Senator Rand Paul spent Thursday battling with the Senate’s only black Democrats over a federal anti-lynching law, as uprisings over police brutality against black people rocked the the country.
The bill passed the House of Representatives in February by a vote of 410-4. An identical bill had passed the Senate last year unanimously as the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act. But the bill came back to the Senate as it had been renamed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, in honor of the 14-year-old black boy who was beaten and murdered by white vigilantes in Mississippi in 1955.
The law would finally make good on long overdue attempts to pass a federal anti-lynching statute that repeatedly failed in the 1930s, but the Kentucky Republican argued that it was overly broad, and offered an amendment that he said “would apply the criminal penalties for lynching only and not for other crimes."
"This bill would cheapen the meaning of lynching by defining it so broadly as to include a minor bruise or abrasion,” Paul said. “Our nation’s history of racial terrorism demands more seriousness from us than that.”
The Thursday afternoon debate coincided with George Floyd’s memorial in Minneapolis. Along with Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, the police killing of Breonna Taylor, one of Paul’s constituents, has sparked mass demonstrations against police brutality in hundreds of cities all over the United States and the world.
Sen. Kamala Harris, who co-authored the bill with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina — the Senate’s only three black members — was furious, “That we would not be taking the issue of lynching seriously is an insult, an insult to Sen. Booker, to Sen. Scott and myself,” Harris said. “And on this day, the day of Geoge Floyd’s funeral. A day that should be a day of national mourning.”
“Nobody in this body needs a lecture on lynching and how horrible it is,” Booker said. “We made history on this floor, and this is why I’m confused. This bill has been passed unanimously, and here we’re on a day of a memorial service whose murder was condemned by both sides of the aisle.”
Booker said he didn’t question Paul’s commitment to anti-racism and criminal justice reform, but was exasperated. “I’m so raw today, of all days we’re doing this,” he said, growing emotional. “God, if this bill passed today, what that would mean for America, that [the Senate] and [the House] have now finally agreed?”
Booker and Harris forcefully opposed the amendment and Paul’s attempts to hold up the bill. “I object to this amendment. I object, I object,” Booker said. “I object on substance, I object on the law. And for my heart and spirit and every fiber of my being, I object for my ancestors.”
The bill ultimately didn’t pass on Thursday, and in a tweet later that night, Booker stuck the blame squarely on Paul. “On the day of George Floyd's memorial, today would've been a symbolic day to come together and do it,” Booker wrote. “But one person stands in the way.”