In a quiet, dignified way, congressional staffers drew attention to an issue that has become loud and boisterous — police shootings of black males.
The cold, cloudy weather seemed an appropriate backdrop as about 100 congressional employees silently gathered on the House steps in solidarity with many across the country who have protested the refusal of grand juries to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.
The only person who spoke was the Senate chaplain, Barry Black.
“Forgive us,” he prayed, “when we have failed to lift our voices for those who couldn’t speak or breathe for themselves.”
Black didn’t mention any names, nor did he criticize any agency. But he did pronounce “breathe” with a special significance.
Garner repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” while being choked by a police officer.
At the end of the short event, the staffers posed for pictures with their hands in the “don’t shoot” pose that has become the symbol of the protests against Brown’s death.
Afterward, the Congressional Black Associates issued a statement saying they “stand in solidarity with the men and women of all ethnicities, nationalities, and religions across the world who have joined together to peacefully and powerfully demand equal justice for all lives. Only by working together, may we create long-lasting change and a better future for every man, woman and child. The time is now. The world is watching.”
Although the focus of recent demonstrations has been on Brown and Garner, a small group stood nearby to remind Congress that the unjustified police shootings of black males has a long history in the United States. Relatives of some of the victims held signs with pictures of their loved ones.
The mother and sister of Sean Bell were there to note his death from a police shooting on his wedding day in 2006 in New York. Delores Bell, Sean’s sister, said she was pushing for “justice for all the mothers.” Valerie Bell, his mother, said they were demonstrating to hold police and prosecutors accountable.
“We need to change police department policies,” she said.
In addition to the Congressional Black Associates, the Hill staffers represented the African American Women on the Hill Network, Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association, Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, Congressional African Staff Association and the Brooke-Revels Society.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) arrived just as the program was concluding. He said the event was “beautiful” and demonstrated widespread concern about police abuse.
“There is no community that is immune to police abuse,” he said.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) issued a statement saying the “protest reflects the mistrust they [Democrats and Republicans] have in the integrity of the criminal justice system. These congressional staffers put in incredibly long hours, nights, and weekends working to pass legislation to help people live better lives, so I fully support them taking a few moments today to pray with the Senate chaplain for Congress to take action to ensure that all Americans are treated equally before the law.”
He and Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) sent a letter to House leaders Tuesday calling on them to hold a series of hearings into events that “have fractured the trust of Americans in the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
A conservative Republican and the largest federal employees union, two parties that don’t agree on everything, are full of praise for legislation that cuts average overtime payments to Border Patrol officers.
With a unanimous voice vote Wednesday, the House approved replacing “Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime” with a system that gives officers three overtime options.
The bottom line, according to the American Federation of Government Employees, is a savings to the government that will amount to an average per-officer reduction of 80 percent in overtime pay.
“The current pay system simply is not in alignment with the demands our border security places on our agents, and the mission has suffered as a result,” said AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. “This reform is absolutely crucial for bringing stability and predictability to Border Patrol pay and will make a huge, positive contribution to our agents’ ability to provide the most effective border security.”
Passed by the Senate, the legislation now awaits President Obama’s signature. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), sponsor of the House bill, said, “Creating a new pay scale is a long-term solution that will iron out the kinks of the current system through old-fashioned planning and time management.”
Administratively Uncontrollable Overtime was designed for officers who work longer than expected when law enforcement duties in the field demand it. But the system was abused. It was used even by desk-bound employees.
Under the new system, officers can work 100 hours per pay period — about two weeks — and receive an annual 25 percent pay boost; work 90 hours and receive an annual 12.5 percent increase; or work no overtime.
Shawn Moran, a spokesman for AFGE’s National Border Patrol Council, said the legislation was a better deal than policies the union expected the Department of Homeland Security to implement.
“We were not willing to risk the financial livelihood of our agents,” he said.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.