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Committee meeting turns hostile after Representative accuses opponent of making “racist” comments

The Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama.

Sam Mattison
Alabama Political Reporter

Former Alabama Rep. Richard Laird was asked to leave and not come back on Wednesday by Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) after making a comment about the prison population in Alabama during a committee meeting.

A public hearing was held in the House Judiciary Committee on a new bill concerning Marijuana law reform.

The bill would make carrying 1 ounce or less of Marijuana only subject to a fine. Under the current law, the first offense is a misdemeanor and the second offense could be a felony. The bill would make the first offense carry a fine of $250 and any subsequent fine would be $500.

Frank Knaack, supporter of the bill, said that the current laws unfairly target minorities and lead to racial disparities in the prison system. Knaack serves as the Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed, an organization that advocates for systematic changes that affect low-income, disadvantaged and underrepresented people.

In Alabama, African-Americans make up more than half the prison population but only 26 percent of the population.

Laird was speaking as a representative of the conservative group Alabama Citizens Action Program. He was opposed to the bill. During Laird’s speech, he said Knaack was “playing the race card.”

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Rep. Juandalynn Givan (D-Birmingham) took issue with this. She asked him if there were any racial disparities in the prison system.

Laird said there are racial disparities in the prison system but it was because of choices made by minorities. Givan did not respond kindly.

Givan said Laird’s comments were “racist” and should not be allowed in the committee. During her response to Laird, she was interrupted by Chairman Mike Jones (R- Andalusia). Jones told Givan to stick to the arguments of the bill and to stop attacking Laird.

Givan said in response that Jones didn’t attempt to stop Laird during his “racist” comments.

Laird later apologized to Givan for any hurt feelings that may have come from his comments. She accepted his apology but still said the comments were racist.

After the committee adjourned, Coleman said that the committee should expect to hold some level of decorum and that Laird’s comments were not something that should be allowed. She then suggested that Laird not be allowed to attend anymore House Judicial Committee meetings.

The bill was not voted on by the committee.

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