HARRISBURG — Black Democrats in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives commandeered the podium for about 90 minutes at the start of voting session Monday, disrupting the day’s business in an effort to force action on police reform bills.
The dramatic takeover went on pause when the Republican House speaker said he would consider putting proposals up for votes and that he supports a special session to consider the legislation.
The protesters, including veteran Black lawmakers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, hung a “BLACK LIVES MATTER” banner from the speaker’s dais and vowed they would not leave without movement on the stalled proposals.
Rep. Malcom Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said it was time to take action on police reforms.
“We’re going to stay here until you act,” Kenyatta said. “This is our moment to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Rep. Steven Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, said he was “frustrated, upset and feeling as though I’m carrying the weight of Black folks on my shoulders.”
“We cannot rewrite history,” said Kinsey, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “However, Black and brown folks refuse to relive history.”
As the session was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., the House-controlled camera feed suddenly pivoted away from the front of the chamber, where the speaker sits, so the cameras did not show the action.
About that time, a Facebook feed from Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, showed members had taken over the rostrum and were speaking passionately about the racial injustice protests and demonstrations that have occurred over the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“Can you imagine the anguish that Black Americans feel, having seen this video time and time again, throughout generations?” asked Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware. “The time of brutalizing African Americans has not stopped, and we’re saying it’s time, because we cannot breathe.”
It’s been two weeks since Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes, even after he stopped responding. Lawmakers across the country have already begun to consider making changes to state law regarding police procedures and regulations in response to the protests, and Democrats in Congress rolled out their own proposals on Monday.
Kinsey asked everyone in the chamber to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time prosecutors say Floyd was pinned to the ground under the officer’s knee.
Several Republicans appeared to be kneeling, and others praying while seated. Under special rules passed to cope with the pandemic, members do not have to be in the Capitol to vote, and attendance was spotty on Monday with far fewer than half the 203 representatives at their desks on the floor.
“We debate many issues in this body,” said Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny. “Many of them are complex but this is a simple one. You’re either for accountability or you’re not. You’re either for saving lives, or you’re not.”
Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said he and some of his fellow Republicans were unhappy about the protest.
“The way to get 19 bills heard is to draft them properly, bring them before the House and hold a majority,” Diamond said.
At an unrelated news conference, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he supported the action but did not mention a special session.
House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, took the microphone and said the protesters were raising legitimate issues.
“We live in challenging times,” Turzai said, describing himself as a 60-year-old white man. “I understand silence is not the answer for what is happening.”
Republicans hold a sizable majority in the House, giving them ample tools to prevent action on any bills, and they have shown no interest this session on Democratic-sponsored proposals to reform police.
Turzai made no promises about any particular bill, but said he would meet with leaders of both parties on Monday afternoon. After he walked off, someone carefully folded the banner and demonstrators left the dais.
Special sessions can be a way for lawmakers to act quickly on matters that require multiple bills, but in the Pennsylvania Legislature they also have been used to mollify demands by appearing to act without actually approving any substantive legislation. The House would not need a special session to take up police reform bills.