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As protests continue, lawmakers don’t want to be caught on the sidelines

‘I know what it’s like to be profiled,’ one congressman says

As people across the country keep filling the streets to protest George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, members of Congress are weighing whether to get in on the action. For some, it’s personal. 

Rep. André Carson was arrested outside a mosque at age 17. “I know what it’s like to be profiled, not only racially, but religiously,” says the Indiana Democrat. “I was being charged with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest.”

The charges were later dropped, but Carson, the second Muslim to be elected to Congress, calls the incident a defining moment in his life. He would go on to serve as a police officer and work in counterintelligence. The arrest made him aware that “as a black male, I was essentially a target,” he says.

All of that was on his mind when he decided to attend a protest in downtown Indianapolis this week. He found it moving to be among “young Americans expressing dissent,” joining cries of “Black lives matter” and “Hands up, don’t shoot!”

Carson is part of a growing group of Democrats who are walking the talk, choosing the risk of turning up at protests that have at times been unpredictable over the appearance of doing nothing. Sen. Kamala Harris was among the first to share a video of herself chanting in front of the White House over the weekend, wearing a mask and a baseball cap pulled down over her eyes. “People are in pain. We must listen,” she tweeted.

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With no legislative response imminent to address the calls for racial justice ringing loudly around the nation, lawmakers are trying to carve out other roles for themselves on the streets, from caretaker to witness to peacekeeper. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez handed out masks to protesters in Queens. Rep. Rashida Tlaib shadowed observers from the National Lawyers Guild in Detroit, while Rep. Katie Porter kneeled in California and raised her hands in the air. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren toured the White House crowds on Tuesday, she brought her dog, in a move that seemed designed to show just how organized the crowd was — calm enough to tour with a pet.

Of course, all this is happening in an election year, as Rep. Eliot Engel not so gracefully reminded us during a hot-mic moment this week. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said, begging for a speaking slot at a press conference in the Bronx. Engel was immediately chastised for trying to politicize the event. 

Emerging from the Capitol on Wednesday to briefly pose with demonstrators, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the calculation that doing so would help more than it would hurt. But that appearance was on controlled and familiar turf. For lawmakers joining protests far from the protective lines of the Capitol Police, the landscape is less certain. 

That was the case when Sen. Doug Jones attended a demonstration in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park. Among the faith leaders and city councilmen at the park that day, some offered what Jones called “fiery rhetoric.” One speaker went so far as to call for vandalizing and tearing down Confederate monuments.

Jones isn’t even sure he would call it a protest. “Well, you know, people put different labels on those,” says the Alabama Democrat. “There were people out there protesting, but I saw it as a rally for justice and a rally against racism, to try to make changes in our society.”

Jones believes what we are seeing is a reaction to a “multigenerational failure of neglect,” because after the victories of the civil rights movement, “we kind of let our guard down in many ways and neglected the underlying and simmering issues that were still out there.”

But he was adamant that he does not support vandalism and destruction of any kind and thinks the speaker at the rally went too far.

The risks are not just political, as Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty found in Columbus. Officers used chemical agents, hitting her and others in the crowd with pepper spray.

Meanwhile, retiring Texas Rep. Will Hurd has all eyes on him as one of the few Republicans to join with demonstrators. He took part in a rally in Houston, marching for hours alongside family, staff and thousands of other people.

A former CIA officer, he says he saw “some sticky situations, with mobs getting ready to do some really bad things” during his time in the field. “So I know how that feels.” But that was far from the case in Houston where the crowd was “super respectful.”

“These were grandmothers with their grandchildren,” he says. “These were boyfriends and girlfriends. Moms and dads.”

His choice to march drew attention. “My texts have been blowing up,” he says, though he hasn’t had time to read them all. He’s the only African American Republican in the House, but he says he didn’t feel pressure to speak up for that reason.

“Do I feel a burden?” he says. “No. But my style is to be honest. And this is something that as an African American male I am acutely aware of.”

Hurd rejects what he calls the “binary choice” of being only outraged about Floyd’s death or only mad about the property damage occurring across the country.

“We can be outraged by what happened to George Floyd and want justice for that,” he says of the killing, in which a Minneapolis police officer put a knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes as he cried for help. “We can be pissed that people are looting and rioting and killing cops. Anyone who kills a cop should be hunted down and brought to justice.”

Even as more lawmakers join their constituents in what some are calling a new civil rights movement and others — notably the president — are calling an outbreak that must be stamped out with military force, most are hanging back, relying on the traditional tools of a politician, namely press releases and cable news hits. If they aren’t out in the streets, you can bet they’re on social media. A whole crowd of Democrats flooded Instagram with black squares on Tuesday, getting in on a trend that was supposed to mark a day of listening.  

As lawmakers choose between being on the sidelines and being on the spot, one senator harnessed the power of both. After a forceful sweep cleared the park in front of the White House on Monday night, leading to an outcry, Cory Booker stood behind a podium and thanked the protesters who were there.

“I’m embarrassed that I was two miles from that park and I did not get there to stand with those protesters,” Booker said in a Tuesday news conference at the Capitol. “What this president did was make a mockery of our civil rights. I say ‘our.’ I was not there in that park, but every one of us should wish we were there.”

Kathryn Lyons contributed to this report.

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