Sen. Menendez Denounces Sen. Johnson As “Racist” On Senate Floor Over BLM Comments

Sen. Menendez

Sen. Menendez. Photo: File/Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, Republican senator Ron Johnson in an interview, said the mob that attacked the Capitol–and U.S. democracy– on Jan. 6 were “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement,” even though five people died and scores were injured as a result of the breach of Congress. Johnson said, “Had the tables been turned and President Donald Trump won the election and those were thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protesters I would have been concerned.” Yesterday Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) delivered the following speech denouncing Johnson on the floors of the Senate.

Mr. President I take no pleasure in coming to the floor today. We in the Senate take pride in our decorum and our sense of comity with each other. 

So much so that we often twist ourselves into pretzels to avoid saying anything that might be interpreted as criticism of another Senator. Yet there comes a time when these verbal gymnastics just will not do. You are either going to speak the truth and ruffle some feathers or fail to do justice to the values you hold dear.

What one of our colleagues said last week about the events of January 6th was felt by many to be racist and hurtful and a stain on the office he is so fortunate to hold. Look, I get that no one likes to be called racist. But sometimes there is just no other way to describe the use of bigoted tropes that for generations have threatened Black lives by stoking white fear of African Americans – and Black men in particular.

On a radio show, our colleague explained that he never feared for his safety during the January 6th insurrection of the U.S. Capitol. But make no mistake, under different circumstances, he would have been afraid. He said, and I quote, “Now, had the tables been turned — now, Joe, this will get me in trouble — had the tables been turned and President Trump won the election and those were tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned.” 

Is that not racism, Mr. President? 

And I do not think the Senator is ignorant of the fact that for centuries in this country, white supremacy has thrived on using fear to justify oppression, discrimination, and violence against people of color. I do however think my colleague may be ignorant of the pain caused by his comments and unaware of how they compound the trauma so many still feel in the wake of the events of January 6th. 

And because I do not think I can do justice to that pain, I want to share with you an email I received this weekend. It’s from one of the most devoted public servants I have ever had the pleasure of working with, an African American member of my staff. His name is Keith Roachford and he has devoted nearly three and a half decades to serving the people of New Jersey in Congress and his community as a faithful church goer and Boy Scout Leader. 

It reads… “Senator, I would not normally send you an email like this but I am at a loss of how to express the outrage and hurt I am feeling from the comments made by Senator Johnson that he would have been more afraid on January 6th if the insurrectionists would have been from Black Lives Matter.  I am blessed to be on your staff and have had the opportunity to serve as a staff member in the NJ delegation for 34 years but this is the most painful thing I have ever heard being said by a US Senator. I could not imagine that the horrible and painful events from Jan 6th could be replicated in a statement from a sitting member of the Senate. 

However, Johnson’s comment is worse than the image of the insurrectionists walking through the Capitol building with the confederate flag.  He is perpetuating the racist trope that the country should fear black people. I have experienced what it is like to have a taxi cab pass you by in order to pick up white passengers who are further down the block of where you are standing.  

Nothing can describe the feeling when you have entered a store and having store clerks watch your every step while shopping. Sandy and I have had the conversations with our sons when they were young about how to enter a store; not look suspicious; keep your hands out of your pockets until you make your purchase; or how to respond and talk to police officers in any interaction. 

I have had the difficult conversation of explaining to a young black scouter in our scout troop why a white campground store clerk accused him of not paying for an item because he was black. Senator Johnson’s type of hate speech is nothing new.  The hardest part of what he said is that in 2021, a United States Senator would so freely express this type of hate out loud.

I am so grateful for our officers who endured so many injuries on Jan 6th and I pray that they will recover physically and mentally. 

They are going through so much right now, I feel guilty that my email to you might sound shallow because of the pain they are trying to overcome.  I understand that the Senate works best when both sides can find common ground but how do we really reach common ground when members hold such abhorrent and racist views? Again, I am sorry for reaching out late on Saturday evening but I needed to share this with you. Thank you… Keith.” 

