The Senate Republicans took up police reform Wednesday, thrusting Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., into the national spotlight because Scott, the lone Black Republican senator, is the lead on the bill.
At the news conference unveiling the legislation, Scott told a “driving while Black” story – one of several he said he has – about how he “got a warning ticket” for “failing to use my turn signal earlier in my lane change.”
Senate Republicans are acting because George Floyd died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer who pinned him down with a knee to his neck. The video showing the chokehold triggered a national uproar over police reform so loud that it was heard by Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump.
“That’s why it’s so important for us to say that we hear you. We’re listening to your concerns. The George Floyd incident certainly accelerated this conversation,” Scott said.
The GOP-controlled Senate is acting as the House, run by Democrats, will soon vote on the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020.’’ Scott’s bill is the “Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act.” The Senate and House measures have some overlap and some differences, especially over the issue of “qualified immunity” to allow victims of police brutality to sue for money damages in a civil court. Democrats are for this; Republicans are opposed.
There is potential for Democrats and Republicans to find some common ground. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday he wants to move the Scott bill very fast. This came a day after Trump signed an executive order on policing, clearing the way for McConnell to act.
To show how rocky the road toward speedy compromise may be, I need to take you down another path.
After the Senate Republicans unveiled their policing bill, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., in remarks on the Senate floor, talked expansively about the Democratic and GOP policing measures and the need for bipartisanship on this issue. Durbin was the key Democrat who worked with Republicans and the Trump White House on the “First Step” Act, which Trump often cites as his major criminal justice achievement.
Scott would later seize upon this Durbin passage:
“Younger people are telling us: Once and for all, change it, grownups. You’re supposed to be in charge. You’re supposed to have the authority,” Durbin said. “So what we say on the Democratic side, is, we cannot waste this historic moment, this singular opportunity. Let’s not do something that is a token, half-hearted approach. Let’s focus instead on making a change that will make a difference in the future of America.”
As Durbin wrapped up his comments, he implored the Senate to pass the anti-lynching bill that stalled earlier this month when Sen. Rand Paul, R- Ky., blocked it. Scott’s bill includes anti-lynching language.
Said Durbin, “Let us not escape this moment in history. Let us not avoid it. Let’s face it. And let’s use it. We can make this a better nation. We can say to those young people – Black, White, and Brown – those young women and men who are leading the marches in my state and across the nation, we hear you.”
A short time later, Scott went after Durbin in a floor speech, “To think that on this day as we try to make sure that fewer people lose confidence in this nation – to have the Senator from Illinois refer to this process, this bill, this opportunity to restore hope and confidence and trust from the American people, from African Americans, from communities of color – to call this a token process hurts my soul for my country, for our people.”
Concluded Scott, “On the other side, they are wanting to race bait on tokenism.”
Durbin communications director Emily Hampsten said, “The minute Sen. Durbin heard that he had offended Sen. Scott, he sought him out on the floor and apologized. What Sen. Durbin took issue with in his floor speech was not Sen. Scott’s bill, but that the Senate Majority Leader would short circuit this critical debate and fail to make the changes needed to prevent the killing of Black Americans by police officers. Addressing systemic racism and changing policing in America requires and deserves more than one Judiciary hearing, one floor vote, one conversation. As Sen. Durbin stated on the floor, let’s not do a half-hearted approach. This deserves the full and bipartisan attention of the Senate.”
Finding a compromise on police reform won’t be easy, but even a rocky road can lead to a destination.