INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tempers flared among Indiana legislators during a debate Thursday when Black lawmakers were shouted down and booed by some Republicans and two House members had to be separated in a hallway.
Democratic Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis, who is Black, was speaking in the Indiana House against a bill allowing a rural, mostly white, St. Joseph County township to leave the South Bend Community Schools, which is about 60 percent Black or Hispanic, when he called the proposal discriminatory.
Several Republican members said loudly “no” and “stop,” after which Porter, who was wearing traditional African clothing in recognition of Black History Month, left the House meeting room.
The debate continued and Democratic Rep. Vernon Smith of Gary, who is also Black, called the bill racist. Smith also faced boos and some Republican members started leaving the room.
A confrontation soon erupted in a hallway between Republican Sean Eberhart of Shelbyville and Democratic Rep. Vanessa Summers of Indianapolis, another Black lawmaker, and they were separated by other legislators.
Summers said she doesn’t remember what was said in the heat of the moment but admitted she “has a mouth” and may have used strong language. She said she was calling out another Republican, though, when Eberhart thought she was talking to him.
“He just went off and got mad and tried to hit me,” Summers told The Indianapolis Star. “I felt in danger for my life.”
Eberhart said he was called a racist and verbally attacked by Summers.
“I was confronted by Vanessa (Summers) and accused of being discriminatory and racist toward people in general,” Eberhart said. “That’s totally not factual. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
The Republican-dominated House narrowly approved the school district bill on a 52-43 vote as 14 Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the proposal.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston later urged all legislators to show respect for each other and not question the motives of others.
“We’re going to disagree. That’s part of the process,” Huston said. “But we’re going to do it in a respectful way. I’m going to enforce our rules in a more strident manner.”
Summers, a House member since 1991, said relationships between Republicans and Democrats feel different this session, fueled by debates over racism following last year’s deaths of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people at the hands of police.
“Everybody over there is racist and discriminatory,” Summers said of House Republicans. “Those that aren’t and are not standing up for what’s right, they’ve got white privilege and they’re racist, too.”