An act of civil disobedience on the state House floor by black lawmakers Monday set possible changes in motion for potential police reforms to be enacted after languishing for years.
Armed with a “Black Lives Matter” banner, a handful of black legislators took control of the dais for over an hour and prevented House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, from convening the session. The price to end the political hijacking: action on bills aimed at curbing police abuse particularly with black citizens.
Republicans, who control the chamber, had no choice.
Not to say they would have done so, but sending House security along with Capitol Police to remove the protesters on Monday would have made for disastrous optics and political blowback. In other words, the story would have been black lawmakers protesting brutality by law enforcement being manhandled by taxpayer-paid security officers.
It would have gone viral and would still be a story today.
It was an unprecedented surgical strike. Whether you agree with the tactic, it was a brilliant political move.
The protesters called for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence, the time it took for a Minneapolis Police officer to allegedly kill George Floyd. The silence in the chamber was deafening, according to Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.
Turzai stood with his head bowed.
The protest was inspired by freshman Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny. It was a team effort by black lawmakers from east and west, public defenders and a few attorneys, Kinsey said.
“Everyone believed we could not just talk about it. We had to be about it and take action,” Kinsey said.
The ring leaders kept it tightly under wraps. Many Democrats as well as Republicans were surprised by the move.
In the end, Republicans, who have revered the Fraternal Order of Police on an elevated tier alongside the National Rifle Association, agreed to move some of the bills for committee votes next week.
Police assaults against black citizens have been at the top of the news cycle since Floyd was killed in late May.
Still, Kinsey said, “I don’t think we can count this as a success, yet.”
Will the committee and full House pass the legislation? Will it be watered down? The Senate, meanwhile, is on a separate track holding hearings next week on police-related issues rather than specific bills.
Regardless, the House takeover brought long-sought legislation to the forefront.
The timing was right with police reform sweeping the nation.
The hijacking of the speaker’s rostrum, however, cannot be a once-a-month or annual event. Some Republicans have legitimate concerns about it being overused.