The brother of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed last month by a Minneapolis police officer, pleaded with lawmakers Wednesday to implement sweeping restrictions on the use of force by police.
Philonise Floyd described the anguish his family felt after videos surfaced of an officer, Derek Chauvin, putting his knee on his brother’s neck for nearly nine minutes as his brother cried for air until he drew his last breath. That anguish quickly consumed a nation already paralyzed by coronavirus lockdowns and economic turmoil.
“I can’t tell you the kind of pain you feel when you watch something like that. When you watch your big brother, who you’ve looked up to your whole life, die. Die begging for your mom,” Floyd told the House Judiciary Committee. “I’m tired. I’m tired of the pain I’m feeling now and I’m tired of the pain I feel every time another black person is killed for no reason. I’m here today to ask you to make it stop. Stop the pain. Stop us from being tired.”
Philonise Floyd’s words opened what is expected to be an emotional and contentious hearing about police brutality, centered on legislation that House Democrats drafted in consultation with advocates for racial justice and police reform. His testimony echoed across the cavernous House hearing room, where socially distanced witnesses and lawmakers gathered for the panel’s first hearing since coronavirus lockdowns began.
Floyd’s voice broke as he described his brother’s death, which followed a police stop over an allegations he had used a counterfeit $20 bill to make a convenience store purchase.
“George wasn’t hurting anyone that day. He didn’t deserve to die over $20. I am asking you, is that what a black man’s life is worth, $20?” he said. “This is 2020. Enough is enough. “
George Floyd’s killing ignited two weeks of protests in dozens of major American cities — and across the world — and sparked a dramatic shift in public opinion in support of overhauling policing policies that disproportionately affect African Americans.
Though most protests have been peaceful, some were accompanied by violence — at times provoked by bands of rioters and vandals, at others instigated by police officers who targeted protesters or journalists with tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. Some of those incidents have gone viral, sparking new waves of unrest or recrimination.
The conflict culminated on June 1, when U.S. Park Police, flanked by other federal agencies, dispersed a largely peaceful demonstration across from the White House with violent force and aid from military police — just moments before President Donald Trump strode through the cleared park for a photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
The conflict has become a flashpoint in the presidential campaign as well, with former Vice President Joe Biden calling for significant police reforms and meeting with the Floyd family, while Trump has at times appeared to escalate the crisis and trained his focus on looters and rioters, framing the issue as matter of “law and order.”
On Tuesday, Trump amplified a conspiracy theory that a 75-year-old protester who was knocked to the ground and injured by police was really an “antifa” provocateur seeking to interfere with police operations. Last week, during meandering remarks on a better-than-expected jobs report, Trump called it a “great day” for George Floyd. Yet by late Tuesday White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said the president wanted police reform “sooner rather than later.”
Though the Judiciary Committee is often among the most polarized and contentious in Congress, Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday agreed on a few central points: that Floyd’s death was a horrific abuse by the officers involved, that reforms are necessary and that most police officers are good people who perform their jobs well.
“If there is one thing I have taken away from the tragic events of the last month, it is that the nation demands and deserves meaningful change,” said committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). “We can and should debate the specifics, but at the end of the day, it is the responsibility and the obligation of the House Judiciary Committee to do everything in its power to help deliver that change for the American people.”
“We should honor the memory of George Floyd and work hard so that nothing like it ever happens again,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), ranking Republican on the committee.
But Republicans also made clear they intend to highlight efforts by some activists to promote efforts to “defund the police,” an amorphous slogan that hasn’t gotten any buy-in from Capitol Hill Democrats but that Trump and other Republicans have elevated as they seek to accuse the left of trying to weaken police departments across the country.
Americans “know it is pure insanity to defund the police,” Jordan said, accusing Democrats of refusing to speak against the progressive rallying cry despite comments from Biden and other top congressional Democrats distancing themselves from the call.
Trump praised Jordan’s statement, saying on Twitter that it was a “Great statement to Congress by @Jim_Jordan concerning Defunding (not!) our great Police. This Radical Left agenda is not going to happen. Sleepy Joe Biden will be (already is) pulled all the way Left. Many, like Minneapolis, want to close their Police Departments. Crazy!”
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) joined the hearing as well to introduce GOP witness Angela Underwood Jacobs, the sister of an Oakland-area security guard shot and killed during last week’s unrest.
