WASHINGTON -- The deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and other African-American men who have died at the hands of law enforcement in recent months were on the minds of the black lawmakers who gathered Tuesday morning in the U.S. Capitol for the start of the new Congress.
"Black America is in a state of emergency, as it was at the turn of the century," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) at the ceremonial swearing-in of the Congressional Black Caucus. Butterfield is taking over as chairman of the group from Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio). "My message to those across the country who are tired of business as usual, and to those who want to hold our country accountable, who are treating you with disrespect, I hear you. The CBC hears you. America hears you. The world hears you."
Despite the tragic events that have made national headlines recently, members expressed a significant amount of optimism at the event Tuesday. The caucus, which was formed in 1971 by 13 lawmakers, will have a record 46 members in the 114th Congress.
Butterfield said the CBC will use the power of its size to position criminal justice reform as a key issue.
"We're going to make criminal justice reform a centerpiece of our work," he said to applause from the audience. "There is a well-founded -- you know it and I know it -- mistrust between the African-American community and law enforcement officers. The statistics are clear. Video clips are clear. We recognize the overwhelming majority of law enforcement who put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities, and most of them are doing it well. But unfortunately, there are some officers who abuse the sacred responsibility to protect and to serve by using excessive and sometimes deadly force when a less severe response is warranted. The CBC will seek legislative action to reverse this trend."
Separately Tuesday morning, three CBC members sent a joint letter to Republicans calling for a series of in-depth hearings into the issues raised by the deaths of Garner, Brown and others. Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) are the ranking members of the House committees on Oversight and Government Reform, the Judiciary, and Homeland Security, respectively.
"This is a transformative moment for our country, and we believe Congress has a critical role to play in helping to restore trust in the criminal justice system, ensuring that every American is treated equally before the law, and exercising oversight of the funding and resources that the Federal government allocates to local jurisdictions," they wrote.
In recent weeks, much of the attention surrounding law enforcement and its relationship with the African-American community has focused on New York City, where two police officers were shot in their patrol cars on Dec. 20 by a man who had expressed sympathy on social media with protesters calling for law enforcement reform.
The head of the city's largest police union said the protests in support of Garner and Brown were to blame for the deaths and that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had "blood" on his hands for supporting the protesters' concerns. Police officers also turned their backs on the mayor during the funerals of the two slain officers.
A key player in this saga could soon be coming to Congress. Daniel Donovan, the Staten Island district attorney who gained national attention for failing to bring an indictment against the police officer who killed Garner, is exploring a run for the U.S. House to replace Michael Grimm, the Republican who recently resigned after pleading guilty to a felony. Donovan already has the support of prominent New York Republicans, although some are questioning whether he's the right choice for the GOP in light of his handling of the Garner case.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), whose district is near the one that Donovan would potentially represent, said the prosecutor's record needs to be closely "scrutinized" should he run.
"I'll reserve judgment until it appears that he becomes the candidate," said Jeffries. "But I certainly think that his entire public record, including what happened and did not happen in the context of the grand jury investigation into Eric Garner's death, is something that should be heavily scrutinized."
On Tuesday morning, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) reminded the audience at the CBC swearing-in that many of these struggles and tensions are nothing new.
"There are significant movements taking place all across the country. Although they may be new to some of us, they are not new to the country. We have been here before," Clyburn said.
"We respect election results, but we remember that Ben Tillman and Lester Maddox were elected officials who were swept into office by denigrating blacks," he added. "We respect law enforcers, but we remember that Jim Clark and Bull Connor were cops who built their reputations by brutalizing Freedom Fighters. We respect court decisions but we remember that Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson were Supreme Court decisions that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship. It took hard work and personal sacrifices to move the country to a better place."
As a reminder of this "hard work," in the audience was Ernest Green, one of the "Little Rock Nine" students who were initially barred from entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957. And on stage was Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon who helped spearhead the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1963, in what became known as "Bloody Sunday" when Alabama state troopers brutally attacked the peaceful protesters.
Lewis told The Huffington Post on Tuesday that he believes de Blasio is "doing a superb job."
"I think it's unfortunate that the police officers in New York would turn their back and have a protest during the funeral of two of their colleagues," said Lewis. "But I understand their frustration and their sense of discontent. They deserve and need the support of the American community."
"I got arrested and went to jail a few times in the '60s, and even since I've been in Congress," he added. "But I have the greatest admiration for law enforcement individuals. They just have to be fair and be governed by kindness and respect."
Lewis has been arrested 45 times, with 40 of those incidents occurring during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. As a Freedom Rider and a participant in many sit-ins in attempts to integrate the South, Lewis and his fellow activists were often beaten and harassed by angry mobs of whites. In 1961, for example, he was locked up for using a "white" restroom. More recently, as a member of Congress, he was arrested during protests on immigration reform, apartheid in South Africa and genocide in Darfur.
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