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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Touchable and the Untouchable

A Tale of Two Members of Congress and the Capitol Hill Police

It's another tale of two members of Congress, of racism and hypocrisy, and it serves as a reminder, as if one was needed, that Washington, D.C., is in the heart of the old Confederacy.

Rep. Tom Lantos and Rep. Cynthia McKinney are members of the Democratic Party, but there the similarities end.

Lantos represents South San Francisco and San Mateo County. He is white, Jewish, Hungarian born and portrays himself as "the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress." He is an unabashed supporter of Israel. That makes him, of course, an "untouchable."

He is also the ranking Democrat on the powerful House International Relations Committee, which provides him with unusual opportunities to help Israel. He sponsors repressive legislation targeting the Palestinians and Israel's Middle East adversaries and, when called upon by Israel, he represents it in countries where Israel has no diplomatic relations, a questionable activity by a member of the U.S. Congress.

"He's true blue and white" - the colors of the Israeli flag - a former leader of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, Israel's official lobby, told the Jerusalem Post, referring to Lantos' devotion to Israel. Lantos made his first trip to the Jewish state in 1956 and has been there nearly 60 times since.

And all along you thought his first concern was the voters in his district.

In 1991, in an effort to convince Congress and the world that Iraq needed to be forcibly removed from Kuwait, Lantos helped stage a hearing before his private Congressional Human Rights Caucus at which the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, pretending she was a nurse who had been working in a Kuwaiti hospital at the time of Iraq's invasion, testified that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of scores of incubators on to the hospital floor in order to take the incubators back to Iraq.

The story was a total fabrication, but the outrage it engendered was enough to get reluctant members of Congress to change their minds and vote for the war. Despite articles about the fraud in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Harper's, Lantos was never criticized on the House floor, let alone censured.

But this story is not about Israel or Iraq. It's about the different treatment afforded Lantos as compared to that meted out by the Capitol Police to our second member of Congress, Cynthia McKinney, who represents the De Kalb district in Atlanta, Georgia.

McKinney, of course, is African-American, and one of the few members of the Congressional Black Caucus who has not been cowed into submission by the Democratic Party and the only one who has refused to genuflect to the Israel lobby. But, again, this story isn't about Israel, although its specter and that of its lobby seem ever present.

To make matters worse - for McKinney, not for the pursuit of truth and justice - she has refused to accept the official Bush administration explanation of the events of 9-11, and she has participated in events alongside of other critics of that narrative who have been marginalized not only by both political parties and the mainstream media but by the "gatekeepers" of the left.

She has also been outspoken - while the Democratic Party has been largely silent - about the disenfranchisement of Black voters in Florida in the last two presidential elections, which is the subject of a new film about her on that subject, "American Blackout," that opened in February at the Sundance Film Festival. In other words, she is considered a "trouble-maker" in a colony of "go-along-to-get-alongs."

The Democrat Party leadership was overjoyed when McKinney was defeated for re-election in 2002. After she had served five terms, AIPAC decided to make an example of her for having criticized Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. That led to a stream of money flowing to her opponent, Denise Majette, from wealthy out of town Jewish donors.

That, a steady drumbeat of attacks by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, plus an estimated 40,000 votes from Republicans who crossed over to vote in the Democratic primary were enough to turn the tide against her. The Democrats were, in turn, mortified two years later when, without their help, the plucky McKinney ran and was re-elected to her seat.

To show the party's displeasure, McKinney was denied the return of her seniority by a tight-lipped Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco congresswoman who serves as the Democrats' minority House whip.

And McKinney, it turns out, is "touchable" - as those who have been following her ordeal with the Capitol Police are well aware. Touchable by a white Southern cop in a Capitol Police uniform in a white dominated predominantly Black city in which the Black majority are second class citizens and reminded of it every day.

So when McKinney entered the halls of Congress over a week ago, one of a handful of Black congresswomen - who should have been recognized - and walked around the security barrier on her way to vote as members of Congress are allowed to do, a Capitol cop on duty reached out to stop her.

McKinney allegedly turned around and struck him in the chest with the cell phone she was carrying in her hand, and now, incredibly, the Capitol Police have taken this minor incident to a federal grand jury.

