WASHINGTON — Demonstrators outside the U.S. Capitol, angry over the proposed health-care reform bill, shouted “nigger” Saturday at U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights leader who was nearly beaten to death during an Alabama march in the 1960s.
The protesters also shouted obscenities at other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, lawmakers said.
Capitol Police escorted the members of Congress into the Capitol after the confrontation. At least one demonstrator was reported arrested.
“They were shouting, sort of harassing,” Lewis said. “But, it’s OK, I’ve faced this before. It reminded me of the ’60s. It was a lot of downright hate and anger and people being downright mean.”
Lewis said he was leaving the Cannon office building across from the Capitol when protesters shouted “Kill the bill, kill the bill,” Lewis said.
“I said ‘I’m for the bill, I support the bill, I’m voting for the bill,’ “ Lewis said.
A colleague who was accompanying Lewis said people in the crowd responded by saying “Kill the bill, then the n-word.”
“It surprised me that people are so mean and we can’t engage in a civil dialogue and debate,” Lewis said.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said he was a few yards behind Lewis and distinctly heard “nigger.”
“It was a chorus,” Cleaver said. “In a way, I feel sorry for those people who are doing this nasty stuff — they’re being whipped up. I decided I wouldn’t be angry with any of them.”
Cleaver’s office said later in a statement that he’d also been spat upon and that Capitol Police had arrested his assailant. The statement praised the police, who Cleaver said escorted the members of Congress into the Capitol past the demonstrators.
“The man who spat on the congressman was arrested, but the congressman has chosen not to press charges,” the statement said.
“This is not the first time the congressman has been called the ‘n’ word and certainly not the worst assault he has endured in his years fighting for equal rights for all Americans,” the statement said. “That being said, he is disappointed that in the 21st century our national discourse has devolved to the point of name-calling and spitting.”
Protestors also used a slur as they confronted Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay member of Congress. A writer for Huffington Post said the crowd called Frank a “faggot.”
Frank told the Boston Globe that the incident happened as he was walking from the Longworth House office building to the Rayburn House office building, both a short distance from the Capitol. Frank said the crowd consisted of a couple hundred of people and that they referred to him as “homo.”
“I’m disappointed with the unwillingness to be civil,” Frank told the Globe. “I was, I guess, surprised by the rancor. What it means is obviously the health care bill is proxy for a lot of other sentiments, some of which are perfectly reasonable, but some of which are not.”
Frank said he was sorry Republican leaders didn’t do more to disown the protesters.
Some Republicans “think they are benefiting from this rancor,” he said.