Much like the brand emails most of us are getting from the corporate communications teams at our gyms and skincare subscriptions boxes, which express “support” during this “difficult time” and end with a quickly googled MLK quote, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi would like America to know that she can quickly google quotes too, and also is here for us, whomever “us” may be.
To showcase those out-of-context quoting skills, at a June 2 press conference, Pelosi invoked a 1992 speech given by George H.W. Bush in the aftermath of the acquittal of five police officers who had been filmed brutally beating Rodney King. The resulting uprising had triggered five days of outrage, panic, and violence in Los Angeles. “These terrible scenes stir us all to demand an end to gratuitous violence,” Pelosi quoted from Bush’s 1992 address.
Left out of Pelosi’s attempt at unity was the context of Bush’s speech, which began by calling the aftermath of the verdict a “tragic series of events” that resulted in “4,000 fires” and “staggering property damage.” While he went on to mention injuries and deaths, Bush avoided mentioning the police beating of Rodney King altogether in his opening remarks. By “terrible scenes” Bush appeared to imply the worst harm had been enacted on broken storefronts.
The overarching point of Pelosi’s address runs counter to Bush’s law and order message; it was to laud the work of the Congressional Black Caucus and announce forthcoming legislation to address police brutality and racial profiling. It was also an attempt to contrast “successful” presidents, who say comforting things and don’t tear-gas peaceful protesters, with the current commander-in-chief. But invoking the name of George H.W. Bush in connection with the Rodney King beating and the Congressional Black Caucus is rewriting history in the name of bipartisanship, and obscures the fact that lawmakers and presidents have long enabled police violence, leading us to the protests currently happening across the country.
Back in 1992, California Representative Maxine Waters, who would go on to become the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from 1997 to 1999, said that Bush’s resistance to passing the civil rights bill and his record on race relations during his time as president were particularly telling character traits. After the Rodney King verdict, she had this to say, per the Los Angeles Times:
“I would like to concur with that and say . . . very clearly that I believe George Bush is a racist,” Waters said, adding that Bush “is a mean-spirited man who has no care or concern about what happens to the African-American community in this country. I truly believe that.”
Rep. Pelosi was using Bush’s words, along with those of President Barack Obama following the police murder of Eric Garner, to contrast the actions of presidents who helped heal the country in times of unrest with Donald Trump’s current divisive and violent rhetoric. She probably should have left out the man who authorized sending thousands of National Gaurd, Border Patrol, FBI SWAT teams, riot trained federal law enforcement officers, and Marines into Los Angeles back in 1992, essentially setting precedent for the same plan Pelosi, who was a representative for California back then, is railing against now.