On the afternoon of Feb. 18, tensions erupted during the debate and subsequent vote on a controversial bill that, in the eyes of members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, would result in overt discrimination. And Rep. Gregory Porter, speaking on the bill, said its passage could lead to discriminatory practices. Members of the Republican Party began jeering and booing such that Porter could not complete his remarks. He left the floor angry and emotional that he had just been so disrespected by his colleagues in an institution with a reputation of dignity and esteem. Several members of the Democratic and Republican parties followed Porter into the hallway where the disagreements continued with verbal insults hurling back and forth until a Republican male was on the verge of physically assaulting a female Democrat.
History has several examples of actual physical violence occurring in state and federal legislatures throughout our country. Most instances occurred during debates over slavery.
And that is what is so disturbing about the recent events at the Indiana General Assembly. That discrimination takes many forms, including slavery, and is still prevalent such that this debate still rages more than 150 years later. That this country — this Indiana legislature — still has members who are silenced when they try to honestly address discrimination and racial injustice. It is deeply disturbing that merely mentioning that we perceive this legislation to be unfair or prejudicial would debase our genuine attempt to raise awareness and to educate. We cannot, and will not, move past racism and discrimination if those of us with different experiences are not given the opportunity to talk about those experiences — and be heard and treated with respect.
But most consequential to our decorum is the threat of violence against colleagues with whom there is disagreement. Many Republicans carry weapons in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly. In the midst of angry disagreements, members of the IBLC must now face the possible threat that their comments and positions on difficult bills could result in real, irrevocable violence.
This must be a precedent-setting event, where actions have consequences. Where leadership is assertive and authoritative in managing debates, calling upon the removal of threats from the chamber immediately and before threats can escalate. Legislative leadership must commit to immediately disciplining elected officials that act against the rules of the General Assembly and threaten the safety of colleagues.
The Speaker of the House must publicly reject violence, with special emphasis on violence motivated by race and racism. He must state that such racially motivated violence will be met with immediate censorship of the offending legislator. He must reassert his duty to ensure that all members feel safe while in the Statehouse performing their duties on behalf of their constituents. This is imperative.
Members of the IBLC must feel safe to speak truthfully on racism, discrimination and other injustices. They must not fear reprisal from members who disagree. IBLC members are best able to recognize discrimination and racism and must be able to speak to it freely and openly. That’s our job.
Black Lives Matter is not just a name. It is a truth. A reality that has had different titles throughout history but has one irrefutable fact: We are Americans too, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, which by liberty must include safety while speaking freely.
Indiana Sen. Jean Breaux represents the 34th District.