“How do we have a very visible response under the conditions we are now experiencing?” Bass said in the email obtained by POLITICO, announcing an emergency caucus call on Monday afternoon. “Regardless we have to figure out how to visibly and forcefully respond.”
On the caucus call on Monday afternoon, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, whose district includes parts of Minneapolis roiled by demonstrations, updated members on the situation in her state and called for charges against all four police officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in custody last week.
So far, one officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. That prosecution is being led by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, a former House Democrat and CBC member, whose seat now belongs to Omar.
Omar also invited CBC members to attend public services for Floyd later this week, according to a lawmaker on the call.
The CBC is seeking to rally their colleagues — and the nation — behind long-overdue reforms to stop police killings of black men. The effort comes after a week of sometimes violent protests in dozens of U.S. cities while President Donald Trump tweeted about using “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” against protesters and encouraging police to use overwhelming force.
Among their ideas is a march from the Capitol to the White House or the Department of Justice, a display of unity that Democrats hope would amplify calls for change from millions of Americans, rather than viral photos of fires and looting by small numbers of demonstrators.
Members also discussed holding a press conference as early as this week in Washington to honor Floyd by bowing their heads and raising their fists for the eight minutes that Chauvin knelt on his neck.
Following a weekend of private discussions and consultations — including with numerous CBC members — House leaders have made no decisions about bringing the chamber back, according to Democratic lawmakers and aides.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) are open to the idea if the CBC or the broader Democratic Caucus has significant legislative proposals they want to consider, but so far no specific agenda has emerged. Committee chairs are also reviewing dozens of proposed bills or resolutions to determine if there is any they want to move now.
In a document sent by Bass to members Monday morning, the California Democrat said the caucus must be “visible IMMEDIATELY” and find ways to go beyond cable TV and social media posts. Proposals in the document included tweet storms, targeting young voters, and urging celebrities to assist in spreading their message.
“We have to ask ourselves and we have to ask the country at what point, at what point will be grow tired of seeing people literally executed on video and nothing happens,” Bass said at a press conference with other Democrats and advocates on Monday. Bass said that her “number one tactic will be building collaboration” across the Democratic caucus, working with groups like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The CBC, as well as the entire Democratic Caucus, must decide quickly what specific legislation to unite behind — how best to confront systematic racism that has influenced U.S. laws on policing, criminal justice, health care, and housing for generations.
It’s made all the more urgent, Democrats say, by the global pandemic that has disproportionately hit African American communities.
Some of the most high-profile members of the CBC, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Omar, are pushing a four-page resolution to condemn police brutality and racial profiling. Bass and Rep. Barbara Lee, two other senior CBC members, have also signed on.
“The Congressional Black Caucus is often referred to as the conscience of the Congress,” Pressley said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “In this moment, I think the Congress must act as the conscience of our nation.”
The CBC, with more than 50 Democratic members, already includes the most respected names in the nation’s civil rights history, like Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina.
But the group is facing perhaps its toughest moment since the civil rights movement — how to turn massive protests across the country into tangible action, while denouncing the violence, looting and fires that have erupted nightly in many cities.
They must also contend with Trump, who on Monday urged the country’s governors to respond more aggressively toward demonstrators.
The majority of the protests across the country have been peaceful, but some supporters fear that viral videos of government buildings or a church aflame — some reportedly set by agitators unaffiliated with the protests — could turn public opinion against the national movement.
“When anarchists infiltrate a righteous demonstration, sometimes the movement can take on the appearance of the beast,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) told a local news station as he took part in peaceful demonstrations in Kansas City.
“Most of the people are not out here to riot and burn,” Cleaver said.
The CBC, which has a large roster of senior Democrats who have spent decades in the House, also faces a challenge in finding the right messenger. One of their most powerful voices, Lewis, is largely sidelined as he fights cancer. Clyburn is 80, while two African-American senators — Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey — had previously focused their attention on running for the White House.
And Bass has made clear she wants to tackle the generational issue, with social media campaigns aimed directly at young people.
Many House Democrats will be looking to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who leads the Democratic caucus as the chairman. Jeffries, who is among the youngest of Pelosi’s leadership team, has been discussed by many of his colleagues as someone who could become the first black lawmaker to serve as speaker.
Jeffries has also been a vocal advocate of criminal justice reforms, introducing a bill to institute a national ban on chokeholds in 2015 after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police in his home city.