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Joyce Beatty talks George Floyd, being pepper sprayed and where we go from here

Democrat describes ‘burning’ eyes as protests rock the country

Rep. Joyce Beatty, seen here in 2018, fled clouds of pepper spray this weekend at a protest in Columbus, Ohio.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, seen here in 2018, fled clouds of pepper spray this weekend at a protest in Columbus, Ohio. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As protesters poured into streets around the country this weekend and police used chemical agents to break up crowds, a member of Congress was among those sprayed.

Rep. Joyce Beatty joined others in her home state of Ohio on Saturday morning to protest the May 25 killing of African American man George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. She’d been there almost two hours before the pepper spray hit.

“I had been out there from the very beginning,” Beatty said. “We get down to the last 20 minutes or so of the protest, and there were young protesters who were exercising their freedom to speak very vocally and very loud, I’ll be very transparent. But they were not in the middle of the street. They weren’t throwing things. They were angry and frustrated and scared and hurting.”

What happened next left her eyes burning and convinced her that officers were cracking down with unnecessary force. It’s an experience that will stay with her as she talks with colleagues this week about how they should respond to the national unrest.

The trouble seemed to start when police threw a man to the ground, according to a video obtained by NBC4 Columbus. Next an officer “body slammed” a young woman, Beatty said, and her instinct was to protect her. As people surged forward, officers took out their pepper spray and aimed it at the crowd.

The video shows Beatty fleeing with the help of two local politicians, Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin and Franklin County Commissioner Kevin Boyce, as other protesters bend over and clutch their faces in pain. “They are wrong,” Beatty can be heard saying of the police.

“I think officers coming to protect us is what should have happened, versus already coming in riot mode,” she later told Roll Call.

Beatty, who is 70, said this isn’t her first time protesting and that she saw it as an opportunity to stand against racism. “I believe in the same thing they believe in,” she said of the demonstrators. “I sit on the [House] floor next to congressman John Lewis, and we talk about ‘good trouble’ all the time.”

Lawmakers have showed up at other protests in recent years, and some have even been arrested, including Lewis. After enduring police violence in the 1960s, the civil rights icon went on to practice civil disobedience several times while in office. Still, the footage that emerged of Beatty — a member of Congress running from a cloud of pepper spray — stands out. The Columbus Division of Police did not respond to a request for comment.

The bright red face mask Beatty wore Saturday was a reminder that the clashes are happening amid a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans.

“We didn’t shake any hands. We didn’t take any selfies with anyone,” she said. It’s also why she didn’t participate in the full march. “I did that because of social distancing.”

But she left her corner and joined the crowd across the street once the police arrived. Several hours later, Beatty said she was OK, but the feeling is one she won’t forget.

“It’s something that’s hard to describe, but the best I can tell you is it slows you down from any motion, because the burning sensation to your eye, and your skin, certainly is a very uncomfortable feeling,” she said.

Protests began all over the country last week after cellphone footage of Floyd’s killing circulated online. The video appears to show Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the back of Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.

It was the latest high-profile killing of a black American this year, including jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia at the hands of a father and son who said they suspected him of theft, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, who was shot by Louisville police officers serving a “no knock” warrant in her home.

The outpouring is expected to continue this week, as protesters march, gather in parks or ride around in car caravans. Police had arrested at least 4,100 people as of Sunday, according to a count by the Associated Press, and National Guard troops had been activated in 24 states and the District. The Freedom of the Press Foundation says it is investigating “dozens of press freedom violations across the country,” including arrests. Meanwhile, protesters and reporters have captured intense moments on camera, including property damage and violence. In the District and elsewhere, people looted stores and set fires. In New York City, police officers drove a pair of SUVs into a screaming crowd. In Louisville, an officer appeared to fire pepper bullets at two local journalists.

Protesters rally on the west side of the U.S. Capitol in Washington after their march demanding justice for George Floyd on Saturday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A person enters a T-Mobile store near the White House on Saturday night, as looters smashed store windows. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

As state and local officials tried out various containment strategies, members of Congress looked for ways to respond. In social media posts, they called for unity, laid blame or both. They also waded into debates about the difference between protesting peacefully and rioting. 

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Karen Bass, for instance, pinned the unrest on “white rioters and agitators using the pain of this movement as cover to trash” black communities.

Chauvin was fired, arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Minnesota four days after the fatal arrest. Three other officers in the video were fired but have not been taken into custody.

The Justice Department announced it would not wait to open a federal civil rights investigation. “The outrage of our national community about what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis is real and legitimate,” Attorney General William Barr said in a statement. “Accountability for his death must be addressed, and is being addressed, through the regular process of our criminal justice system, both at the state and at the federal level.”

In the wake of the recent killings, Beatty said she and her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus would meet this week to discuss a response. She admitted that “you cannot legislate racism away,” but black lawmakers will make a push to introduce more bills in the coming days around the issues of policing and criminal justice, citing CBC members such as Bass, Cedric Richmond, Hakeem Jeffries and Val Demings, who all sit on the House Judiciary Committee.

Beatty had harsh words for Donald Trump, whom she accused of fanning the flames. Twitter slapped the president with a “glorifying violence” tag Friday for a tweet in which he said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” using a phrase with a racist history

“I mean, you name it, and he’s been there on the other side of not bringing us together but dividing us, because he speaks to his small base of people,” she said. “He’s not the president for his base. He’s the president of the United States, and he has failed.”

Is there something Trump could do to address the current unrest?

“I don’t know that I can even answer that, because I have no respect for him, or any of the things that he has done since in office and certainly as it relates to justice and racism,” said Beatty, who was elected to Congress in 2012 and represents much of the city of Columbus. “I don’t know what it could be. Get a new president.”

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