John Lewis calls for unity after police shootings, says racism, guns must be addressed

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement and the country's leading proponent for non-violent forms of protest, said Americans must take action to address racism and access to firearms after string of brutal police shootings this week once again called into question the police's treatment of African Americans.

But the Atlanta Democrat also said unity was essential during a Congressional Black Caucus press conference (see above video courtesy of C-SPAN) and in a series of tweets Friday morning, 12 hours after a dozen police officers were shot in Dallas and days after white law enforcement killed two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castillo in Louisiana and Minnesota.

“We feel the pain, we feel the hurt of the people of Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas across the country," Lewis told reporters Friday. "Whatever we do we must do it in an orderly, peaceful and non-violent fashion."

Lewis and other Democrats renewed their push for gun control legislation, including the expanded background check and so-called "no fly, no buy" bills they advocated for during their 26-hour sit-in last month. Other lawmakers mentioned resurrecting a ban on assault-style weapons, as well as initiatives aimed at strengthening trust in local police and communities.

“Recent events prove that America is descending into out-of-control gun violence," said Lithonia Democrat Hank Johnson. "The Congress of the United States holds the power to address this problem, but powerful special interests have succeeded in blocking congressional action on legislation that could help keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals and the mentally ill."

Lewis, now serving his 15th term in Congress, warned that the U.S. is at times "sliding back" from the progress it made in the decades since the 1960s civil rights struggle.

"The scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in American society," Lewis said. "We cannot sweep it under the rug in some dark corner. We have to deal with it, all of us."

Lewis, Johnson, and a handful of other House Democrats joined protesters on the steps of the U.S. Capitol last night to object to the shootings of Sterling and Castillo earlier in the week.

David Scott: Different approach needed

Meanwhile, Lewis' and Johnson's Georgia colleague David Scott advocated a different approach.

The Atlanta Democrat said lawmakers should pivot away from divisive issues such as guns and instead focus on providing economic relief to black men.

“If we put as much interest in getting outreach and money and economic help into the black community, if we put as much emphasis on that as we put on gun control I think we could get somewhere," Scott said in an interview Friday morning.

Scott hawked a proposal he introduced earlier this year to Keystone pipeline legislation that would encourage the hiring of more young black men to work on the infrastructure project through existing apprenticeship programs and without spending more federal money.

"We’ve got to show that we’re addressing something specifically that targets African American men. That’s the way you show black lives matter," Scott said. "Give them a job, give them a way to take care of their families, that’s what Congress should be doing.”

Scott said lawmakers should also work to bolster police  training initiatives.

"We know there’s a racial element here. We’ve got to figure out how to make sure that those officers on the street know how to respond," he said, adding that it's important to embrace the law enforcement community after yesterday's events in Dallas.

Early GOP response muted

The early response from the GOP side of the aisle, meanwhile, was largely muted and limited to calls for prayer for the families of the fallen police officers.

Sen. Johnny Isakson said he hoped that "we will unite around our common ideals and respect for life.”

"Today I share in our nation’s grief. In an uncertain world, I am grateful to live in the United States of America and for those law enforcement officers who risk much in order to protect and defend us each day," he said in a statement.

Gov. Nathan Deal announced state flags would fly at half-staff until Sunday, but he caught heat on social media when he described the scene in Dallas as an "anti-police" protest.

Cassville Republican Barry Loudermilk posted a picture on Twitter of a black piece of tape he draped over his congressional pin:

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who rejected House Democrats' calls for votes on gun control proposals earlier this month, avoided getting into details about the legislative path ahead in a speech on the House floor Friday morning.

"Sometimes we disagree passionately on how to get there -- but in having this debate, let's not lose sight of the values that unite us," Ryan said. "Let's not lose sight in our common humanity."

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that...