Amos’s Sermon: In Wake of Capitol Police Flap, Officials Should Implement Transparent Standards for Addressing Lawmakers’ Actions


CAMBRIDGE, APRIL 4, 2006 – I am troubled that a Congresswoman who responded normally after being touched by a police officer is now facing an effective Congressional repudiation plus federal charges for the minor incident, even though Rep. Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass., faced no charges after seducing and having sex with a teenage male page.

Congresswoman McKinney is black. And a woman.

Who is Cynthia McKinney?

When I was an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, two political realities were a given: white racism carried out by the university and Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney’s public stands against the university’s official white racism.

When a white-male medical school professor accused Emory of malfeasance in the handling of its affairs at a downtown indigent hospital, McKinney, a Democrat from Emory’s DeKalb County, investigated and then castigated the school. When I opened my 1998 yearbook and found a white fraternity member photographed in blackface, university administrators supported the fraternity members involved. McKinney, who was elected in 1992 and is now serving her sixth nonconsecutive term in Congress, did not. Speaking with me and another campus leader, Samuel Jackson of South Carolina, at a hip-hop conference in her district during the Spring of 2000, she condemned the image.

In 2001, McKinney, the physician, and I were vindicated when the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that Emory had run afoul of federal regulations in failing to follow its own policies in cases alleging racial discrimination. The department’s Southern office slapped the university into a compliance decree and placed it under federal monitoring.

Robert Ethridge, the Vice President for Equal Opportunity Programs, assured the campus newspaper that the issues were minor. It is no coincidence that a 2003 article in the university’s public-relations magazine opened a profile story on him as follows: “With his mild demeanor, salt-and-pepper hair and scholarly glasses, Robert Ethridge gives off an air of quiet cool. And that’s exactly how he likes it. There is perhaps no one in the Administration Building more even-tempered, more approachable, than the vice president of Equal Opportunity Programs.”

The negative publicity from the racial debacles of the late 1990s did not stop a white anthropology professor from declaring in an Emory faculty meeting in the fall of 2003 that, in her field, scholars were treated “like six niggers in a woodpile.” Nor did the cumulative fallout prevent the university from supporting her.

People like McKinney don’t put up with such nonsense. She forever placed herself on DeKalb County’s largest employer’s bad side when she appeared opposite Emory’s then-president, William M. Chace, on 60 Minutes, defending Jeff Sonnenfeld, a business-school professor who had been abused and then railroaded by Emory University. Of Emory President William M. Chace, McKinney flatly said: “He is a liar.” After suing Emory, Sonnenfeld went to Yale. Emory paid him a confidential settlement rumored to be about $10 million.

McKinney is famous for her fiery oration and unconventional fashions. She used to wear cornrows. A Ph.D. candidate in international relations at Tufts, she is one of the most effective spokespersons for black Americans. She is a in wide demand globally as a speaker. I voted for her three times.

A predictable legal assault

I was not surprised to learn last week that a prosecutor was considering criminally charging Congresswoman McKinney after she defended herself against a white-male Capitol police officer who had pursued and touched the Congresswoman near a security checkpoint. I commend Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, the National Organization for Women, and others for defending a black woman in a run-in with a white-male officer. McKinney has said she regrets the incident, which started as she bypassed the checkpoint, as Congress members are allowed to do. She was not wearing identification, prompting the officer to accost her.

According to the Associated Press, members of Congress wear identifying lapel pins and routinely are waved into buildings without undergoing security checks; McKinney was not wearing her pin at the time, and the officer apparently did not recognize her, she has said.

“Congresswoman McKinney, in a hurry, was essentially chased and grabbed by the officer,” said her attorney, James W. Myart, Jr. “She reacted instinctively in an effort to defend herself,” adding that she was “just a victim of being in Congress while black.”

“Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, like thousands of average Americans across this country, is, too, a victim of the excessive use of force by law enforcement officials because of how she looks and the color of her skin. … Congresswoman McKinney will be exonerated.”

Since first taking her seat in 1993, McKinney has been continually mistreated by white people who have confused her for hired help or have mistaken her white company as the member of Congress, even in the Clinton White House.

After this episode, she posted a statement on her site, asserting: “I know that Capitol Hill Police are securing our safety, and I appreciate the work that they do. I have demonstrated my support for them in the past and I continue to support them now.”

She explained her position later at a press conference.

“Let me be clear. This whole incident was instigated by the inappropriate touching and stopping of me, a female black congresswoman,” McKinney explained.

Given McKinney’s statement of regret and the apparent absence of physical harm to the officer, this matter should not result in criminal charges against the Congresswoman. And yet, word emerged from Capitol Hill on Friday that Capitol police were planning on arresting and charging McKinney at the beginning of this week. U.S. Capitol Police on Monday sought an arrest warrant for McKinney. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein said he was reviewing the merits of the case.

The same day, in a move reminiscent of Congress’s unconstitutional move in the 1960s to vote out the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, a black Harlem Congressman despised by many whites, House Republicans proposed a resolution praising the Capitol police.

Never mind that in January, during President Bush’s State of the Union address, Capitol Police drew criticism for first kicking anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan out of the House gallery and then for evicting the wife of Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., according to the Associated Press.

Arbitrary and capricious

Although Congress and prosecutors clearly can do whatever they want to do, I am concerned about what appear to be arbitrary and capricious actions with respect to members’ conduct.

For instance, former Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican, employed two high-ranking staffers in his Congressional office who we now know are admitted felons and have confessed to running a criminal conspiracy as part of their official actions. There were no Congressional resolutions condemning DeLay’s responsibility for harboring these jerks.

On the other hand, the House in 1983 censured Rep. Daniel B. Crane, R-Ill. (1979-85), and Studds. Crane had had sex with a teen-age female page.

In 1990, a House ethics investigation of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., prompted a reprimand for his relationship with a prostitute. His affair with Steve Gobie was exposed in 1989. Gobie was a convicted felon with a prison record and ran a prostitution ring out of Frank’s Washington apartment. Frank had made him a personal aide, paying him $20,000 unreported to the Internal Revenue Service. Frank wrote letters of reference to Gobie’s probation officers and was accompanied by Gobie at public functions, including a White House ceremony. Frank faced no charges, contending that he had been “victimized” – that he was just a “good liberal … trying to help” Gobie, but got “suckered.” (The Boston Globe concluded after the revelations that “Barney Fra
nk must go.”)

None of these white men faced criminal charges, and the serious scandals eventually went away.

Yet today, McKinney is being threatened with criminal charges, and the Congress is orchestrating an endorsement of the party adverse to her. Why?

Amos Jones is a 3L from Lexington, KY. Reach him at

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