McKinney Faces Possible Charges in Capitol Scuffle

The U.S. Attorney General's office is considering charging Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) with assault or obstructing a police officer. The possible charges stem from an incident last week when a Capitol Hill officer reportedly tried to stop McKinney from walking around a metal detector. Farai Chideya talks to McKinney about the incident, and what happens next.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya, in for Ed Gordon.

The U.S. Attorney General's Office is considering the possibility of charging Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney with assault or obstructing a police officer. The potential charges stem from an incident last Wednesday when a Capitol Hill policeman reportedly tried to stop Representative McKinney from walking around a metal detector.

Lawmakers often bypass the security devices. But the policemen on duty said they did not recognize the six-term representative, and alleged that when they approached her, she poked one of them with her cell phone.

Now the scuffle has erupted into a political issue. Many of McKinney's fellow Democrats have either voiced support for the police or have remained silent. Meanwhile, House Republicans reacting to the incident, introduced a resolution commending the Capitol Police force for its professionalism. But Representative McKinney, who is African-American, says it is she who is the victim in all of this.

She argues that the issue being swept under the rug is racial profiling. Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney joins us by phone from Washington, D.C. Also on the line are her legal counsel, Mike Rathoth(ph) and James Myart. Welcome Congresswoman and welcome gentleman.

Representative CYNTHIA MCKINNEY (Democrat, Georgia): Thank you very much for having us on.

CHIDEYA: Well, before we begin, let me note that we telephoned the Capitol police to get their side of the story. By airtime we hadn't heard from them, but we'll keep trying. Let's start with you Congresswoman, tell us what happened from your perspective?

Rep. MCKINNEY: First of all, this is much ado about hairdo. And I want to state, categorically, that I've done nothing wrong. Security around the Capitol complex ought to based on face recognition, not on particular hairstyle, or not on whether or not a member of Congress is wearing their pin.

Now, the pin, many members of the Congress don't wear their pin. And a pin, the pin, doesn't have a name on it, and it doesn't have a photo ID on it. It's merely a pin that can be duplicated. So if we're talking about security, real security is based on face recognition. And that's why members of the Capitol Hill police department are given picture ID's of all of the members of Congress, of which, of course, there are only 14 African American women.

Now, I received an email from a former page who suggested that if 16-year old pages are required to know every member of Congress by name and face, shouldn't that rule also apply for the Capitol Hill police?

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman, I just want to note that a Congressional page is like an intern, correct?

Rep. MCKINNEY: That's correct. And let me also just add, that my fourth district supporters understand completely what the larger issues are. And that's why we've had two very successful press conferences: one in Washington D.C., where 39 young African American children were in Washington D.C. as my guests. They, while they were here, had an unfortunate incident with the Capitol Hill police, feeling that they had been disrespected. Also, we have the fact that 250 black police officers have filed a lawsuit against the Capitol Hill police. So the larger issue of racial profiling is once again on America's plate, for discussion and I would hope resolution.

CHIDEYA: Did you actually hit the officer with a cell phone?

Mr. MIKE RATHOTH (Attorney for Congresswoman McKinney): You know that the Congresswoman can't directly respond about a pending criminal matter.

CHIDEYA: Could you just tell us who you are, sir.

Mr. RATHOTH: This is Mike. And again, whatever her response were, it certainly wasn't a crime. We had bad policy being implemented by a poorly-trained officer who didn't recognize a Congresswoman, and he so improperly stops and inappropriately touches the Congresswoman. So whatever response she had, whether it was a slap, a push, a shove, or a hit--is just not criminal matter in these circumstances.

CHIDEYA: So Mr. Rathoth, the term inappropriately touched has been used in news reports. What does that actually mean?

Mr. RATHOTH: Well, I just heard this morning the chief say that the officer grabbed her, that was his words. That's the first time I've heard an actual accusation coming out of the Capitol Hill police. Before that we've only heard rumors.

CHIDEYA: So Congresswoman, let me turn back to you. Obviously, because this can involve possible prosecution, you can't comment right now. But you mentioned the larger issue to you being racial profiling, the students who came to visit you and felt they were disrespected, and also the hairdo issue. Let me go into all of those. Can't a sister change her hair? Black hair is an ever-evolving beautiful thing. Do you think this is really about your hair?