M. President, to read these pained words both broke my heart and boiled my blood. Thousands of people of color serve in the U.S. Capitol workforce. They are legislative staffers like Keith and Capitol Police officers and maintenance workers, cafeteria staff and so much more. 

I should not have to stand here and remind anyone that many of them feared for their lives on January 6th. But not Senator Johnson. He felt no fear. 

He wasn’t afraid, because, and I quote, “I knew those are people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned.”

M. President, people who love this country do not desecrate our most sacred democratic institutions and display symbols of racial hatred like the Confederate Flag in the halls of Congress. 

People who respect law enforcement do not assault Capitol Police officers, beat them within inches of death and hurl ugly epithets at officers of color.  And people who would never do anything to break the law would not try to overturn the rule of law, plot to kill elected officials, and stop the peaceful transfer of power as instructed by the Constitution of the United States.

Now I know what right-wing media pundits and some of my Republican colleagues will say. They say it every time they are asked to accept some responsibility for perpetuating the lies told by President Trump that inspired the violent events of January 6th. 

What about Black Lives Matter? They’ll say. Well, what about it? The violent picture they paint of this movement could not be more divorced from reality. At this point several reputable studies have confirmed that the protests launched in the wake of George Floyd’s chilling murder were overwhelmingly peaceful. I repeat, the Black Lives Matter movement is overwhelming peaceful.

I know many people don’t care about facts these days but it’s the truth. One study out of Harvard University analyzed 7,305 Black Lives Matter protests. The conclusion? Allow me to quote Professor Erica Chenoweth. 

“Only 3.7 percent of the protests involved property damage or vandalism. Some portion of these involved neither police nor protesters, but people engaging in vandalism or looting alongside the protests. In short, our data suggest that 96.3 percent of events involved no property damage or police injuries, and in 97.7 percent of events, no injuries were reported among participants, bystanders or police.” 

Likewise, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project – an organization I might add is partially funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations – examined 7,750 different Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the nation last summer. They found just 3% of protests associated with any violence or property destruction whatsoever.

They also concluded that police departments “disproportionately used force while intervening in demonstrations associated with the BLM movement, relative to other types of demonstrations.” 

Indeed, on January 6th, as we waited for hours for back-up from the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies to come to the aid of Congress, I know I am not the only one who could not help but think of the violent, government-sanctioned crackdowns that met Black Lives Matter protesters last summer. 

The bottom line is that these lies casting Black Lives Matter as violent have already done real damage. They have convinced millions of Americans that they should fear those who march under the banner of this movement for justice… When really it is the resurgence of violent white supremacy that should be Americans’ real cause for alarm. 

Indeed, last October the Department of Homeland Security issued a report confirming that white supremacists pose the most lethal domestic terror threat to the American people.

And research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies finds that white supremacists and their sympathizers carried out two-thirds of terrorist plots and attacks in 2020. In the weeks since the January 6th we have learned that far-right extremist groups that regularly preach white supremacy – such the Oathkeepers and the Proud Boys– played a major role in plotting and executing the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Every member of this body owes their lives to the sacrifices made that afternoon by Capitol Police officers, including officers of color.  At least 100 officers were physically injured in the January 6th attack.

One officer, a veteran and fellow New Jerseyan named Brian Sicknick, later succumbed to the injuries he sustained. Two others subsequently committed suicide.  And hundreds of officers now carry with them invisible scars from the trauma they endured that day – scars that may not fade for years or even decades.

For Senator Johnson to cast those who attacked the Capitol as harmless patriots while stoking fear of Black Americans is like rubbing salt in an open wound.  Everyone in this body should know that when you perpetuate such racist tropes, you contribute to a culture that gives people permission to treat Black Americans as suspicious and their lives as expendable.

We in the United States Senate are supposed to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We are supposed to advance America’s long march toward a more perfect union, not coddle and cater to those who would take us backwards.

And we are supposed to stand up for the truth. 

That’s what brought me to the floor today. 

And I hope members of this body on both sides of the aisle will join me in denouncing such hurtful and bigoted comments, which debase this institution and cause so much pain to the people who serve it.

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