U.S. House hearing on extremism toward minorities turns into ‘defund the police’ debate
A protestor holds a “defund police” sign on June 11, 2020, at a Tempe, Arizona, demonstration against police brutality of Black people (Chloe Jones/AZ Mirror).
WASHINGTON — Leaders of faith organizations and Historically Black Colleges and Universities told members of a U.S. House panel on Thursday how their institutions and places of worship have been roiled by bomb threats and extremism.
They talked about the recent waves of bomb threats aimed at HBCUs, a terrifying hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue and a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin.
But Republicans on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security objected to the thrust of the hearing, saying Congress should instead focus on crime rates and threats made to law enforcement officers.
The ranking Republican on the panel, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, said that “there are other issues related to violent crimes,” and blamed Democrats for pushing policies to “defund the police.” Republicans seeking to take back the U.S. House in the midterm elections this fall are making crime a main campaign theme.
In an opening statement, Republican Rep. Burgess Owens of Utah called into question the need to investigate threats to the institutions that were the subject of the hearing.
“This overall rise in crime has killed or harmed more minorities and Black Americans than the unfortunate bomb threats at the HBCUs,” he said.
“The solutions must include respect for our law enforcement officers,” Owens said. “We are ignoring the bigger problem. Congress must do its part to address crime.”
Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen pressed Biggs to name a Democrat on that subcommittee who had backed calls to “defund the police.”
Biggs pulled up a statement from the chairman of the full committee, Jerry Nadler of New York, who said in June 2020 that he felt the New York Police Department’s budget was too large.
“Who said ‘defund the police’?” Cohen asked.
Biggs laughed and said, “Is that your best defense, Mr. Cohen?”
Missouri Democrat Cori Bush is the only member of the subcommittee who has explicitly called to “defund the police,” and recently told Black reporters she will not change her rhetoric until there is meaningful police reform, according to Axios. She was not at the hearing.
President Joe Biden in a recent trip to New York City said the answer to gun violence “is not to defund the police.”
Two of the Democrats’ witnesses detailed their experiences with extremist hate of religious groups that resulted in violence.
Pardeep Singh Kaleka, the executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, recalled to lawmakers the 2012 temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that left six dead.
One of the worshipers killed was his father.
“Rather than turning inward in anguish and anger, we chose to believe that this country, its ideals, and its promise are worth fighting for,” he said.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, testified about the day in January when an armed man entered the synagogue and took the rabbi and three worshipers hostage for hours. The terrorist, Malik Akram, was shot and killed by FBI agents.
Cytron-Walker said the only reason no one was killed that day was “because of all the plans and funding and courses and literally dozens of small things that just happened to go our way, we were able to escape.”
David Wilson, the president of Morgan State University — an HBCU in Maryland — said that recent weeks of repeated bomb threats have had an impact on Black students.
“You wouldn’t believe just how taxed our counseling center and resources have been” attempting to meet students’ needs, Wilson said. “It’s off the chart. We are seeing so many students who are almost coming to the brink because they can’t bear it anymore.”
He said that he hopes the committee does not discount the psychological and emotional damage that the bomb threats have on students, faculty and the communities those HBCUs serve.
Bomb threats against the Black community are part of U.S. history. The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization, repeatedly bombed Black churches, homes and institutions.
The subcommittee chair, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, asked one of the witnesses, Seth Jones, a security expert, if bomb threats should be taken seriously.
Jones is the senior vice president, Harold Brown Chair, director of the International Security Program, and director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which is based in Washington, D.C.
He said bomb threats should be taken as an act of terrorism.
“That’s its intent,” he said, “is to terrorize a population.”
Biggs during questioning tried to clarify that no members of the panel thought the threats to HBCUs or religious organizations were unimportant, but again said there is a broader crime issue.
Biggs asked the Republican witnesses about the nationwide summer social justice protests of 2020, which were sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
The GOP witnesses were Demetrick Pennie, a retired police sergeant from Dallas, Texas, and Brandon Tatum, a retired police officer from Tucson, Arizona. Both expressed their opposition to reducing police budgets.
Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate, called out Republicans on the committee for trying to redirect the conversation. Demings was a law enforcement official for 27 years.
“There is an effort, on this committee, to try to hijack this important hearing about the safety of our students and the safety of the people that we are supposed to represent and assist law enforcement in protecting,” she said.
Demings said that reducing crime also means addressing threats of violence against minority institutions.
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