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House Lawmakers Hold Charged Debate Over Police Reforms

Weighing a law that would alter police conduct and accountability to the public they are sworn to protect — in particular African Americans disproportionately impacted by police brutality — House lawmakers found themselves sharply at odds Wednesday over how to solve a long-running crisis of civil and human rights.

WASHINGTON (CN) —  Weighing a law that would alter police conduct and accountability to the public they are sworn to protect —  in particular African Americans disproportionately impacted by police brutality —  House lawmakers found themselves sharply at odds Wednesday over how to solve a long-running crisis of civil and human rights.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was debated over a charged and lengthy session Wednesday with Democrats and Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee in disagreement over several provisions in the law introduced after the May 25 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, sparked national outcry.

The bill is an amalgam of police-reform legislation that has languished in Congress, featuring a federal ban on the use of chokeholds as well as no-knock warrants in drug cases, while also modifying qualified immunity, a doctrine stating that government officials, or in this case, law enforcement, cannot be sued for violating a person’s constitutional rights lest those actions violate “clearly established” law.

It calls too for an end to racial profiling and the creation of a national database where misconduct can be tracked and shared between jurisdictions, plus mandatory racial-bias training on the federal level, and the codification of lynching as a federal hate crime. Limits for the transfer of drones and other military-level weapons to police departments and an increase of dashboard and body cameras are included as well.

The law goes significantly further than the Senate package unveiled Wednesday and, despite widespread criticism hurled at the Floyd Act by Republicans, the bill does not call for defunding of police, a platform Black Lives Matter activists and protesters nationwide have made the centerpiece of their demands as lawmakers on the state, local and national level have rushed to mobilize a response.

With 225 co-sponsors in the House, Floyd’s law is virtually guaranteed to pass in that body, but it will almost certainly fail to vault through the Senate where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it has no chance of passage.

Democrats like California Representative Karen Bass, who also chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, and Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee delivered emphatic entreaties nonetheless, as the merits of the law were debated and a litany of amendments were considered.

“What is the value of black lives? Are black lives valued? Is a black life valued? Are all black lives valued? Living in the skin that I live in obviously for all of my life … I realized that question was never answered by this nation,” said Jackson Lee, who is black, before expressing her pain hearing fellow legislators reject the concept that “systemic racism has plagued every aspect of our society.”

This pain was wrestled with over several tense moments Wednesday including one ignited by Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, who quickly issued the qualifier of “all lives matter” when California Representative Eric Swalwell asked Republicans, as he took the dais, if they could “unequivocally” state that black lives matter.

“I think it’s clear my colleagues would like to put up a straw man about the uncomfortable conversation we need to have about race. In police shootings, we talk about the act, but we don’t get to the harder part,” Swalwell said. “Nobody is disputing what the officer did here with Mr. Floyd should be defended. … Until you are willing to get rid of the straw man, the confusion, all of the different tactics you’re using to avoid the hard conversation about race in America, we’re not going to get where we need to be and not just in policing.”

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After three hours of debate, Republicans like ranking member Jim Jordan regularly focused on matters like President Donald Trump’s impeachment or former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

That opening was provided when North Dakota Representative Kelly Armstrong proposed an amendment to the Floyd Act requiring audio recordings of those detained by federal agents and officers. At present, the FBI does not require this. Jordan moved the subject quickly from excessive use of force by police to the lack of audio recordings for FBI interviews of Trump’s convicted former chairman Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler asked Armstrong to withdraw the amendment and have it considered later, since on its face, he said, it might be worth considering with tweaks. Armstrong's amendment was refused and later voted down.

As the slog continued, Pennsylvania Representative Guy Reschenthaler proposed an amendment declaring antifa, a political ideology opposed to fascism lacking central leadership, as a domestic terrorist group. Louisiana Representative Cedric Richmond bluntly dismissed the bid as a distraction.

“You are all white males. You have never lived in my shoes. You do not know what it’s like to be an African-American male,” Richmond said. "If you’re opposed to this legislation, let’s just have the vote but please do not come in this committee room and make a mockery of the pain that exists in my community."

The effort from Republicans to “water down” the bill, Richmond argued, was simply unacceptable.

“I’m not interested in equality with ‘all deliberate speed,’” Richmond said, citing the 1954 Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education which declared segregation unconstitutional but did not order states to act with urgency — semantics exploited by segregationists eager to delay implementation.

Expressing a willingness to work on the GOP’s proposed amendments in separate legislation later, Richmond said he wasn’t willing to move at a “snail’s pace” or pass a bill that “mandates nothing," as people continued to die needlessly at the hands of police.

“I’m not interested in studying antifa or the Klan or sovereign citizens because that is not the imminent threat that black men face on a daily basis,” he said. “Right now, all too often, the threat is from law enforcement, those sworn to protect and serve.”

When Richmond said he hoped committee Republicans' refusal to consider the Floyd legislation was a reflection of their unconscious bias and not their conscious bias, Congressman Gaetz asked whether Richmond was questioning whether white lawmakers did not care about black children they may have in their families.

“It’s not about the color of your kids,” Richmond said. "It’s about black males. … If one of them happens to be your kid, clearly, I’m more concerned about him than you are."

An insulted Gaetz lept from his seat and chastised Richmond, shouting over him: “How dare you.”

When the Louisiana Democrat calmly asked if he “struck a nerve,” Gaetz responded angrily again: “You’re damn right.” Reschenthaler’s antifa amendment was voted down by Democrats shortly thereafter.

Some 20 proposed amendments are expected and by early evening Wednesday, only four amendments were considered so far including one from Texas Representative Louie Gohmert that calls for enforcing the death penalty for lynching.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act proposes a minimum 10-year sentence for lynching and that would have to be sufficient for now, Judiciary Committee chairman Nadler, adding that he felt capital punishment was “barbarous.” Gohmert’s amendment was voted down by Democrats.

As the night wore on, with several more amendments forthcoming, many others were shot down by Democrats, including one attempt to strike the proposed modification to qualified immunity.

As it stands, the bill proposes a minimum 10-year sentence for lynching. That would have to be sufficient for now committee chairman Nadler said, adding that capital punishment was “barbarous.”

An amendment contesting the formation of autonomous zones introduced by Arizona Representative Debbie Lesko was also handily dismissed after Washington Representative Pramila Jayapal slammed the suggestion that Seattle was under siege by rogue demonstrators hellbent on extorting local businesses — a claim the Seattle chief of police has debunked after it was circulated by right-wing news outlets.

An attempt by Florida Representative Greg Steube to overturn the bar on no-knock warrants also failed late Wednesday night.

The bill is expected to hit the House floor as early as next week along with the legislative package offered by the Senate which Nadler early Wednesday called a “sham.”

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