Standing behind a Black Lives Matter banner, a coalition of Black Democrats took over the speaker’s rostrum of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives this Monday afternoon. Pennsylvania’s first out Black state representative, Malcolm Kenyatta, joined his fellow Democrats to demand that Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (Dist. 28), a white Republican, bring to hearing a series of police reform bills. According to the undersigned in an open letter to Turzai, a multitude of police reform bills have been “languishing in committee” under Turzai’s authority.
One by one, Black representatives took the dais in a prolonged attempt to prevent the House from a voting session which did not include these police reform bills. The original voting session had been scheduled for 1 p.m., yet as Black Democrats filed onto the House floor, the cameras that usually broadcast House activities live cut out. However, several Democrats including Kenyatta and out Rep. Brian Sims, resorted to broadcasting feeds via their personal social media accounts. Sims cheered Kenyatta on as he walked behind the dais.
“This is the people’s house,” said Kenyatta, in a loud impassioned voice, “If we aren’t going to do the people’ business, then we won’t do any business. Speaker, you know these bills, for weeks you’ve had these bills, for months you’ve had these bills as people have died on the streets at the hands of police! So yes, we want accountability.”
Rep. Christopher Rabb (D – Dist. 200) of Philadelphia County, said that 19 pieces of legislation concerning police reform have been proposed. Of those bills, and despite some having bipartisan support, not a single one has been called to hearing by Turzai. According to Kenyatta’s press release, every one of these bills has either been delayed in committees or voted down by chambers under Republican control. “No more thoughts and prayers,” said Rabb, “we are legislators, let us legislate.”
Rep. Summer Lee, a Black representative for the 34th district of Allegheny County, read aloud from the open letter: “Mr. Speaker, we ask you to join us in providing [our constituents] a glimmer of hope. We, the people’s body, must act and we must act now. In the aftermath of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and my constituent, Antwon Rose, in recognition of countless assaults and murders of unarmed Black people at the hands of racists both in and out of uniform — we must act now.” Lee brought particular attention to Pittsburgh native, Antwon Rose, an unarmed young Black man that was killed by Police Officer Michael Rosfeld in East Pittsburgh in 2018. Officer Rosfeld was charged with criminal homicide but was eventually acquitted on all counts.
This action came on the same morning that the Congressional Black Caucus announced sweeping police reform legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. In what is expected to be a comprehensive reform bill, House Democrats are proposing changes that include the creation of a National Police Misconduct Registry, the removal of the intent requirement needed to prosecute law enforcement and the ability for people to collect damages after their constitutional rights have been violated by police, among others.
After several speeches, Turzai took the dais and pledged to convene a special meeting to discuss these police reform bills. According to a tweet by Kenyatta, after about an hour and a half, Turzai agreed to the Democrats’ demand to request Gov. Tom Wolf call a special session on police violence. There is now a bipartisan effort to discuss which bills should be heard at this future session.