WASHINGTON — Philonise Floyd, whose brother’s death in police custody has inspired two weeks of sprawling protests across the country, made an impassioned plea to Congress on Wednesday to enact sweeping changes to law enforcement in America to address police brutality and systemic racism.
In wrenching testimony on Capitol Hill, Mr. Floyd described to the House Judiciary Committee the agony he felt as he watched the video of George Floyd, his older brother, dying while pinned under the knee of a white police officer for nearly nine minutes, gasping that he could not breathe. The elder Mr. Floyd was arrested over a complaint that he had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill.
“I am asking you, is that what a black man’s life is worth? Twenty dollars?” Mr. Floyd asked members of Congress. “This is 2020. Enough is enough. The people marching in the streets are telling you enough is enough.”
Mr. Floyd was the first witness and marquee voice among more than a half-dozen civil rights experts and activists at a hearing called to consider the most expansive federal intervention into law enforcement that lawmakers have proposed in recent memory, which was put forth by Democrats this week. His remarks came a day after his brother was laid to rest in Houston, amid a groundswell of public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, widespread protests that have convulsed big cities and small towns alike, and a rapidly unfolding national conversation on race in America.
“Look at what you did, big brother,” Mr. Floyd said. “You’re changing the world.”
His testimony added to the mounting sense of urgency on Capitol Hill to overhaul law enforcement practices and address systemic racism in policing. House Democrats have indicated that they intend to act quickly, with a vote on their legislation planned by the end of the month. Congressional Republicans, faced with a rapid shift in public opinion, are scrambling to coalesce around a legislative response.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chairman of the committee, opened the hearing with the words “I can’t breathe,” quoting the phrase uttered by Mr. Floyd and other black men who have died in police custody.
“The nation is demanding that we enact meaningful change,” Mr. Nadler said. He called for Congress to institute a new paradigm for law enforcement that he described as “a guardian — not warrior — model of policing.”
The Democrats’ bill proposes significant changes to the rules that govern how police officers operate and how they can be held accountable for wrongdoing, and would make it easier to identify, track and prosecute police misconduct. It would curtail protections that shield officers accused of misconduct from being prosecuted, ban chokeholds and other neck-pressure tactics like the one used on Mr. Floyd, and mandate that law enforcement officers use deadly force only as a last resort.
In his opening remarks, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the panel, directly addressed Mr. Floyd and called his brother’s death “as wrong as wrong can be,” saying that the public was hungering for “a real discussion, real debate and real solutions about the police treatment of African-Americans.”
But Mr. Jordan equated his death with that of a federal law enforcement officer who was killed in the line of duty during protests last month in Oakland, Calif., using the same words to condemn the death of Dave Underwood. Republicans invited his sister, Angela Jacobs Underwood, to testify alongside Philonise Floyd.
Mr. Jordan blasted Democrats and the defund the police movement, which calls for shifting some police funding to other programs like mental health or housing, calling the idea “pure insanity.” He also praised law enforcement officers, who he said had to contend with looters and rioters “attacking innocent people.”
House Republicans and the witnesses they invited used their time to condemn activists calling for defunding the police, and largely did not address any of the specific measures proposed by Democrats in their legislation.
“The prospect of defunding and or dismantling of police forces across the country is one of the most unwise, irresponsible proposals by American politicians in our nation’s history,” Pastor Darrell Scott, an adviser to Mr. Trump, testified.
Congressional Democrats’ legislation would not defund or otherwise dismantle police departments, though it would condition some federal grants on adoption of anti-discrimination measures and other practices designed to prevent the excessive use of force.
Civil rights activists invited to testify by Democrats hailed the proposal as a first step in a series of necessary actions to confront systemic racial bias in policing.
“The nationwide outcry in recent weeks is anything but a reaction to one isolated incident or the misconduct of a few ‘bad apples,’” said Vanita Gupta, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, using a phrase employed by several Republicans to describe the problem in law enforcement. “This moment calls for a reckoning with how we have addressed public safety over the last several decades. We need to look at ourselves and ask the hard questions.”