Now what about the "untouchable" Tom Lantos; how did he get into this story?

Six years ago this May, Lantos was driving his car in Washington, D.C., and ran over the left foot of 13-year-old Owen Sanderson. Sanderson and his eighth grade classmates from a school in Bolton, Mass., were crossing the plaza in front of the Capitol when the congressman drove over the boy's foot, sending him to the pavement screaming in pain, the boy and his teachers told the press. Lantos then left the scene without getting out of his car to see whether the boy had been hurt.

As the Boston Globe described it, "While several horrified teachers and the principal shouted at Lantos to stop, the California Democrat sat rigidly, staring straight ahead and refusing to get out of his white Ford Taurus, which carried U.S. Congress plates."

"The first thing I heard was Owen screaming," said Ken Tucker, principal of the Worcester-area school. "Owen's foot was pinned under the car."

Lantos, 72 at the time, finally reversed slightly, freeing Owen's foot and ankle, and drove off without checking on his condition, said Tucker and several teachers. Lantos said he had no idea the boy had been hurt. "I was driving to my office," he said. "There was a typical spring mob of tourists and kids and so on. … One of the kids, horsing around, not looking or something, jumped in front of the car, stumbled, then got up and walked away."

Owen's teachers and principal were dismayed at what they saw as insensitivity and arrogance by a government official, the Boston Globe reported. "If he had stopped and spoken to us, we would have had a much different response to this," said Malin, the art teacher. "It's called human decency."

Youngsters "learn too often in life that if you have money and power, you're above the law," said Perkins, the school nurse. "That's not the way it's supposed to be."

The teachers, Tucker and the tour guide disputed Lantos' assertion that he did not know Owen was hurt. Lantos "was asked several times to get out of the car by myself and the teachers," Tucker said. "He was told, 'You hit a kid and you need to stop.'"

"He was trying to drive through a crowd of kids, was what he was doing. Why or how, I don't know," Tucker said. "He didn't roll down his window. He made no offer to get out of the car."
Laura Friend, an English teacher who was among those chaperoning the 68 students, said she raced toward the Taurus and screamed at Lantos through a half-open window.

"I was saying, `Stop, stop, stop! Back up, back up, back up!' He didn't look at me. He didn't even take his hands off the wheel or anything," Friend said.

When it appeared Lantos might not stop, Tucker said, he stepped in front of the car. A Capitol Police officer twice told the principal to move out of the way or he would be arrested, Tucker and several teachers recounted. "The officer said, 'Look at his license plates. He's a congressman. If we need to get in touch with him, we can find him if need be,'" Friend recalled.

The boy he hit said he did not harbor bad feelings toward Lantos or his wife, Annette, who was a passenger in the car.

But "it's disappointing that they didn't get out and say, 'Are you OK?' I just feel bad he didn't call to apologize."

Lantos paid a $25 fine after being issued a ticket for "failure to pay full time and attention," said Lt. Dan Nichols, spokesman for the Capitol Police, adding that the investigation was closed.

Which brings us back to the Capitol Police and Cynthia McKinney and her accusations of racism on its part. One wonders what would have been the fate of McKinney or any member of the Congressional Black Caucus had they run over the foot of a white child, congressional plates and all.

As it was, when McKinney leveled the charge of racism against the cop over her encounter in the Capitol, not one Democrat, not one member of the Congressional Black Caucus, chose to stand with her and with Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, who had flown out to be at her side, at a Monday morning press conference.

Her fellow Georgia congressman, John Lewis, one time civil rights hero but in the decades since a Democratic Party loyalist, had the audacity to tell her, "You need to come to a non-violence workshop." Compare that with the comment from Ohio Congresswoman Marci Kaptur who, in the same NY Times article, described her as "a modern day version of Sojourner Truth. The edge of her knowledge singes some people. Sometimes turmoil surrounds the truth."

On Wednesday, April 5, with the grand jury case hanging over her head, McKinney met with members of the CBC and, following that meeting, in an effort to defuse the situation, she offered a public apology to the officer and to the Capitol Police, saying, "I am sorry that this misunderstanding happened at all. I regret its escalation. And I apologize."
But was McKinney on target in charging racism against the white Capitol Police?

