Rep. Maxine Waters on Saturday night called for protesters to “stay on the street” and “get more confrontational” if former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is acquitted in the killing of George Floyd.
The comments by Waters, a California Democrat and icon among progressives, were immediately seized on by Republicans who claimed that Waters was inciting violence. The congresswoman denied in a subsequent interview that she was encouraging violence, but the remarks come at a time of immense national tension amid several high-profile killings of Black people at the hands of police officers and as American cities brace for a fresh wave of protests as the Chauvin trial nears a close.
Waters said she was in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on Saturday night to show her support for protesters amid ongoing protests over the police killing of Daunte Wright and to also support his family.
“We’ve got to stay in the street and demand justice,” Waters said to reporters, according to video posted on social media.
“We’re looking for a guilty verdict and we’re looking to see if all of the talk that took place and has been taking place after they saw what happened to George Floyd. If nothing does not happen, then we know that we got to not only stay in the street, but we have got to fight for justice,” she added.
Asked what protesters should do if there is no guilty verdict, Waters said protests should continue.
“We 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,” she said.
Asked about the curfew put in place, Waters said, “I don’t think anything about curfew. Curfew means I want you all to stop talking. I want you to stop meeting. I want you to stop gathering. I don’t agree with that.”
The congresswoman’s comments come at a particularly fraught time in the nation’s history. Closing arguments are underway in Chauvin’s trial, and protests continue over the killing of Wright. Authorities have ramped up security around Minneapolis, with crews installing razor wire around some police buildings and National Guard troops have been deployed in parts of the city’s downtown.
Waters defends comments
In an interview with theGrio that was published on Monday morning, Waters said she was “nonviolent” and said her remark about being “confrontational” was in regard to changing the justice system in the US.
“I talk about confronting the justice system, confronting the policing that’s going on, I’m talking about speaking up,” she said. 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 told CNN on Monday evening that her reference to confrontation was meant in the context of the civil rights movement’s nonviolent history, saying that “the whole civil rights movement is confrontation.” When pressed on the judge presiding over Chauvin’s trial having said that her remarks could be grounds for an appeal, Waters replied, “Oh no, no they didn’t.”
Earlier Monday, Judge Peter Cahill referenced Waters’ weekend comments, telling the defense that she “may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”
Judge Peter Cahill, who is presiding over Chauvin’s trial, referenced Waters’ comments on Monday, telling the defense that she “may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned.”
“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,” Cahill later added. “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.”
He added, “Their failure to do so, I think, is abhorrent, but I don’t think it’s prejudiced us with additional material that would prejudice this jury.”
Swift criticism from GOP
Waters’ comments over the weekend drew swift criticism from several Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
McConnell on Monday bashed Waters’ comments, saying, “It’s harder to imagine anything more inappropriate than a member of Congress flying in from California to inform local leaders, not so subtly, that this defendant better be found guilty or else there’ll be big trouble in the streets.”
“Every trial must go forward without social pressure, political considerations and certainly violent threats playing a role,” the Kentucky Republican said. “Every single American deserves a fair trial. This is sacred. You do not balance the scales of justice by trying to tip them.”
The words “more confrontational,” McCarthy tweeted Sunday night, means she is “inciting violence.” The California Republican announced Monday that he is introducing a resolution to censure Waters for her “dangerous comments,” saying in a statement that “we’ve heard this type of violent rhetoric from Waters before, and the United States Congress must clearly and without reservation reprimand this behavior before more people get hurt.”
McCarthy had said that if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t take action against Waters, he would. His options are limited as Republicans are in the minority, but he can take several symbolic steps, including calling for the censure of Waters, even if Democrats would block such an action.
Asked if Waters needs to apologize, Pelosi told CNN, “No, she doesn’t.”
“Maxine talked about confrontation in the manner of the civil rights movement. I myself think we should take our lead from the George Floyd family,” she said Monday. “They’ve handled this with great dignity and no ambiguity or lack of misinterpretation by the other side. No, no, I don’t think she should apologize.”
Asked if she believed Waters’ comments incited violence, Pelosi said, “No, absolutely not.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer downplayed Waters’ remarks, saying Monday, “I don’t think she meant violence. … She’s never advocated violence. She, she is a passionate – she believes in her issues.”
The Maryland Democrat also said he does not believe any House Democrats will vote in favor of McCarthy’s resolution to censure Waters, but added that the judge’s belief that Waters’ comments could give the defense grounds to appeal is a problem.
“I don’t think it is, but it concerns me,” he said.
Greene, meanwhile, called on Twitter for Waters to be expelled from Congress.
The criticism from Republicans is striking, however, following the deadly insurrection at the US Capitol in January after many Republicans perpetrated the falsehood that former President Donald Trump was reelected. Greene was removed from her committee assignments in February after she indicated support for executing prominent Democratic politicians several years ago.
Waters has come under sharp criticism in the past, including from fellow Democrats, for comments she has made about Republicans. She made headlines in 2018 when she encouraged supporters to harass Trump administration officials in public over its family separation policy at the border.
This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.
CNN’s Caroline Kelly, Manu Raju, Ryan Nobles, Alex Rogers and Annie Grayer contributed to this report.