Incendiary warnings by Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters about the potential outcome of the trial of the ex-police officer charged with killing George Floyd could spike tensions, were legally unwise and raise questions of Democratic double standards.
But they also drew out the hypocrisy of pro-Donald Trump Republicans over incitement to violence and ought not to overshadow the profound issues of race and justice raised by a harrowing four weeks in court.
Waters’ inflammatory remarks in Minnesota on Saturday justifiably caused an uproar as they came at a hyper-sensitive moment of one of the most racially sensitive and emotionally wrenching trials in years, with US cities on edge as jurors begin deliberations.
Indeed, Republicans argue that her call on protesters to “get more confrontational” if they don’t like the verdict would have resulted in swift punishment from leadership in Congress if they were uttered by a Republican. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California will likely try to force a House vote on a resolution to censure Waters on Wednesday, but Democrats will likely move to table it, House aides familiar with the matter tell CNN’s Manu Raju.
Michigan GOP Rep. Lisa McClain complained on the House floor that if Waters were a member of the GOP she would have already stripped of her committee assignments.
“Are they not the words someone would use if they wanted to incite more violence?” McClain asked.
That the presiding judge in the trial warned that the Waters comments might have given the defense of ex-police officer Derek Chauvin an opening during any eventual appeal against conviction raise the level of seriousness even more.
And Waters, from California, has gifted a narrative to conservative media that pundits can use to distract from the eventual verdict and avoid discussing crucial questions about race and policing in America.
Yet it’s also hard to underestimate the sanctimony of Trump-enablers like McCarthy and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, leading the charge against Waters after skipping over or excusing the ex-President’s Capitol insurrection and backing his lies about election fraud that led to it.
In Washington, clearly, incitement is in the eye of the beholder.
Republicans have their own double standards
During Trump’s second impeachment trial, Republicans mobilized behind his defense lawyer’s claim that his calls on his angry crowd to “fight like Hell” before they stormed Capitol Hill were metaphorical and “ordinary political rhetoric.” They’re not giving Waters, a veteran of the civil rights movement and its marches and protests, similar benefit of the doubt.
The instant and politicized controversy that erupted over remarks by Waters in Minnesota probably complicated efforts to seek unity and political remedies once the jury returns a verdict.
Waters told reporters while in a Minneapolis suburb that recently experienced another killing of a Black man – Daunte Wright – by police, that if the jury didn’t find Chauvin guilty of murder “we’ve got to stay on the street. We get more active, we’ve got to get more confrontational. We’ve got to make sure that they know that we mean business.” 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.
Had McCarthy been concerned about easing political tensions, he might not have issued a statement on Monday evening that poured more fuel on the fire. CNN has reported that President Joe Biden and his aides fear the country may be a “tinderbox” as it awaits the verdict.
“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 said, unveiling a resolution to censure Waters and to get lawmakers on the record to “stand up for peace on America’s streets.”
This is the same McCarthy who initially said Trump “bears responsibility” for the invasion of the Capitol by supporters on January 6 but then later traveled to pay homage to the ex-President at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. He also tried to reinvent history by saying he didn’t back the former President’s attempt to overthrow a democratic election on the basis of flagrant lies about fraud and he has put Trump at the center of his midterm election campaign.
McCarthy has also resisted punishing Rep. Mo Brooks from Alabama for his exhortation to Trump supporters on January 6 that “today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” While some Republicans wanted Brooks reprimanded, McCarthy demurred.
Greene, a pro-Trump first-term member of Congress, said she would seek to pass a resolution on expelling Waters from the House for “inciting Black Lives Matter terrorism” – a symbolic measure given Democratic control of the chamber but one that will earn another conservative media blitz.
But Greene herself has utilized extremist language in promoting her own brand of politics. A CNN KFile investigation this year found that in January 2019, Greene liked a social media comment that said “a bullet to the head would be quicker” to remove House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In other posts, Greene liked comments about executing FBI agents who, in her eyes, were part of the “deep state” working against Trump.
Waters comments channel decades of frustration
The context of the comments by Waters – amid the immediate tension surrounding the trial and also filtered through the decades of racial struggles and the history of police violence toward Black Americans – is crucial.
Hennepin County Judge Peter Cahill has made scrupulous efforts during the trial to insulate the jury from the exceedingly sensitive environment stirred by the death of Floyd. He appeared furious about Waters’ remarks that had been raised by the defense seeking a mistrial on the grounds that the jury, which was not sequestered until after closing arguments Monday, may have been threatened and intimidated.
“I will give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned,” Cahill told defense trial Eric Nelson in denying the motion, though the judge said the failure by politicians to respect the trial were “abhorrent.”
“I’m aware of the media reports, and I’m aware Congresswoman Waters was talking specifically about this trial, and about the unacceptability of anything less than a murder conviction,” Cahill said. “I wish elected officials would stop talking about this case, especially in a manner that is disrespectful of the rule of law and to the judicial branch and our function.”
Earlier in the trial, Cahill had expressed frustration that that the city of Minneapolis announced a $27 million civil award to Floyd’s family, though denied a defense effort to move the proceedings to another jurisdiction on the grounds that the jury could no longer be neutral.
While Cahill’s anger at Waters was palpable and politicians have a duty to avoid any steps that might be seen to influence jurors, he also ultimately decided that the controversy should not halt the trial.
“A congresswoman’s opinion really doesn’t matter a whole lot,” Cahill said.
L. Chris Stewart, co-lead counsel for Floyd’s family, dismissed concerns that the Waters comments could threaten a conviction and said the defense was trying to cover up a weak case.
“They were just trying to take their basketball and go home because they are losing,” he told CNN’s Erin Burnett on “OutFront”
Waters, 82, has a long history of combative political speech that even observers without a political axe to grind might consider inflammatory. Yet there are also many examples of White, male politicians who have also clearly used similar and even more dangerous rhetoric – most notably Trump himself. So double standards can work both ways.
Waters’ comments undoubtedly channel the deep frustration of many Black Americans about their treatment by law enforcement officers and the burden of race that non-minority Americans cannot truly understand. It also follows multiple instances every year of Black Americans being shot by police in situations where Whites would likely have been treated differently.
In a small insight into this pain, Mike Elliott, the mayor of Brooklyn Center suburb of Minneapolis where Waters spoke, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” on Monday he had experienced prejudice from his own police department.
“It’s not safe to drive in Minnesota while you’re Black,” Elliott said. “The fact of the matter is there’s so many of us who drive, and if we see police behind us, we’re afraid, you know, we’re trembling. That is a kind of terror that no citizen of the United States should ever have to face. It’s constant. It’s ever present.”
Pelosi said Waters was not inciting violence and did not need to apologize. But after Cahill’s remarks and McCarthy’s intervention, there were signs of a more organized defense for the veteran Democrat.
Democratic caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries tweeted from his campaign account, accusing McCarthy of double standards, writing: “This from the guy who supported a violent insurrection. And voted to overturn a lawful election. Maybe you should sit this one out.”
And Florida Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat who’s a former police chief, said on CNN that Cahill “has to do what he needs to do,” but added that Waters was simply looking for justice. “We all need to focus on justice being served,” she said.