Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) on Tuesday accused Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) of perpetuating dangerous racist tropes for downplaying the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and saying he would have been “concerned” if it had been Black Lives Matter protesters rather than supporters of former President Donald Trump.
Menendez, who chairs the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, broke with Senate decorum to personally challenge a colleague on the floor of the upper chamber.
“I get no one likes to be called racist,” Menendez said, “but sometimes there is no other way.”
In a March 11 radio interview, Johnson said he viewed the mob that stormed the Capitol at Trump’s direction as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement [and] would never do anything to break a law.”
Black Lives Matter protesters would have made him “a little concerned,” Johnson said.
The Justice Department has charged 300 pro-Trump rioters with federal offenses related to the insurrection, including for assaulting police officers.
After reading aloud Johnson’s statement, Menendez said: “Is that not racism?”
But to many people, Johnson’s words represent “a stain on the office he is so fortunate to hold,” Menendez said. He noted that thousands of people of color, including Black people, work on Capitol Hill in a variety of roles, and “many of them feared for their lives on Jan. 6, but not Sen. Johnson.”
And he read aloud an email he received over the weekend from a Black staffer who has worked for him for decades, who told Menendez that Johnson’s remarks incited fear of Black Americans and represented “the most painful thing I have ever heard being said by a U.S. senator.”
“For one of our colleagues to cast those who attacked the Capitol as harmless patriots while stoking fear of Black Americans is like rubbing salt in an open wound,” Menendez continued.
Menendez cited Harvard University research showing that more than 96% of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests involved no property damage or police injuries, while nearly 98% involved no injuries at all. The senator contrasted Donald Trump’s call for heavy-handed government responses to that movement to the Trump administration’s slow response to the assault on the Capitol.
“We often twist ourselves into pretzels to avoid saying anything that might be interpreted as a criticism of another senator, but there comes a time when these verbal gymnastics simply won’t do,” Menendez said, noting that throughout American history, racist policies have been justified using hateful depictions of people of color.