“Patrick Underwood should be alive today. George Floyd should be alive today … and so should countless others,” McCarthy said.
Underwood Jacobs said she wanted to ensure her brother’s memory, like Floyd’s, became a catalyst for change. “Mr. Floyd’s murder was not just cruel and reprehensible, but criminal,” she said. “I wish that same justice for my brother Patrick.”
“Fear, hatred, ignorance and blind violence snatched the life of my brother Patrick from all of us,” she said. “I am here to seek justice through the chaos for my brother Patrick, for George Floyd, for citizens of all colors.”
Witnesses called by Democrats argued that police reform would require a wholesale reimagining of the relationship between officers and communities, one that would prioritize social services rather than armed confrontation. Some have argued that Trump had exacerbated a national climate in which police felt free to abuse suspects, citing his 2017 comments in which he suggested it was OK to rough up arrestees.
“The Trump administration has abdicated its authority to investigate police departments and instead has incited unlawful policing,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Others argued that the policing across the country was built on systems of “structural racism” that would need to be rooted out.
“Under these systems even goods cops have bad outcomes, and bad and racist cops operate with impunity,” said Ron Davis, a senior official with the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.
The proposed legislation would implement sweeping changes to the way police officers are held accountable in cases of misconduct.
It would lower the legal threshold for federal charges in cases of death at the hands of the police, encompassing episodes in which officers acted “knowingly or with reckless disregard.” The bill would sharply curtail “qualified immunity,” which has created a high hurdle for families or victims of police misconduct to recover damages. It would also expand the authority of the Justice Department and state attorneys general to investigate systemic police misconduct.
The measure would also ban chokeholds, like the kind that killed George Floyd and New York’s Eric Garner in 2014, and it would prohibit no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and condition aid to local law enforcement agencies on whether they follow suit.
The measure would restrict when federal law enforcement officers are permitted to use force; require deadly force to be a last resort after other measure to deescalate are applied; require federal officers to wear body cameras; and require state and local agencies to use existing federal funds to implement police body cameras.
The legislation would create a federal registry of police misconduct records and require the Justice Department to collect data on the racial makeup of those facing drug charges, the use of deadly force and traffic stops. The measure would also establish training programs for law enforcement agencies to confront racial or religious discrimination and profiling.
As Wednesday’s hearing wore on, Democrats appeared heartened by the tenor of the conversation. Though Republicans repeatedly raised alarms about calls from activists to “defund the police,” Democrats said the issue was a straw man, since those proposals are not being considered by Congress. More important, they said, was a seemingly widespread acknowledgment that reform of policing practices is an important national priority.
“I was really encouraged, because they’re just talking about something we’re not even talking about, it’s not even in the bill,” Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) told reporters. “They’re talking about defunding the police. Fine. That doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing.”
The hearing also largely steered clear of the contentious blow-ups that have characterized the Judiciary Committee in the past. Tempers briefly flared when Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) grilled longtime Trump ally and conservative commentator Dan Bongino about instances in which white mass shooters were somehow arrested without further violence, while unarmed black people have been killed during police confrontations. Bongino said he didn’t understand Jeffries’ line of questioning and said the race of the attackers was not at issue.
Many of the advocates who helped Democrats compile the legislation were on the witness panel for Wednesday’s hearing, including Ifill, Davis, Vanita Gupta, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights; Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League; and Phillip Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity. Democrats also called Art Acevedo, the chief of the Houston Police Department and Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor.
No House Republicans have signed on to the Democratic proposal, but their counterparts in the Senate have begun discussing possibilities for passing their own police reform legislation that could serve as a starting point for negotiations with House Democrats, raising the prospect of a rare election-year push for major bipartisan legislation.
In addition to Underwood Jacobs, the House GOP called Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and congressional candidate and Pastor Darrell Scott of Illinois’ New Spirit Revival Center, another longtime Trump surrogate.
Republicans’ witnesses, in their opening statements, warned of efforts to “defund the police” Despite little interest among Democrat to pursue that path, Bongino and Scott argued that pushing in that direction would lead to higher crime in communities across America.
“We can, and should, commit to police accountability without shredding the thin wall between civilization and chaos,” Bongino said.
Scott, for his part, argued that some inner city communities need more police presence, not less.
“In certain inner-city communities across America, increased funding for police, and increased police presence is actually necessary, in order to enforce the law, and guarantee the safety and security of law biding members of those communities,” he said.