Bonnie Watson Coleman is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New Jersey’s 12th district, which includes Princeton, N.J. She has served since 2015 and is currently running for re-election, facing Republican challenger Mark Razzoli.
In a phone interview, The Daily Princetonian spoke with her about protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, President Trump’s response, and her perspective as a black woman in Congress during this historic moment.
The Daily Princetonian: I think people are looking right now for inspiration and looking at historical role models. I was wondering if there are any figures or literature or sources you’ve been turning to and that you would recommend others, especially young people, to turn to during this time in helping inform our thinking about these protests.
Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman: Well, I've had several generations on this planet, so I get to look back on a live Martin Luther King Jr. and I get to look back on Shirley Chisholm or Bella Abzug or Gloria Steinem or, you know, a myriad of other people who stood up for injustices for people who were being discriminated against for a whole host of reasons: race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, marital status, you name it, and now even gender discrimination. So I look to people who have worked in that space and who have overcome challenges and threats and just horrible times, but have just kept on plugging for what was right and right.
And for me, you know, I'm a Christian. So, I rely very much on the teaching of Jesus, and teachings in the New Testament. And I realize that this is a moment, that this moment is going to pass, and we need to come out of this moment better people willing to tackle really tough issues, and be willing to stand up for one another. To say ‘yeah, I am my sister's keeper. Yeah, I am my brother's keeper. We're all in this together.’ This virus is showing us that we're all in this together, so we better hang together so that we can get out of it.
DP: Since you just brought this up, I was wondering if as a Christian, you had any reaction to President Trump’s photo op yesterday in front of St. John’s.
BWC: I was disgusted by what I saw because it was meaningless. That he would have peaceful demonstrators shoved away from his presence, from any nearness to him, and that he would then walk from the White House over to a church and hold up a Bible — a book I don't think he's ever cracked — is just disgusting, and another illustration of just how shallow and how disrespectful he is. So, I was very offended. I was very offended.
DP: One thing you pointed out recently is that these protests are of course about justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but they’re also about a lot more than that. I was wondering if you could speak to what policy changes you hope the protests will lead to.
BWC: Segregation in housing policies. Lack of opportunities for African Americans to access decent education because of housing discrimination polices. The lack of educational and higher educational opportunities and training. Access to healthcare. Discrimination in the over-incarceration of African Americans. The judicial system not being fair to African Americans. The whole issue of law enforcement seeing black men in particular, and black people in general, as either aggressive, dangerous, or just immaterial. Systemic racist policies have been allowed to continue, and policies to overcome those systemic racist actions have been ignored and not enforced.
DP: On the issue of racism in law enforcement in particular … two days ago, Rep. Justin Amash proposed a bill to end qualified immunity for police officers in cases of brutality. Do you support that bill? Would you co-sponsor it?
BWC: I haven't read it yet, but if it accomplishes transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement as it continues to hurl its brutality upon the African American community, then I could possibly co-sponsor. But I haven't seen it yet, so I’d have to look at it.
DP: More generally, I think there’s been a debate among advocates, with some saying we need police reform — like diversifying police departments, anti-racism trainings for officers — and others saying maybe we should be defunding police departments and reallocating some of that money toward other kinds of emergency health services. Do you have a sense of where you would fall on that debate?
BWC: Well, first of all, I don't think that we could live without a police force that is there to protect and to serve, because things do happen ... I do believe that we need training and accountability and de-escalation training. We need to be more deliberate about who we hire, what kind of preliminary testing they need to go through in order to qualify to make some determination as to whether or not they'd be fit to be on the force. I think that there's got to be continued training, cultural competence training, respect for diversity training. I think that leadership has to be held as accountable as an individual police officer who breaks the law by murdering or unnecessarily using force against an innocent and unarmed African American.
But I don't think the issue is not having a police department. I think the issue is having the police department do what it is supposed to do and holding it accountable when it doesn't. And I think that the consequences for violation of your civil rights or murdering an unarmed innocent person — a black man, a black boy, a black woman, a black girl — those consequences should be dire. Not just with the person that pulled the trigger or sat on the neck or pushed in the spine, but any other police officer that was on the scene and didn't stop it.
DP: I wanted to ask about a specific moment that went viral at one of the protests, which was footage of Congresswoman Joyce Beatty being pepper sprayed by police. I don’t know if you’ve seen that particular clip, but I was wondering if you could discuss, on a more personal level, what it means to you to be a black woman in Congress at this moment in history.
