

“His life mattered. All our lives matter. Black lives matter,” Floyd said later in the hearing, wiping tears from his eyes. “I just, I just wish I could get him back. Those officers, they get to live.”

“Justice has to be served,” Floyd said.

Floyd’s appearance brought a somber tone to a Judiciary Committee better known for its feisty, partisan fights over hot-button issues like gun reform, immigration and the impeachment of President Trump. But the public outcry that has followed George Floyd’s death has sparked street protests around the country, a national reckoning with the legacy of slavery and promises from both parties to adopt new laws designed to curtail racial profiling and police brutality.

Some Republicans said the tempered tenor of Wednesday’s hearing was no accident.

“We’ve spent a lot of time on our side, amongst Republicans, talking about the importance of tone and the importance of civility and showing a conciliatory face on this, because … this is one of the issues on which we all agree,” said Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

“What happened to George Floyd is an atrocity,” he added. “We have to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future, and we have to use this opportunity to address the core, root problems which are underneath all of that.”

The Democrats’ sweeping police overhaul, introduced on Monday, is a compilation of reforms they’ve been pushing for years, including provisions to ban chokeholds, improve race-sensitive police training and heighten accountability measures for officers with demonstrated histories of abuse.

The issue is thornier for Republicans, who have found themselves in a tough spot as the protests have raged around the country and public opinion polls show growing concern about the treatment of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

Trump, who has a checkered record on race-related issues, has also complicated the GOP effort, both with provocative tweets and the staging of a photo opportunity that was preceded by federal police using rubber bullets and tear gas on peaceful protesters.

Even as the Judiciary Committee’s examination of racial justice was underway on Wednesday, he waded into those volatile waters again, rejecting the idea of renaming military bases named after Confederate generals.

Still, Republican leaders in both chambers are seeking to counter the Democrats’ proposal with one of their own. House Republicans have so far held off unveiling their own bill as the White House signaled Wednesday that Trump may issue an executive order on police reform.

“We’re working on it,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee who’s been charged with drafting the GOP’s alternative proposal.

George Floyd was killed on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him down for almost nine minutes with a knee on his neck. Floyd had been arrested after a convenience store worker alleged that he used a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes.

“He didn’t deserve to die over $20. I am asking you, is that what a black man is worth?” Philonise Floyd said during his testimony.

Other witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing included Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for George Floyd’s family, as well as civil rights advocates and law enforcement.

Republicans on the Judiciary Committee invited Dan Bongino, a conservative radio show host and former Secret Service agent; Angela Underwood Jacobs, whose brother David Underwood was shot during recent protests in Oakland, Calif.; and Darrell Scott, an African American pastor and Trump ally.

For one member of the committee, the string of unarmed African Americans facing danger in encounters with police or seemingly innocuous situations is strikingly personal. Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) lost her 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, in 2012 after he was shot in a confrontation over playing music while waiting at a gas station.

“I lost my son, Jordan, by a man who called him a thug for simply playing loud music in his car,” she said during the hearing.

“Jordan’s tragedy is shockingly, shockingly similar to Ahmaud Arbery’s. Being black while being in your own community,” McBath said, referring to Arbery’s death earlier this year in Georgia after he was pursued by two white men while out jogging.

“It’s like a sucker punch in my heart and my gut. Because when is it going to stop?” she said.

Republicans highlighted calls by some activists and progressives to “defund the police,” even though Democratic leaders in Congress and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have distanced themselves from the push.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) asked the dozen witnesses to raise their hands if they supported the calls to “defund the police.” None did.

Those dynamics only encouraged Democrats, who were quick to note that the sharpest GOP criticisms targeted an idea that Democrats haven’t proposed.

“They’re talking about defunding the police. Fine. That doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “So that makes me feel a little hopeful.”

Even Gaetz, a conservative firebrand, expressed openness to parts of the Democratic legislation and finding bipartisan agreement on the issue.

“While I think that we can fine-tune elements to ensure that we don’t defund the police, that we don’t make our communities less safe, I do think there is not a legitimate defense of chokeholds or lynching or bad cops that get shuttled around. And you will be able to count on Republican cooperation as we hone these ideas and hopefully pass them and get them to the president’s desk,” Gaetz said.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has tapped Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the only black Republican in the upper chamber, to lead a group in drafting the GOP’s alternative to the House Democratic bill.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) predicted Wednesday that Trump would ultimately sign reform legislation into law, saying the president has wanted to “take action before” the current debate over Floyd’s death.

“I think he wants to solve the problem,” McCarthy said.

Tags Defunding police Donald Trump George Floyd protests Jim Jordan Joe Biden Karen Bass Kevin McCarthy Lucy McBath Matt Gaetz Mike Johnson Mitch McConnell police reform Tim Scott
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