INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Emotions reached a boiling point Thursday among state lawmakers.
That heated exchange happened inside the Indiana Government Center where the Indiana House of Representatives was meeting. At one point, News 8 heard shouting and saw several people quickly leave the House chamber, a meeting room outside the Statehouse being used during the coronavirus pandemic.
The commotion started when lawmakers were talking about House Bill 1367. According to an online digest, the bill would establish a two-year pilot program in the John Glenn School Corp., based in Walkerton, to initiate a process to disannex certain territory from the existing school corporation boundaries and annex other territory. Walkerton is about 20 miles southwest of South Bend. The Associated Press reported that the bill would allow a rural, mostly white, St. Joseph County township to leave the South Bend Community Schools. Rep. Jake Tashka, a Republican from South Bend, authored the measure.
Some people said the bill is discriminatory. Republicans refuted that sentiment.
Tensions mounted as Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gray, spoke about his emotional, personal experience as a Black man in front of fellow House lawmakers. Rep. Vanessa Summers, a Democrat from Indianapolis, said there were catcalls and hollering from some people on the House floor as Smith spoke. Several people walked into the hallway shortly after.
News 8 then heard shouting in the hallway outside the House chamber and captured the end of what looked like people in a very heated exchange. In the hallway, News 8 saw Summers and Rep. Sean Eberhart, a Republican from Shelbyville, in the heat of the moment. News 8 does not know what was said, but saw Rep. Bob Morris, a Republican from Fort Wayne, physically move Eberhart away to a separate area.
News 8 saw several people work to calm tensions during the exchange. After that, everyone went back to Statehouse business.
Summer said, “When we were in session, somebody said something about racism. Somebody said something about segregation. And they were in an uproar. And so when I came out, I was saying something to Rep. (Jim) Lucas (a Republican from Seymour). Rep. Eberhart got upset. He thought I was talking directly at him. I was not. Then he called me a (expletive), called me out, my name.
“We cannot talk about our Black experience in the Indiana General Assembly without hurting the feelings and the thoughts of other people.”
Summers said when she went to the back, she was sincerely trying to apologize to Eberhart.
Rep. Eberhart sent News 8 a statement: “Not one time did I make a derogatory remark or behave in any aggressive manner.”
Rep. Robin Shackleford, a Democrat from Indianapolis who is the chair of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, later told News 8, “My reaction is just total unprofessionalism on the Republican side. We all are going to disagree about matters. We sit over on the Democrat side and listen to them day in and day out talk about issues that affect our constituents. But, you don’t see us being unprofessional. You don’t see us sighing, saying things, booing people. So, something has to be done from leadership to make sure things don’t progress. Unfortunately, it wasn’t and so things did progress.”
Shackleford said she and Summers were trying to calm a fellow state lawmaker and see what they could do.
Shackleford also told News 8 she asked the Rep. Todd Huston, a Republican from Fishers who is speaker of the House, to call a meeting with the leadership and some members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus.
Shackleford hoped members got out how they felt. “How it felt for them to be booed while they’re trying to stand up for their constituents. I hope he can empathize. After that, I hope he can lead all 100 of us in a calm manner.”
Rep. Dale DeVon, a Republican from Mishawaka, told News 8, “Again, it was that passion that I think they were expressing and maybe exerting a little bit. I just said, ‘All right, God, we need your help here.’ I just went into prayer. I think if we focus on Him instead of our own circumstances, life would be better for everybody.”
Huston later told House lawmakers, “We need to let people offer, be passionate, be responsible, in their debate. We also have to make sure we don’t impugn motives, that we are speaking on the bill and what the bill says, and not what we might think the author or the policy underlying meaning is.”
Huston also told the representatives, “We face emotional issues that quite frankly none of us can understand. I thought Rep. (Carolyn B.) Jackson (a Democrat from Hammond) noted that we only walk in each others shoes. We only know our one perspective. We have these things, these types of discussions. I’ve been so pleased with the work of this body and the collaboration, cooperation. Let’s make sure we show proper respect and not question motives and treat the speaker with respect, listen to words. We can address them, I hope in a appropriate dialogue.”
“We are appalled at the disrespectful treatment of members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus during the legislative debate on HB 1367. At a time when we should be advancing public policies that afford equal opportunities to individuals and communities, we have spent several weeks opposing numerous bills designed to exacerbate such inequities. The entire tone of this legislative session has raised serious concerns about whether Black Hoosiers can be treated equally in this state. We have seen proposed cuts to mental health, education bills that continue to unlevel the playing field for urban and underrepresented students, no additional funding for food deserts, undermining of tenant protections during an economic decline and pandemic, and efforts to undue community-based solutions for police reform. The Republican delegation, even while claiming to propose solutions for Indianapolis and its urban core, has made no effort to engage our community—even on the issues that disproportionately impact our community.
“Nationally, we have noted the rise of racism and its normalization. We stand in solidarity with the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and all legislators that fight for both root cause solutions and against policies that maintain systemic racism in our society. We expect that the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore set a tone of civility and enforce it among the members of the Indiana General Assembly.”African American Coalition of Indianapolis
“Firstly, the Indiana Senate passed legislation handing more money to charter schools, stripping public schools of their resources and funding. Additionally, the Senate Education and Career Development Committee this year failed to consider legislation that would have prevented charter schools from using Hoosier tax dollars if they discriminated against students. Last, but certainly not least, the Indiana House considered and passed racist legislation meant to further segregate our public schools. Thank you to Representatives Porter, Summers, Smith, and Jackson for speaking out and standing up to this legislation.”
“It’s my duty as President of this organization and a member of IYD’s (Indiana Young Democrats’) Black Caucus to clearly state the outcomes that must follow today’s displays of racism. The Republican Party has done nothing to show that they’re engaging, supporting, or empowering Black Hoosiers.
“1. The Indiana Young Democrats urge the Indiana Senate to reject the racist legislation that is HB 1367.
“2. The behavior today on the House floor from some Republican Caucus members was unacceptable and we demand a formal apology from them to Indiana’s Black community and IBLC members.
“3. We would also like to reiterate Rep. Robin Shackleford’s call from last May for the Indiana House of Representatives to undergo racial bias training before sine die. This training should also take place in the Indiana Senate.
“Indiana’s legislators must possess the decorum and civility that comes with being a public servant. Indiana’s residents deserve to live in a state that works on behalf of all Hoosiers. The Indiana Young Democrats will continue to speak out against injustices.”Arielle Brandy, Indiana Young Democrats president