April 7th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

... Except That Apparently She Was Right, Unfortunately.

Between when I started writing this and now, Georgia Democratic US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney has apologized for her part in the incident from a week ago Wednesday that has since become so famous, and which has attracted so much wrath and so many insults and so much hostility to her. It's a shame. I wish she hadn't, frankly. Because based on the fullest accounts of the incident that we have, she was pretty close to being in the right, and we need more like her. If you don't believe me or don't agree with me, I suspect it's because you haven't done what I've done, which is track down enough of the details of what, exactly, is going on here. Most of you, once you know, will be a little more sympathetic. Let's review.

US Representatives have office suites in a handful of loosely secured office buildings near the Capitol building in Washington D.C. Most people, when they enter the building, have to walk through the metal detectors at the doors. If you've ever stood in a metal detector line, you know that this is never a fast process. And since Congressmen and -women, and Senators for that matter, spend all day running back and forth from their offices to various committee hearing rooms, and from their offices to the Capitol and back, and from their offices to various meetings or publicity events or fund raisers and back, they are obviously not going to stand in those lines that whole time every time. It would, in fact, be poor security procedure to ask them to do so. So to give them a way to bypass the lines, each of them has been given two forms of ID. The first is an annually-changed cloisonnes pin that they're "required" to wear on the upper part of the front of their clothing during the working day, and at no other time. The second is a form of badge, like a plastic ID card, that is never worn externally. In fact, the Sergeant at Arms strongly discourages them from ever even showing that badge to anyone other than a Capitol police officer, to make it even less likely that anybody would be familiar enough with one to forge it.

It has since been established, by at least three sources that I've seen, that out of the 435 Congressmen and -women, more than 200 of them seldom or never wear the lapel pin. They don't like them, they don't like poking holes in their clothes, and they don't see the point. For one thing, it's a job requirement to be a Capitol police officer that you be able to recognize all of them by face. And to back that up, for officers who are slow, there's an ID badge that's even harder to forge than a police officer's badge. So as long as they wave their badge on their way around the metal detectors, while facing someone who's required by job description to recognize them, the lapel pin is redundant to the point of being silly.

As you have since heard, on the 29th Congresswoman McKinney was returning to her own office from a hearing, to meet with a constituent, and (as I imagine happens all the time when your every minute is scheduled) was running late. On the way into the office building where she has worked for fourteen years, she waved her badge at the officer as she cut around the metal detector line and kept moving towards her office. The officer in question says that he didn't recognize her because she changed her haircut. Not only is that a bad reason, it's a stupid reason - she changed her haircut at least as far back as mid January, when she showed up at the State of the Union address with exactly this hairdo. Since she is probably in and out of that office three or four times a day almost every weekday, this means that she has passed through that checkpoint, looking exactly the way she does now, over 200 times. If the security officers in her own building don't recognize her by now, that's a pretty big problem. It should also be irrelevant, because the officer saw or should have seen her badge. However, he decided to try to stop her to verify the badge and demand that she show him her lapel pin. He told her, three times, to stop. Since she was in a hurry and had already shown the fool her badge, she chose to ignore him and keep trying to make it to her appointment on time. So he ran after her and grabbed her, from behind, by the arm. This so enraged her that she swung around and hit him in the chest, for the explicit purpose of getting him to let go of her.

These are all agreed-upon facts. And after hearing that, some of you'll tell me that enforcing the House security policy is that officer's job, whether she likes it or not, and that (as every white Congressman and Senator in Washington is saying right now) it is never, ever OK to strike a Capitol police officer, no matter what he's done to you. And that part, in fact, is the part that she's apologized for. Now, riddle me this: can you show me, after a week and a half's worth of reporters and lawyers trying to find one, the name of any white Congressman or -woman, or any black male Congressman, who has been grabbed for not wearing their lapel pin? Even one?

This is a three-term nationally famous Congresswoman we're talking about here -- and this isn't the first time this level of disrespect from the Capitol police has happened to her. As Chris Matthews reminded us when he was interviewing her the other day, back during the Clinton administration she and a young white staffer, probably still in his 20s, were on their way into her office after hours, and were stopped and briefly questioned by Capitol police. All well and good -- except for one thing. Throughout the entire discussion, and even after being corrected on it, the officer in question kept referring to the 20-something white kid in business casual clothes as "Congressman" and kept treating her, a two-term nationally famous middle aged black woman in full professional attire, as if she were just the help.

What is going on here is that the US federal government is a very white ruling elite who work in the middle of a very poor and almost entirely black city. And the at least some of the white officers that they recruit from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs can not wrap their little heads around the possibility that a middle aged black woman could possibly be anybody important, that she could possibly be anything more than a member of the cleaning crew, no matter how long she's been there or how famous she is. You and I both know, or ought to know, that if it had been a white person in a suit, the officer would have weighed the odds of getting in trouble for assaulting a Congressman or -woman against the odds that the middle aged or elderly person in a suit was a dangerous criminal and erred on the side of letting them go through. They might have even made the same judgment call for a black man. But a black woman can't possibly be anybody important, so she gets physically assaulted on her way into her own office. And that is the kind of excrement that she has had to eat, over and over again, her whole life. And here it is, 14 years at the center of power, and she's still not apparently entitled to the respect that any first-term white and/or male Congressman would get. So if this made her angry enough to knock that officer's hand off of her, then no matter what you think, I forgive her for it.