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LDF calls for policies that punish racial harassment by public officials

The organization likened a recent slur by a Tarrant city councilman to incidents targeting members of Congress and lawmakers in other states.

Tarrant Councilman Tommy Bryant, standing, speaking during Monday's council meeting.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund released a statement on Thursday calling on legislative bodies to enact code-of-conduct policies that hold public officials accountable if they make personal attacks against fellow officials that rise to the level of harassment.

The statement was in response to Tarrant City Councilman John “Tommy” Bryant, who is white, yelling, “Do we have a house n—-r in here?” at a public meeting on Monday. His comment was directed at fellow council member Veronica Freeman, who is Black.

Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the LDF, said the incident fits a pattern seen nationally.

“Alarmingly, racially-tinged harassment constitutes an ongoing and rampant issue at the federal, state, and local levels,” she said. 

She cited death threats and other forms of harassment that have targeted Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley, as well as racist death threats sent to Michigan state representative Cynthia Johnson after a hearing related to the 2020 election. Two Black women in Vermont — a state lawmaker and a town board member — resigned due to harassment and threats. In 2018, Kiah Morris, the state’s only Black state legislator, resigned in part because of persistent harassment by a white supremacist.

“These are just a fraction of the many dangerous personal attacks directed at public officials on a regular basis,” Nelson said. “At times, as with Bryant, the harassment comes from fellow public officials, an especially reprehensible act and a grave threat to our democracy. Legislative bodies must step up and address this issue directly through the establishment of no-tolerance code of conduct policies that are strictly enforced to hold public officials accountable for their actions, including the use of racial slurs and hate speech. We also call on the Tarrant City Council to take immediate action to fully investigate Bryant’s misconduct, impose any and all discipline including removal from office, and protect council members from ongoing harassment.”

Bryant used the slur in reference to a comment he said was made by Tarrant’s mayor, Wayman Newton, during an executive session. The incident made national headlines and came after several others. 

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There has been turmoil in Tarrant City Hall since Newton was elected its first Black mayor in August, Newton told The Daily Beast, which reported on conflicts between the mayor, the former police chief, some white residents and council members who Newton said opposed his needed changes. 

Bryant’s comments at Monday’s meeting came after someone in the audience said Bryant’s wife had used the n-word in a social media post. Newton had been discussing social media posts made by Bryant’s wife that he said disparaged him. 

“The n-word. Let’s get to the n-word. Do we have a house n—-r in here? Do we? Do we? Would she please stand up?” Bryant says, pointing to Freeman, seen at around the one-hour-and-41-minute mark in a video of the meeting posted by the city.

In an interview with NBC News, Bryant was asked if he is a racist. 

“It’s according to what your definition of the word ‘racist’ is,” he said. “What the public — what a lot of the public’s definition is, I might be a racist, but according to what the true meaning of a racist is, absolutely not.”

Micah Danney is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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