Members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus (IBLC) are calling for implicit bias training for Indiana House and Senate members and for Indiana Republican legislators to be reprimanded for incidents that occurred Feb. 18.
During debate on House Bill 1367 last week, several members of the IBLC were booed while sharing their experiences with racism and discrimination. After the vote, Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, said he was verbally assaulted by Rep, Alan Morrison, R-Versailles, in a Statehouse bathroom.
Smith said he was washing his hands when Morrison walked into the bathroom and began berating him.
“He started on a tirade about how I was a bully on the floor but was really a coward,” Smith said during a press conference Feb. 23. “I ignored him as much as I could, but I didn’t take time to dry my hands, because many of them [Republican lawmakers] carry weapons and it’s my word against his, and he could say I started something.”
Smith said Morrison followed him out into the hallway and continued berating him until one of Morrison’s colleagues pulled him aside. Smith has served in the Indiana House of Representatives for 31 years and has never been booed or been afraid of his colleagues.
“If we’re not able to share viewpoints, we’re a sad group of people,” Smith said. “Our minds have to be open when we’re solving problems. I refuse to be intimated. I have a right to speak, and [Republicans] won’t program what I’m going to say.”
Morrison declined to comment.
Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, got into a near-violent altercation with Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, after the bill was voted on. Eberhart claimed Summers verbally assaulted him and called him a racist, according to the Indystar. Summers told the Recorder she was speaking to Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, who was standing next to Eberhart.
“[Eberhart] went from one to 100 as soon as he heard ‘racist,’” Summers said.
Eberhart was shoved into a bathroom by Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, and Summers was escorted out by Democratic caucus members after Eberhart allegedly attempted to hit Summers.
“He didn’t just try to hit me,” Summers said. “If they had to pick him up and carry him out, he was ready to fight me.”
Eberhart has not responded to the Recorder’s request for comment.
Rep. Robin Shackleford, D-Indianapolis, chair of IBLC, is calling for Republican members involved in last week’s altercations to be reprimanded, and said conversations with Speaker of the House Rep. Todd Huston, R-Noblesville, were productive. However, she said Huston has yet to commit to reprimands for Morrison and Eberhart.
As for Summers, Shackleford said she was trying to apologize to Eberhart before the physical aggression began, and she would like to see the two come together and talk, after Eberhart’s actions have been looked into by Republican leadership.
“To be silent in times like these is to do a disservice to those before us and those after us,” Shackleford said during the press conference. “… This behavior is intimidating and not becoming of a legislator. This is our call to action.”
IBLC is also calling for mandatory racism and implicit bias training for members of the state legislature. However, there are some concerns that it may fall on deaf ears.
Following the events of Feb, 18, Lucas told The Tribune, a publication in Seymour, he left the chamber when discussions of racism began.
“Give me a better thing to do,” Lucas said. “Sit there and listen to it?”
Lucas has not responded to the Recorder’s request for comment.
Shackleford, however, believes training is the first step in solving some racial tension in the Statehouse.
“Many members feel that when we discuss legislation that would have an impact [on Indiana’s Black community], they personally feel that we’re calling them racist,” Shackleford said. “They don’t understand the difference between working on legislation and taking it personally. I’m not saying that … if they’re already a racist that this training will help them. What we’re trying to do is help everyone understand what systemic racism is and how to address it.”
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.