Prominent justice reform groups have cut ties with Rep.Walt Blackman over his vocal opinion of George Floyd.
Public comments made by a state lawmaker disparaging the character of George Floyd, a Minneapolis resident who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, has led to condemnation by several justice rights groups, and called into question the state representative’s ability to work in the legislature.
In a Facebook video titled, “I DO NOT support George Floyd and I refuse to see him as a martyr. But I hope his family receives justice,” Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, spoke for nearly an hour about Floyd, accusing the deceased of being “invested in crime,” despite lacking evidence to support his claim. The death of Floyd, has sparked national outrage and calls for justice reform and defunding police departments in an attempt to end police brutality.
Blackman’s comments were immediately condemned by the American Friends Service Committee-Arizona, a non-profit that previously worked with Blackman on prison sentencing legislation.
“Mr. Blackman’s choice to focus on Mr. Floyd’s substance use and conviction history served to dehumanize Mr. Floyd and validate police violence,” the AFSC-AZ said in a statement. “His statements delegitimized the life and legacy of Mr. Floyd and, by extension, communicated a lack of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all those constituents in Arizona who themselves may struggle with substance use or who may have conviction histories. These are the very people he had previously pledged to represent.”
The severed ties between Blackman and the AFSC-AZ end years of cooperation between the two on legislation to reform Arizona’s criminal-justice system, including an unsuccessful attempt to curb mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.
In an interview with the Arizona Mirror, Blackman defended his comments, stating that his views on Floyd don’t contradict his work on justice reform. “I will continue to work on criminal justice reform, with or without those groups that no longer align with me.” Blackman said. “But I’m going to get it done, with or without them.”
However, his commitment to sentencing reform came into question in January, when Blackman voted in favor of a five-year minimum prison sentence for people caught with small amounts of heroin or fentanyl. Before the vote, Director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums Molly Gill, urged lawmakers to vote against the bill.
“This bill is going to target people who are ‘distributing’ and also have ‘intent to sell’ who are themselves substance abusers,” Gill said. “We have a stereotype in our minds that all drug traffickers are kingpins, that they are the evil villains we see on crime TV shows. But there are people here in this room who have loved ones that are addicted to these substances.”
To some, the lawmaker’s approach to justice reform only deals with part of the problem. Tierra Rainey, a member of Black Lives Matter Tucson, says Blackman’s solutions focus too much on reforming criminals, and too little on what can be done to prevent incarceration altogether.
“He’s been a champion for the ability of people to reform themselves,” Rainey told the Arizona Capitol Times last week. “This is a front end confrontation with police. I don’t think that he’s ever been on the record as saying that folks don’t need to go to prison.”
Blackman further attacked the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd during an interview on KFYI, when he accused Black Lives Matter of being a terrorist organization. The legislator falsely claimed the group was designated as such by the FBI.
“We condemn the remarks made by Rep. Blackman,” said the AFSC-AZ. “Institutional racism pervades the entire criminal punishment system, resulting in disproportionate surveillance, arrests, detention, and incarceration of people of color. Rep. Blackman failed to take this opportunity to use his platform as an elected leader to commit to address the sickness of racism and protect his constituents from discrimination and violence.”