House minority leader Kevin McCarthy claims that “the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln…not nativist dog whistles.”
Just three days after he distanced himself from a move by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and other GOP House members to form what critics recognized as a white supremacist caucus, McCarthy was dog-whistling in precise harmony with Greene’s Anglo-Saxon tune.
When House Financial Services Committee chair Maxine Waters urged activists in Minnesota to “get more active” in exercising their First Amendment right to protest police violence and systemic racism, Greene declared Waters to be “a danger to society” and announced that she wanted the House to punish the California Democrat. Instead of distancing himself from the Georgia extremist’s false claim that the past chair of the Congressional Black Caucus had “traveled across state lines to incite riots,” McCarthy jumped up with a proposal to censure Waters that echoed Greene’s incendiary language.
“This weekend in Minnesota, Maxine Waters broke the law by violating curfew and then incited violence,” claimed McCarthy.
The minority leader’s dog-whistling was every bit as crude, and every bit as absurd as Greene’s, offering a reminder of why the Georgian ultimately determined it was not necessary to form an “America First Caucus” within a House Republican Caucus that on so many issues mirrors her extremism.
When Waters spoke over the weekend with Minnesotans who were protesting the police killing of 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minn., she addressed the need for Congress to enact reforms such as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. She put her advocacy in the context of the trial of former Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin, who on Tuesday was convicted of murder for the May 2020 killing of Floyd.
Like many Americans anticipating the verdict, Waters suggested on Saturday that the trial was a test of whether all the talk about addressing police brutality in the aftermath of Floyd’s death was sincere. If Chauvin was not found guilty, she said, “then we know that we’ve got to not only stay in the street, but we’ve got to fight for justice.”
“We cannot go away,” she asserted.
An interviewer asked, “What should protesters do?”
“Well,” said Waters, “we’ve got to stay on the street. And we’ve got to get more active. We’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.”
McCarthy, Greene, and other congressional Republicans erupted, intimating that it was somehow wrong for the Democrat to talk about fighting for justice. They claimed to be aghast at her suggestion that when courts fail to hold police officers to account, the necessary response is to be more active and more confrontational in making demands for criminal justice reform.
McCarthy and his fellow Republicans conveniently forgot that this country’s greatest advocate for nonviolence, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke of “our glorious fight for civil rights.” Or that King addressed the need to confront racism in American cities. Or that King spoke of marches and protests in the streets as “marvelous movements” that had “profoundly shaken the entire edifice of segregation.”
Or that A. Philip Randolph, who called for the peaceful 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, declared, “Nothing counts but pressure, pressure, more pressure, and still more pressure through broad organized aggressive mass action.” Or that Randolph told the marchers,
[W]e have taken our struggle into the streets as the labor movement took its struggle into the streets, as Jesus Christ led the multitude through the streets of Judaea. The plain and simple fact is that until we went into the streets the federal government was indifferent to our demands. It was not until the streets and jails of Birmingham were filled that Congress began to think about civil rights legislation. It was not until thousands demonstrated in the South that lunch counters and other public accommodations were integrated.
Or that Frederick Douglass, a Republican from Lincoln’s time, said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
These attempts by McCarthy and Greene to cancel Waters, and to demonize those who demand an end to police violence, are not rooted in respect for law or for order. They are political gambits, designed to rile up the Republican base even as they are destined to fail in the Democratic-controlled House—as the censure motion did on Tuesday.
McCarthy and Greene are practicing dog-whistling at its most cynical, with a deliberate disregard the truth that, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has noted, “Maxine talked about ‘confrontation’ in the manner of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Waters made it absolutely clear that when she addressed protesters in Minnesota she was speaking in the historic language of civil rights and racial justice movements. “The whole civil rights movement is confrontation,” she said. In an interview with The Grio about her remarks in Brooklyn Center, she explained that they had to do with pursuing criminal justice reform: “I talk about confronting the justice system, confronting the policing that’s going on, I’m talking about speaking up. I’m talking about legislation. I’m talking about elected officials doing what needs to be done to control their budgets and to pass legislation.”
Waters is not the bad player here. McCarthy and Greene are the ones who are distorting statements for political purposes. Unfortunately, their false narrative gained some traction. The storm over the comments by Waters gained brief mention in the Chauvin trial, where defense lawyer Eric Nelson claimed that Waters was “threatening acts of violence in relation to this specific case.” That was a desperate assertion from an attorney who was exploiting the fact that, as a St. Paul Pioneer Press analysis explained, “Parts of Waters’ comments were reported, with varying levels of context, by a number of media outlets and on social media.”
Remarkably, Judge Peter Cahill responded to Nelson’s longshot legal strategy by saying, “I’ll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.” The judge eventually rejected the argument that remarks by Waters or media reports had prejudiced the jury. Yet he saw fit to rant about how “I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch and our function. I think if they want to give their opinions, they should do so in a respectful and in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the Constitution, to respect a coequal branch of government.”
Cahill got the calculus wrong.
He was the one whose remarks were inconsistent with the Constitution and disrespectful of a coequal branch of government.
Members of Congress are called upon to address the great issues of the day, and Maxine Waters has for decades raised concerns about police violence and systemic racism. She has every right to continue her long history of encouraging activists to seek legislative remedies in cases where the courts fail to deliver justice. And those activists have every right to utilize the political tools afforded them in a Constitution that guarantees not merely freedom of speech but the freedom to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances.
This is not a radical premise. Nor is it a new notion. In the founding days of the Republican Party of Lincoln—as opposed to the cabal now led by Kevin McCarthy and Marjorie Taylor Greene—Frederick Douglass said it best: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.”