Congressional Democrats wore a traditional African cloth to announce Monday sweeping legislation that aims to increase the accountability of police officers.
The Democrats wore Kente cloth stoles handed out by the Congressional Black Caucus and knelt on the floor of the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the time former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee was on the neck of George Floyd — before a press conference announcing the proposed "Justice in Policing Act."
Rep. Karen Bass, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, defended the clothing choice to MSNBC.
“The significance of the Kente cloth is our African heritage, and for those of you without that heritage who are acting in solidarity,” Bass said at the news conference. “That is the significance of the Kente cloth. Our origins and respecting our past.”
Their clothing choice was derided on social media by some, with one author, Obianuju Ekeocha, posting a video saying the move was “virtue signaling.”
“I’m sure they put around their necks as some kind of mark or show of unity or solidarity with black people,” Ekeocha said in part. “So, in other words…this colorful fabric they had around their necks as some sort of placating symbol to show that they are not racist and they are together with black people.”
According to the African American Intellectual History Society, Kente cloth is originally from modern-day Ghana and Togo and is traditionally produced by the men of the Akan and Ewe people in a process dating back to 1000 B.C.
Kente cloth, per mythology, was inspired by the “great trickster Ananse the Spider,” who spun a web so beautiful that when two brothers, Nan Koragu and Nana Ameyaw, saw it, they returned to their village of Bonwire, Ghana, and began to weave Kente, the society said in a 2017 post.
Kente cloth has become widely used in the United States after rising to popularity in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and is part of the black diaspora. Modern-day college graduates will recognize the stoles worn by Congressmen and women on Monday as similar to those of matriculating students who don them to pay homage to their history. Many church pastors also wear Kente stoles as a way to "show a spiritual connection between them and (their) ancestors,” according to a 2012 study.
“Not a huge fan of the Kente cloth, but it was a show of solidarity from more seasoned folks, so I get it,” April Reign, the creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, tweeted. “I just hope we don't miss what happened after the performative part, which is that legislation is being introduced. Keep this same energy for the Rand Pauls who will vote No.”
Frederick Joseph, the author of “The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person,” posted on Twitter several times Monday about what some are calling a congressional stunt.
“This is a mess,” he wrote in one, adding later it was “cultural appropriation and pandering.”
He told TODAY in an interview he felt the House and Senate members have “never been categorized as pro-black” and were “trying to make a bolder statement but it fell flat.”
“I think that the optics of seeing older white people wearing a traditional African pattern, kneeling for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the time period which George Floyd was killed, it was kind of…a little traumatizing to see white people kneeling the same amount of time as a police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck,” he explained. “I don’t think anything will change if Nancy Pelosi didn’t understand the tone-deafness of ‘Oh yeah let me definitely put on this cloth.’”
He added he was disappointed in the Congressional Black Caucus for providing the stoles.
“I think the Kente cloth thing completely overshadowed something that was trending toward something good,” he said. “The substance here is…actually stopping black people from being murdered.”
If passed, the “Justice in Policing Act” would ban chokeholds like the kind that led to the death of George Floyd and no-knock warrants, as was used before Breonna Taylor's fatal shooting.
The legislation would also require local police departments to send data on the use of force to the federal government and create a grant program that would allow state attorneys general to create an independent process to investigate misconduct or excessive use of force, NBC News reported. The bill would also make lynching a federal hate crime.
Monday night, the Congressional Black Caucus sent NBC News a statement about the significance of the Kente cloth and kneeling.
"Today, Members of the Congressional Black Caucus joined their Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate to introduce the bold new Justice in Policing Reform Act. But before doing that, Members came together for a moment of silence in Emancipation Hall, wearing kente cloth to also symbolize the solidarity and commitment to working together for the urgent transformation needed," the statement said in part. "Today, the Congressional Black Caucus introduced the most transformative, bold proposal to end police brutality in America. That should be our focus now, how we can work together to ensure the bill passes the House, Senate and becomes law. That’s what real change looks like. We can and must achieve progress. #JusticeInPolicing does that."