A long way in a short time: What George Floyd spurred

Political Theater, Episode 130

A man writes a message in chalk Monday on H Street Northwest in Washington, near the section of 16th Street dubbed Black Lives Matter Plaza, after days of demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A man writes a message in chalk Monday on H Street Northwest in Washington, near the section of 16th Street dubbed Black Lives Matter Plaza, after days of demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Jason Dick
Posted June 11, 2020 at 2:43pm

It might not seem like it, but we’ve come a long way as a country in the last couple of weeks.

On May 25, George Floyd, a black man, died in Minneapolis police custody. It was not the first time his dying words, “I can’t breathe,” were caught on video of a black man suffering at the hands of police. But it is the kind of horrific incident Americans have become accustomed to.

Yet, with Floyd’s death, something snapped in the public. Protests that started in Minneapolis quickly spread across the country.

One week later, we hit a low point, with federal officers violently dispersing a crowd of peaceful protesters outside the White House.

The president threatened to send active duty military to quell unrest, and was cheered on by the likes of Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in a New York Times op-ed.

Troop transports filled the streets of Washington, against the wishes of local officials.

The protests continued, growing in number and in every state and across the world. They were peaceful, although passionate. 

One senator, Angus King of Maine, explained to CQ Roll Call’s own Katherine Tully-McManus why he felt compelled to protest. “Nobody’s asking for anything special. They’re only asking for what America has promised,” King said. “Freedom and justice for all, brotherhood from sea to shining sea, our basic creed. That’s all people are asking for.” It was what he called a full-circle moment for him.

As a 19-year-old college student, the future senator attended the 1963 March on Washington for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He didn’t know it, but his future colleague, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., also gave a fiery speech that day.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Lewis, 80 years old and suffering from pancreatic cancer, were among the lawmakers who joined the fray in D.C. over the weekend.

Capitol Hill staffers came out too, telling our own Kathryn Lyons why they took to the streets.

“That could’ve been me,” said Christopher Harvey, a legislative assistant to Texas Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher. “It could’ve been someone I knew.”

And then Congress did what it is supposed to do — start the process of changing laws to make things better, with House and Senate Democrats outlining on Monday a legislative proposal to overhaul police procedures and training and get the ball rolling on addressing longstanding problems.

George Floyd was buried in Houston, in a funeral watched by millions.

Something worth noting is who was absent during Floyd’s funeral: the president of the United States. He made no public remarks. He did continue, as he often does, to tweet.

One of those tweets was about Senate confirmation of the president’s pick to be the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Charles Brown.

Brown is the first black man to be the top officer of a military branch service. The 98-0 vote was one of those rare moments of bipartisan unanimity. Before the vote, Brown spoke about this moment in history.

“I’m thinking about protests in ‘my country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty,’ the equality expressed in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that I’ve sworn my adult life to defend,” he said in a video shared on social media, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”

At this point, we don’t know what will come out of Congress from this.

But we do know what has happened has captured its attention. The world is watching.

And what it is seeing is hopefully the next step, as the people’s representatives listen, as they did to the protesters, and as they did to Philonise Floyd, as he spoke Wednesday to the House Judiciary Committee about his brother George.

That hearing showed there are some areas members could agree on about what to do next.

There will likely be some tough, tense times ahead. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, who is leading the GOP efforts on policing legislation, pushed back Wednesday on criticism that he is a token for his party on this topic. The senator is one of just three African Americans in the chamber and the only Republican.

This issue isn’t new for Scott, either personally or in his career in the Senate. Back in 2016, he began a series of floor speeches about police treatment of African Americans.

Admittedly, many of these discussions and proposals are coming too late for those who have suffered.

But we have gone from death, to protest, to legislation and hearings in a matter of weeks.

We’re dealing with 400 years of inequity and injustice. It will take more than a few weeks to get it sorted out, and watching Congress work can be an exhausting process that tries the most patient of souls. But, as House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn told me in a CQ on Congress podcast earlier this week, this time feels different.

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