Disagreement over HB 1367 sparks explosive words between Black legislators, GOP

Rep. Greg Porter, Rep. Vernon Smith and Rep. Vanessa Summers

Crusader Staff Report

On February 18, 2021, Representative Greg Porter, (D-Indianapolis), was booed by his Republican colleagues for his warning that a bill, HB 1367, which would allow students in St. Joseph County Township to leave the South Bend Community Schools—which are racially diverse—to join a school system that is smaller and primarily comprised of white students, would only lead to increased racial discrimination.

Following that initial incident, Representative Vernon Smith, (D-Gary) followed Porter, and he reiterated concerns about discrimination—recounting his own experiences of discrimination. Smith, as well, was booed by GOP lawmakers following his remarks.

“For far too long, members of the INGOP have governed with an aura of invincibility, as if they are free from any sort of accountability for being inappropriate and unprofessional toward other Hoosiers. They are mistaken,” said John Zody, Chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party.

“Democrats have frequently called on leaders like Governor Holcomb to hold their party leaders accountable since the insurrection on January 6, because we feared inaction could lead to greater problems like the one at the Statehouse today. If the INGOP were truly invested in diversifying its party, then they would condemn the actions from its House Caucus, because silencing the voices of Indiana’s Black elected leaders amounts to nothing else but racism.”

Things continued to escalate following the scene on the House floor when a confrontation occurred between Representative Vanessa Summers, (D-Indianapolis), and Republican Sean Eberhart, (Shelbyville), led to the two needing to be separated by Representative Bob Morris, (R-Fort Wayne), who dragged Eberhart into a men’s restroom while Summers was escorted down the hall by members of the Democratic Caucus. During the exchange between the two, Summers said that Eberhart tried to hit her.

“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 Representative [Jim] Lucas (a Republican from Seymour). Representative 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,” Summers said recalling the incident. “We cannot talk about our Black experience in the Indiana General Assembly without hurting the feelings and the thoughts of other people.”

Throughout legislative leadership in the state, many have come out to condemn the actions of the Republican legislature.

“Hoosiers are taught to respect one another, but it is clear these ideals are not the reality of the Indiana Republican Party. This outburst during the people’s work is unacceptable,” said Kate Sweeney Bell, Chair of the Marion County Democratic Party. “It’s disheartening to see members of the INGOP use childish taunts in an attempt to silence Indiana’s Black legislators when presented with perspectives other than their own. Hoosier Republicans owe Indiana’s Black leaders an apology.”

The State Conference of the NAACP passed a resolution condemning the actions of the Republican legislators and is also calling for direct action following the February 18 incident. The conference is calling for a boycott of the state and will seek to prevent the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from bringing its annual tournament to the state, as well as calling for the NBA and other national sports and entertainment events to be boycotted.

“The blatant disrespect shown by Republicans is appalling. All legislators, no matter their party, have the right to represent their communities in a professional, non-threatening way in the chamber. The Speaker of the House has an obligation to ensure that legislators maintain decorum and while we appreciate his attempts during the session, we must point out it was not enough,” the Black Caucus said in a statement regarding their Republican colleagues. “We urge the speaker to take immediate action to rectify the behavior of his fellow legislators before the situation escalates further.”

The bill did eventually pass the State House and will be moved on to the State Senate for further debate. However, South Bend Superintendent Todd Cummings expressed disappointment that the House moved forward with the bill.

“I’m deeply disappointed in this decision, and deeply disappointed for our students and for our schools,” he wrote. “I don’t believe education policy should be made at the township level, particularly policy that will negatively impact our desegregation efforts and set a harmful precedent for urban school districts across the state. We remain committed to serving the students in Greene Township who attend South Bend Community Schools, and to providing a high-quality education for all students.”

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