The Indiana Black Legislative Caucus is calling for lawmaker reprimands, implicit bias training and member safety measures in response to a heated Indiana House session last week that featured allegations of racism, on-the-floor boos and lawmaker confrontations in the halls and a restroom.
Rep. Robin Shackelford, D-Indianapolis, chair of the IBLC, presented the caucus’ demands Tuesday after the altercations Thursday that resulted in some lawmakers being physically pulled apart. The incident began with a debate on House Bill 1367, which would allow a rural, mostly white, St. Joseph County township to leave South Bend Community Schools, whose student population is about 60% Black or Hispanic.
In response, Shackelford said the IBLC developed three demands:
- “Swift reprimands” against all individuals involved.
- Mandatory racial equity and implicit bias training for all members.
- Steps to ensure “the utmost safety precautions” are in place for all members.
“We gather to truly say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Shackelford said Tuesday.
The incident surrounding HB 1367 started when Rep. Greg Porter, an Indianapolis Democrat and member of Black caucus, called the proposal discriminatory, prompting several Republican lawmakers to loudly say “no” and “stop.” Porter – who was dressed in traditional African clothing in recognition of Black History Month – left the House meeting room, which this year is in the Indiana Government Center South due to COVID-19.
Another member of the IBLC, Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, also called the bill racist. He faced boos from some GOP lawmakers while others left the room.
The bill was presented as allowing students in South Bend schools to enroll in a school corporation that offers curriculum more in line with their future goals, and as a transportation issue. But Porter said the legislation had another “intended unintended consequence” — allowing white students to leave a majority-minority school district.
“Use some deductive or inductive thinking to see what the real reason is,” Smith added. They also raised concerns about the bill, which would allow for certain property to be annexed, taking money away from the majority-minority area.
Smith then gave reporters his account of what came next.
When Smith left the House meeting room, he said he went to the restroom and was at the sink when he heard someone speaking. According to Smith, he did not hear what the speaker — Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil — said, so Smith asked, “Are you talking to me?”
Then, Smith said, Morrison began a “tirade,” calling Smith a bully and a coward. Smith said the Republican lawmaker was “edging me on” toward what Smith believed was a physical confrontation.
“That was the message that came across,” Smith said.
Although Smith said he tried to ignore Morrison, the “tirade” continued. Smith then left the restroom without drying his hands, saying he knows many lawmakers carry guns, so he wanted to be around witnesses.
“Since there were only two of us in there, it would be my word against his,” Smith said, recalling his thought process. He added that he wasn’t certain whether Morrison was carrying a weapon.
Morrison continued yelling at Smith in the hall, Smith said, though he believed the Republican lawmaker would stop once they reentered the House meeting room. That was not the case, though, Smith said, and Morrison eventually had to be pulled aside by a colleague.
“He cannot in truth say I instigated anything. He was the culprit,” Smith said Tuesday. “I don’t feel I should be in a situation where I’ve got to fear physically for my safety.”
Smith is in his 31st year as a state lawmaker, and he said Feb. 18 was the first time he was booed. He’s seen lawmakers walk out during his speeches before, but if he has a good relationship with a colleague, he tries to approach them to share his viewpoint.
“If we’re not able to share viewpoints, then we’re a sad group of people,” he said, at one point becoming emotional.
Morrison declined to comment on the incident, according to the Indianapolis Star. He told the Indianapolis newspaper, “I’m not gonna talk about that. What happens between two grown men, I won’t say anything. He can say whatever he wants, but I’ve got no comment on it.”
Also after the booing in the House meeting, an altercation ensued in the hall between Rep. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, and Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, also a member of the IBLC.
Summers told the Associated Press that she doesn’t remember what was said, but a reporter said Tuesday that she used profanity. According to the AP, Summers said she was talking to another lawmaker when Eberhart thought she was talking to him. The two had to be pulled apart.
Asked whether Summers would be reprimanded, Shackelford said all lawmakers involved in the incident should be looked at. She suggested that Summers and Eberhart be brought together to resolve the issue.
Shackelford, Porter, House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta and Rep. Cherish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, have met with House Speaker Todd Huston about the incident, Shackelford said. While Huston, R-Fishers, acknowledged that he needed to take a firmer approach to controlling the House floor, Shackelford said he did not commit to their demands for reprimands and training.
Even so, GiaQuinta, of Fort Wayne, said he believed “deep down” that Huston would not allow such behavior to occur again.
“I’ve been encouraged by the conversations that we had, and there will be more to follow, more steps that need to be taken for us to, frankly, have a productive second half,” he said. Tuesday marks the halfway point of the 2021 session of the General Assembly.
The Star reported that Huston on Monday said he spent the weekend rereading House rules, which include prohibitions on speaking or walking around or outside of the chambers when other are at the microphone.
“Give your fellow representative the respect they deserve by sitting and quietly listening,” Huston said Monday, according to The Star. “Give them that professional courtesy, the same one that you would want.”
Asked whether any lawmakers are racists, Shackelford said yes, though she declined to name names. She did, however, point to one lawmaker who she said “keeps getting in trouble.”
Shackelford did not specify who she was referring to, but one GOP lawmaker – Sen. Jim Lucas of Seymour – was sanctioned last year for a post on Facebook that many said was racist. Lucas, however, vehemently denied the allegations of racism.
The problem, Shackelford said, is that some lawmakers mistake Black members’ discussions of discrimination as personal attacks. The implicit bias training the IBLC is calling for could help that issue, she said
“They don’t understand that we’re arguing a policy, and they’re taking it personally,” she said. “That’s where education can come in and help them understand that we’re arguing on a policy, not calling you out, saying you’re racist.”
An implicit bias training vendor has not yet been selected, Shackelford continued, but the Black caucus is looking for an interactive program run by a Black-owned vendor. The caucus also wants the training team to be diverse.
In the meantime, the caucus is hosting “Call to Action” days during the weeks of March 1 and 8. Those programs will feature allies and Black organizations advocating against discriminatory legislation in the second half of the session.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.