The debate over race and policing exploded into a shouting match in a Capitol Hill hearing room Thursday when the Rev. Al Sharpton was confronted about bigoted statements regarding Jewish people, white people and black people.
Mr. Sharpton was testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on police brutality when Rep. Matt Gaetz assailed him about his history of making racially tinged comments.
The Florida Republican began his questioning by discussing a resolution introduced in 2000 by former Florida Rep. Joe Scarborough, who now hosts a show on MSNBC, condemning Mr. Sharpton for “racist and anti-Semitic views.”
Mr. Gaetz bombarded Mr. Sharpton with questions about whether quotes included in the resolution were true. According to the resolution, Mr. Sharpton has been quoted calling Jewish people “diamond merchants,” “white interlopers” and “bloodsucking Jews and Jew bastards.”
Mr. Sharpton said the quotes attributed to him were “patently untrue.” He did concede he referred to one individual in Harlem as an “interloper,” but said he did not know the man was Jewish.
Democrats immediately jumped to defend Mr. Sharpton, accusing Mr. Gaetz of harassing the witness and asking questions that had nothing to do with the hearing’s topic.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat, called Mr. Gaetz’s questions “an outrage.” And Rep. Cedric Richmond, Louisiana Democrat, asked his colleague if “the Fox News audition is over.”
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, repeatedly pounded the gavel to restore order and accused his fellow committee member of “casting aspersions” on the witness.
Although Mr. Nadler called the questioning “obnoxious,” there was little he could do because members of Congress have “a wide latitude” to question witnesses’ character and motives.
Mr. Gaetz insisted the comments were “highly relevant” to the police brutality hearing.
“Rev. Sharpton has come before the House Judiciary Committee as a purported expert on policing,” he said. “And yet his bigoted statements undermine the bipartisan work we should be doing to ensure that all citizens are able to come together and have safe communities.”
Rep. Hank Johnson, Georgia Democrat, interrupted to ask if committee rules permitted Mr. Gaetz to engage in “a constant tirade of attacking the witness.”
Mr. Gaetz pressed on asking Mr. Sharpton if he ever referred to black people who disagreed with him as “cocktail sip Negros,” and “yellow and the N-word.”
Mr. Sharpton admitted he used the phrase “cocktail sip Negros,” but said he didn’t know about the other comments.
“I have said things about blacks and whites,” he responded. “I’m glad you made it clear that I don’t only attack whites. Thank you for that.”
That wasn’t the only the quarrel erupting during the hearing. Two witnesses sparred over whether white police officers are more likely to shoot minorities than their non-white counterparts. Black Lives Matters and other civil rights groups have frequently pointed to a racial disparity in police shootings.
One witness, Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president for Policing Equity, abandoned his prepared remarks to challenge claims made by Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
Citing a recent study, Ms. MacDonald said statistics that factor in the rate of violent crime in ethnic groups show black people are less likely to be shot by police than white people.
“Black civilians are shot less compared to whites than their rates of violent crime would predict,” she said. “If there is a bias in police shootings, it is against white civilians. The anti-police narrative deflects attention away from solving the real criminal justice problem, which is high rates of black victimization.”
Mr. Goff called the study “junk science.”
“None of that is true,” he said.
Ms. MacDonald refused to back down.
“The findings remain accurate that they found no bias in police shootings,” she said. “This is a finding that has been supported by other studies.”
The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has drawn criticism by Mr. Goff and others. Speaking at the hearing, Mr. Goff said the study’s authors recently claimed their findings were “unsupported by the data and factually wrong.”
“This committee hearing should not be a dumping ground for bad faith arguments,” he said.
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