“Senator Paul is now trying to weaken a bill that was already passed — there’s no reason for this, there’s no reason for this,” Harris said.
Emotions ran high as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul held up bipartisan legislation that would make lynching a federal crime. The debate occurred as the memorial service for George Floyd was beginning in Minnesota. Paul came to the Senate floor in Washington to add an amendment to the anti-lynching legislation before passing it. He asked for unanimous consent to pass the bill with that amendment. The GOP senator argues that the bill as written is overly broad and said that his amendment “would apply the criminal penalties for lynching only and not for other crimes.” However, both senators, California Senator Kamala Harris and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, spoke against the effort.
The legislation makes lynching a federal hate crime punishable by up to life in prison. The bill came 65 years after 14-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi after being falsely accused of offending a white woman. Last year the Senate passed the legislation. The House also passed the legislation in February and renamed the legislation for Emmett Till. If passed as it currently stands, the bill drafted by Black senators Booker, Harris, and Republican Senator Tim Scott (N.C.), would increase the penalty for those who commit certain civil rights violations, already set out in federal law, if the violator is found to have conspired with a group.
In a stirring exchange, Booker said that he felt “so raw.” He continued, “of all days we’re doing this right now when God if this bill passed today, what that would mean for America. That this body and that body have finally agreed, it would speak volumes for the racial pain and the hurt of generations,” Booker said. Raising his voice, he continued, “I do not need my colleague, the Senator from Kentucky, to tell me about one lynching in this country. I’ve stood in the museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and watched African-American families weeping at the stories of pregnant women lynched in this country. Their babies ripped out of them while this body did nothing.”
Paul said the legislation is too broad and could define minor assaults as lynching. He also noted that murdering someone because of their race is already a hate crime. He said the Senate should make other reforms, such as easing “qualified immunity” rules that shield police officers from being sued. “I seek to amend this legislation not because I take lynching lightly, but because I take it seriously, and this legislation does not,” Paul said, arguing that “this bill would cheapen the meaning of lynching by defining it so broadly as to include a minor bruise or abrasion. Our nation’s history of racial terrorism demands more seriousness from us than that.”
Congress’s failure to pass anti-lynching legislation comes as members in both parties discuss reforming police tactics and highlight how arduous it is for Congress to address issues of race. For the Senate to quickly pass the House legislation, the Senate would have to agree on it unanimously, without offering amendments. Booker and Harris objected to the modification. They contended that Paul was trying to use absurd scenarios to weaken the legislation. “I object to this amendment. I object I object,” Booker said. “I object on substance, I object on the law. And for my heart and spirit and every fiber of my being, I object for my ancestors.”
Harris added to Booker’s sentiments by saying, “The pain experienced not only by that man, that human being and his family and his children, but the pain of the people of America witnessing what we have witnessed since the founding of this country, which is that black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity,” Harris said. “And it should not require a maiming or torture for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law and call it what it is.”
Contributing Writer, Kelly Washington can be found on social media @blackbutterfly413.