Rep. MCKINNEY: Well, I don't think it's really about my hair, but you're absolutely right, that a sister changing her hairstyle… Now, I was shocked as I listened to Tom Joyner's Morning Show the other day to hear Judge Mablean talking about her contractual relationship with Fox. And of course, I don't know if you're aware of it, but they declined to renew her contract because, among other things--one of the things that they cited was they didn't want to have to deal with her hair.

CHIDEYA: That's pretty phenomenal. What about racial profiling? I mean, Washington, D.C. like most cities has various incidents that take place within the grounds of the nation's Capitol. Have you experienced any racial prejudice outside of the Congressional halls while you've been working in Congress over the 11 years you've been there?

Rep. MCKINNEY: We've had, as I said, the two press conferences, one of which where the 39 young African American students discussed their issues. That press conference was also with Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover expressing their support. And so, I think that this provides us an opportunity to have that larger discussion about racial profiling--something that too many Americans have to deal with on a daily basis.

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman, what about your Party and the support, or lack thereof, from Democrats? Nancy Pelosi is the House Minority Leader. She did not restore your seniority when you returned to Congress after having been voted out and voted back in. She has not been supportive in comments of your position on this issue. What's going on with you and the Democratic Party?

Mr. JAMES MYART (Attorney for Congresswoman McKinney): This is James Myart. I'm one of the attorneys for Congresswoman McKinney. Let me just state emphatically that we have been in direct communication with Congresswoman Pelosi's office. She has made absolutely no negative comments with regard to this. In fact, as a prudent member of Congress, she has indicated that she does not know the facts, and is not going to comment on it until she knows the facts.

There's no schism there, with regard to the Democratic leadership, and there will not be.

CHIDEYA: Excuse me, though, Congresswoman Pelosi did say that no one should hit a police officer.

Mr. MYART: She was speaking very generally. She was not speaking with regard to Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. And she said, rather emphatically to the press after that question was asked of her, I don't know the facts in this case.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask the Congresswoman though, again, your seniority was not restored by the Democratic Party, although Republicans who had been voted back in did have their seniority restored by their Party. This affects your budget. This affects your staffing. What's going on?

Rep. MCKINNEY: Farai, let me just say that I've been out in front on all of the major issues that are confronting the American people at this time. On 911, you know what my record is. On the war in Iraq, you know what my record is. On the corporate sweetheart deals, particularly with respect to Halliburton and the Carlisle Group, you know what my record is. When it comes to an impending war or strike on Iran, you know what my position is right now and will be. But in addition to that, we also have the issue of these 250 black police officers who have filed this lawsuit against the Capitol Police. So the question I would have to ask is, why is it that national attention is being diverted to this--an issue about a sister changing her hairdo--rather than letting us with the real issues confronting the American people.

Let me also just say for the record that we have a congressional office that is at work. I have heard from many thousands, literally, of our constituents, as I have been out among my district members, and the support is overwhelming. The understanding is clear. And so, since we're going to have this discussion, let's have a real discussion about racial profiling and what it does to the lives of average, ordinary citizens.

CHIDEYA: Only one question left. We only have time for one more. You frame this in terms of why are we talking about this issue. I'm presuming that the fact that Tom Delay decided not to run for reelection You know, one would expect that to be the big news of the week, but you are going head to head in terms of the political talk shows. But, I want to go back to something you mentioned.

You said we know where you stand on 9/11, and you were very challenging of the Bush administration, asking what did he know; meaning the president, and when did he know it; you ended up losing your seat in the House after some Democrats joined with Republicans to promote a moderate Democrat; and then you won back your seat. Final question: Do you think that your seat is going to be in danger again, because of this incident?

Rep. McKINNEY: Look, in the first election that you're talking about, 48,000 Republicans crossed over and voted very systematically. This entire episode of the Republican recruitment of an African-American woman to challenge me in the Democrat primary; and then giving to that African-American woman, vast amounts of Republican money and Republican votes--is all captured in the film American Blackout, which I hope that everyone who is listening will make sure that they view. Also, I find it interesting that former Vice President Al Gore is now asking the exact questions that I asked, and making the same statements that I made with respect to 9/11. He's making them now in 2006, five years later.

So as I said before, I've been out on front on many of the issues that are challenging and confronting our country today, and I want a serious discussion of all of those issues including racial profiling.

CHIDEYA: Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, thank you so much for being with us today. We've also been speaking with her legal counsel, Mike Rathoth and James Myart. Thank you all.

Rep. McKINNEY: Thanks, Farai.

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