No justice, no peace, no votes.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

House Republicans Get Smart on Police Abuse

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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It looks as if House Republicans are moving in the right direction. The House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing this month on "police accountability" and "aggression towards law enforcement" -- a direct response to recent police killings of black men, and the resulting violence in Ferguson and Baltimore.

Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, hit the right note in a statement: 

Tragic news reports of excessive force by law enforcement and attacks on police officers have raised our nation’s conscience about how law enforcement interacts with our nation’s citizens. In the coming weeks, the House Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing so we can work together to ensure the safety of our communities, our citizens and those charged with protecting them.

Black voters are so estranged from Republicans, and vice versa, that Republican officials often behave as if black citizens are the sole responsibility of Democrats. One recent exception has been Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has made valuable -- if symbolic -- efforts to reach out to black voters. "I am optimistic, but peace will only come when those of us who have enjoyed the American Dream become more aware of those who are missing out on the Dream," Paul wrote in January. "The future of our country will be secure when we break down the wall that separates us from 'the other America.'" But as Eli Stokols noted in Politico on Thursday, Paul botched his response to the Baltimore rioting. “I came through the train on Baltimore last night,” the senator told radio host Laura Ingraham. “I’m glad the train didn’t stop.” (Good luck, Baltimore.) 

In August, citing recent unrest in Ferguson over the death of Michael Brown, some House Democrats asked Goodlatte for a hearing. "Mr. Brown's killing highlights what appears to be a continuing pattern of the use of deadly force by police against unarmed African Americans in cities around the nation," the letter stated. "The use of overwhelming force by police against unarmed citizens requires our urgent attention." Nothing happened. 

In early December, a grand jury declined to indict any law enforcement officers in the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. "The American people deserve more answers about what really happened here,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner, adding that he hadn't ruled out Congressional hearings. Nothing happened.

Nor did Congressional Republicans seem eager to understand the systematic exploitation of citizens in Ferguson -- an especially striking disregard given the endless hours of Republican rhetoric devoted to oppressive government. And even some conservatives wondered aloud why top Republican Congressional leaders were absent from the 50th anniversary of the Selma march. (Some Republicans did show up, including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former President George W. Bush, whose administration featured two successive black secretaries of state, a de-escalation of racial politics and a small uptick in blacks voting Republican for president.)

The contours of racial politics are changing as the nation grows more diverse. Republicans have failed miserably to respond. The Democratic base, the foundation of the party's growing multiracial coalition, is defined partly by its shared aversion to, and exclusion from, conservative white solidarity. It's a glue that seems destined to outlast the presidency of Barack Obama -- unless Republicans begin to make a case for themselves.

In the spirit of Woody Allen, that requires showing up. A single hearing that includes a discussion of "excessive force" by police against black men will not turn a powerful political tide. To compete realistically for black votes -- which could be one key to other non-white voters giving Republicans a fresh hearing -- Republicans will have to rethink a spate of policies, including their rabid opposition to Obamacare, which disproportionately benefits blacks and Hispanics. Of course, the chances of that, like the prospects for legalization of the nation's roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants, appear less than slim at present. But you have to start somewhere. A hearing that includes Republicans displaying concern about police abuse is a pretty good place.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net