WASHINGTON — A House hearing about police brutality on Thursday turned into a shouting match when a Republican congressman peppered the Rev. Al Sharpton about derogatory terms he allegedly said in the past about Jews, whites and blacks.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) said he was trying to discredit Sharpton as a witness by asking him about terms cited in a 20-year-old resolution by MSNBC host Joe Scarborough when he was a congressman to condemn Sharpton’s “racist and anti-Semitic views.”
Gaetz injected a short spell of chaos into an otherwise policy-driven, six-hour hearing that opened with a statement from Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner died in a police chokehold in 2014. She urged passage of national police standards and an anti-chokehold bill.
Gaetz began by asking if Scarborough’s assertion that he had called members of the Jewish faith “bloodsucking Jews” and other derogatory comments was true or if he did not say such things.
“They are patently untrue. I never said that,” Sharpton said. “As you know, Mr. Scarborough and I work very closely together.”
Gaetz then asked, “Have you ever referred to members of the Jewish faith as ‘white interlopers’ or ‘diamond merchants’?”
Sharpton said, “No sir.” He said he made that comment in 1991 about one merchant — “who I didn’t even know was Jewish” — who he protested against because the merchant was selling “apartheid diamonds” from South Africa, which was under white supremacist rule.
Gaetz tried to cut off Sharpton’s answers. Sharpton talked over him. Democrats on the panel tried to end Gaetz’s line of questioning for badgering and attacking the witness, and for having nothing to do with the hearing’s subject.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), the committee chair, said he personally found Gaetz’s approach “obnoxious” and not pertinent, but ruled that Gaetz had wide latitude to ask questions.
Gaetz defended his aggressive questioning of Sharpton.
“Rev. Sharpton has come before the House Judiciary Committee as a purported expert on policing, and yet his bigoted statements undermine the bipartisan work we should be doing to ensure that all citizens are able to come together and have safe communities,” he said.
In Sharpton’s defense, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Queens) read a July 29 tweet by Scarborough.
“Thanks to those reminding me of how stridently Al Sharpton and I opposed each other 20 years ago,” Scarborough wrote. “We take pride in our friendship today because of that history, recognizing Jesus’s words that all have fallen short of God’s glory and we should forgive each others 70 x 7 times.”
Afterward, Sharpton said he chose not to attack Gaetz by making a reference to the boxer Muhammad Ali. “I let him make a fool out of himself,” Sharpton said. “Sometimes I guess when you get older you do rope-a-dopes rather than stingings and jump, right?”
In her statement, Carr spoke of her agony over her son’s death and the five years it took before the New York Police Department fired Officer Daniel Pantaleo for using the chokehold, but after the hearing she expressed hope that policing will change.
“There is so much work to be done,” she said about the NYPD. “But I think now there is so much more awareness out there that we will get some of the work done. And like a lot of the lawmakers are paying attention. Just like with this meeting today.”