According to the evidence, most definitely so. When the Black officers in the U.S. Capitol Police filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the government in 2001, they expected to get justice, reported the Final Call newspaper in August 2003. What they say they've gotten is retaliation. At the time the article was published, they were threatening a second class action suit, the paper reported.

The officers took their case to Capitol Hill July 30, 2003, for a press conference alleging the Capitol Police Department's pattern of "filing excessive and unfounded disciplinary charges against prominent members of the class action, as well as a pattern of harassment, including exclusion of class members from the U.S. Capitol Complex and a series of auto tampering, break-ins and vandalism of class members' automobiles."

"We suspect that such conduct by the department smacks of retaliation against the class members and is designed to undermine the momentum of current settlement negotiations," class attorney Nathaniel D. Johnson told the Final Call. Officer Larry A. Ikard, a member of the class action, spoke on behalf of the 358 Black members of the Capitol force.

"When will someone become accountable for the blatant acts of discrimination the African American officers have had to endure throughout our tenure? How can we be responsible for egregious acts committed against us?" he asked. He told the audience about training opportunities he was denied and being subjected to a racially hostile work environment.

The Congressional Black Caucus responded to the officers' complaints with a letter June 26 to Chief Terrance W. Gainer and members of the U.S. Capitol Police Board.

"We are incensed and embarrassed at having to deal with these same systemic issues of discrimination against African American officers in our own U.S. Capitol Police force, now in the 21st century," the letter stated.

"In these uncertain times of terrorism, concern over homeland security and crises abroad, these police officers are entrusted with the responsibility of guarding and protecting us as members of Congress, our staff and the Capitol buildings and grounds, as well as our constituents who visit the Capitol."

The letter, signed by the 39 members of the CBC, concluded by saying, "We strongly urge the Capitol Police Board to implement far-reaching non-monetary remedies and oversight measures to ensure that discrimination against the African American officers ceases, and we fully support the complete monetary settlement proposed in the letter to the U.S. Attorney's Office."

It was the same Chief Gainer who filed the complaint last week against McKinney. But it seemed to be a different CBC, one that not only failed McKinney, but apparently failed to defend itself against a racist remark directed at all its members by Texas' poster boy for sleaze, Rep. Tom De Lay, who recently announced he was not running for re-election.

"Cynthia McKinney is a racist," DeLay said on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends," a day after abandoning his re-election campaign under a cloud of ethics violations and charges, the Associated Press reported. "She has a long history of racism. Everything is racism with her. This is incredible arrogance that sometimes hits these members of Congress, but especially Cynthia McKinney."

While McKinney was being slandered right and further right by other Fox commentaries and the same racist talk show hosts who raged at her re-election, she was sandbagged from the left by columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who somehow thinks the Congressional Black Caucus is something other than what it currently is, a rather meek handmaiden to an even meeker Democratic Party.

"A big tip that the race squawk won't cut it in this case is the mute reaction of the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats," wrote Ofari in an article entitled "The Sad Saga of Cynthia McKinney," as if either group - and particularly the Democrats - was deserving of any credibility in this day and age.

"Not one Caucus member publicly charged to her defense," he went on, "and not one Democratic House member stood at her side at her initial press conference when she cried racism. In all likelihood, she apologized at the quiet urging of Caucus members. No, McKinney was wrong."

No, Ofari was wrong, and the refusal of the CBC to stand behind her at this time, along with their refusal to demand a return of her seniority when she was re-elected, will go down as shameful chapters in the caucus's history, while the betrayal of McKinney by the rest of her fellow Democrats and the party itself is consistent with their betrayal of the rest of America.

Jeffrey Blankfort is a radio program producer with KPOO in San Francisco and KZYX in Mendocino and KPFT/Pacifica in Houston. He is a journalist and Jewish-American and has been a pro-Palestinian human rights activist since 1970. He was formerly the editor of the Middle East Labor Bulletin and co-founder of the Labor Committee of the Middle East. He may be reached at jblankfort@earthlink.net.



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