BWC: Okay, first and foremost, I'm black, and so [I know that] that officer knew who he was pepper spraying. He knew that she was a representative in the House of Representatives. He knew damn well what he was doing. I recognize that what she experienced was being a black woman in this country, and having an element of law enforcement not give a damn that you were an elected official or an appointed official, or you are part of the so-called “system” to work on behalf of people. That disrespect was accorded her … that was very hurtful, first of all, for me to see because I know her personally and she's always about trying to elevate and to help, and to have been treated that way is just a further illustration that you could be the president of the United States of America and be black and be treated in that way.
DP: Former Vice President Joe Biden spoke out the other day in support of the protests and against Trump’s rhetoric, but one specific thing he said got some backlash from people on the left. He brought up the idea of minimizing fatality in police shootings, training police to quote – “Shoot ‘em in the leg instead of the heart.” Did you have any thoughts on that?
BWC: Well I didn't see it, I didn't get a chance to see it. But I did see clips of it coming across my Facebook and text messages, and I think that in an unartful way he was communicating that we need to be careful that we're not killing people when we feel that there is this occasion where there's a threat to us — ‘us’ being law enforcement — and we need to stop that person. It was unartful and to me, it was just the wrong time to have that conversation, because the conversation that we should be having right now is how do you eliminate the racist systems? How do we stop that? How do we get [officers] to recognize that they have a responsibility to treat everybody equally? How do we get justice for our community? And how do those people who take advantage of that situation and do kill us or maim us unnecessarily, how do we get that dealt with in an effective and a fair way? So I think he's trying to communicate, that “Don't kill, if you can do something else,” but it's just this wasn't even a time for that. This is a time to talk about deescalating and changing the way this society has been relating to whether or not black people have any human value here.
DP: A couple of days ago you called on President Trump to resign. I was wondering if you could speak to why you saw this moment as the tipping point in that regard?
BWC: Well, this is not my first moment asking him to resign, you know that, right? And you know I was actively in support of the impeachment. So when I realized you wanted to ask me this question I couldn’t remember what he exactly did on that day because he does so much every day that has demonstrated to us that he’s incompetent, inept, and a danger to our democracy. But I think, when I think back on it, it was his directly to his cabinet to stop enforcing any regulations that they may feel interfere with opening up the economy. I saw that as another dangerous inept move because the kinds of things that he encourages to not be enforced or to be overturned, either through executive order or some other form, are the regulations that have been employed to create equality and protection and opportunity and things of that nature....
To just put out a memorandum saying ‘I give you carte blanche to just not enforce any kind of regulation you think possibly interferes with the economy opening up,’ and just send it to an administration that has already shown itself only interested in the very, very wealthy was dangerous. It was another illustration of his just trying to control everything.
So I’m thinking [my call for Trump’s resignation] might have been about that, but like I said, he does stuff daily … I want him to resign every day.
DP: On a more specific statement Trump issued recently… a couple of days ago, he announced an intention to label antifa a terrorist organization. I was wondering what your reaction to that was.
BWC: First of all, I think he knows he needs to know what he’s talking about. Secondly, there are all these reports that there are other white supremacist or right wing organizations that are posing themselves as antifa and are causing the disruption in these protests. I think he needs to be focusing on the fact that these are very peaceful protests of individuals who are hurting, and who are having painful expressions of disappointment in how this government has treated the humanity, or the lack of humanity, of African Americans, and particularly at the hands of law enforcement. Instead of engaging in meaningless, stupid, possibly racist-oriented tweets, he needs to be communicating to this country a sense of respect for the protesters and what they stand for, the peaceful protesters, and respect for the fact that unarmed innocent black people in this country are being murdered by the police.
DP: Some people are now expressing concern that maybe these protests are going to lead to a resurgence of COVID-19. I was wondering if you’ve had any thoughts about that.
BWC: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I'm very concerned about that. First of all, you're not social distancing when you're protesting because you’ve got thousands of people jammed into a space. And I see some people don't even have their mask on. My husband and I were actually talking about this. What's going to happen here? What are we going to see 14 or 15 days from now … is there going to be a spike in virus infections where there have been mass protests? I pray not, but I think that that’s a great possibility. And since this country has already inadequate in responding to the virus from the first instance, that presents a really serious problem and concern to me.