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Deaths of Sterling, Castile fuel emotional pleas from Obama, Congress about brutality

"All of us know we could be a hashtag. We don't want our children to be hashtags because they were murdered by the police," Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison said Thursday.

By
Doug G. Ware
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks during a news conference by the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to discuss the issue of police violence, following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota this week. Image courtesy C-Span
Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., speaks during a news conference by the Congressional Black Caucus on Thursday to discuss the issue of police violence, following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota this week. Image courtesy C-Span

WASHINGTON, July 7 (UPI) -- Emotional national discussions deepened Thursday over the treatment of minority American citizens by law enforcement officers, in light of this week's controversial shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana that led to the deaths of two black men.

Citizens, pundits and other observers have talked for nearly two days about the police officer-involved shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile -- whose ordeals were each captured on video and posted online, drawing nationwide outrage.

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Thursday, President Barack Obama and lawmakers in the halls of U.S. Congress joined the conversation -- including Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and the Congressional Black Caucus.

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"All Americans should be deeply troubled by the fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota," Obama posted to his Facebook page Thursday. "We've seen such tragedies far too many times, and our hearts go out to the families and communities who've suffered such a painful loss."

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"What's clear is that these fatal shootings are not isolated incidents," he continued. "They are symptomatic of the broader challenges within our criminal justice system, the racial disparities that appear across the system year after year, and the resulting lack of trust that exists between law enforcement and too many of the communities they serve."

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President Barack Obama/Facebook

Cummings, who was among those questioning FBI Director James Comey for hours Thursday regarding the federal Hillary Clinton email investigation, said at the end of the hearing that American officials and policy-makers should be greatly disturbed by the deaths of Sterling and Castile.

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Sterling, 37, was shot Tuesday during a confrontation with two police officers in front of a Baton Rouge, La., convenience store, and ultimately died of multiple gunshot wounds. Castile, 32, was gravely wounded by an officer in the St. Paul, Minn., suburb of Falcon Heights following a traffic stop on Wednesday. He also later died of his wounds.

Both incidents were captured on video -- Sterling's death by two witnesses and Castile's by his girlfriend, who was driving the car at the time it was pulled over -- and generated mass outrage across the country after they were posted online.

"As an African-American man in this country, 66 years old moving toward the twilight of my life, we cannot allow black men to continue to be slaughtered," Cummings said to Comey in closing remarks. "This morning, I woke up to my wife literally crying -- watching the tape of this guy, Alton Sterling, in Baton Rouge, and then she looked at the one of Philando Castile near Minneapolis. And I hope you watched them.

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"There is something wrong with this picture. Don't get me wrong, I have supported police, I am a lawyer ... but Mr. Director, if you do nothing in your 2,000-plus days left, I have got to help us get ahold of this issue. It is so painful. I can't even begin to tell you."

"I have been very fortunate that I have not been harmed by the police, but I have been stopped 50 million times," the Maryland Democrat added.

Cummings made the remarks while praising Comey's involvement in the Clinton investigation and for his patience during Thursday's hearing.

"I don't know whether your family is watching this, but I hope that they are as proud of you as I am. Because you are the epitome of what a public servant is all about."

Video: C-Span

Also Tuesday, a news conference by the Congressional Black Caucus echoed similar concerns about violence involving law enforcement officers in the United States.

"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe," Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., said at the start of his remarks, quoting civil rights figure Frederick Douglass.

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Richmond, who represents the district where Sterling was shot, said the fact that two deadly shootings occurred within such a short period of time indicates that something is inherently wrong with the relationships between black citizens and the law enforcement officers charged with their protection.

"If we were not in a suit and tie and in the halls of Congress, we would look just like the victims of this deadly force," Richmond said. "Because of that, we feel obligated to speak out about justice and injustice.

"We want to make sure the likelihood of getting justice in this country, when you are the recipient of deadly force by an officer, is not impacted by demography or geography."

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Richmond said some lawmakers are planning to introduce a bill of rights for victims and their families -- legislation that would give every victim the right to an independent investigation, an independent autopsy and an independent prosecution.

"We know the overwhelming majority, 99 percent of our police officers, wake up every day, put their lives on the line ... to protect and serve us," he added. "But just like there are a small percentage of bad politicians... preachers... teachers, there are a small percentage of bad police officers."

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Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, representing Castile's mother, echoed the concern shared by the other members of the caucus.

"All of us know we could be a hashtag," he said, referring to the social media tags victims of police shootings typically generate online. "We don't want our children to be hashtags because they were murdered by the police.

"This is a national crisis. Every time we look up there is some African American person ... being killed by the police."

Also present at the news conference was Indiana Rep. Andre Carson, who himself is a former police officer.

"These shooters weren't my brothers in blue. They are murderers, and they should be treated as such," he said.

Investigations are underway in both cases and the officers involved have been placed on routine administrative leave. The Baton Rouge officers have said they fired on Sterling because he was armed and made threatening movements as they were trying to subdue him.

Video: C-Span

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