Criminal justice reform group cuts ties with GOP lawmaker over George Floyd comments




george floyd
A photograph of George Floyd at the George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis. Photo by Lorie Shaull | Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

A leading advocacy group for broad criminal justice reform in Arizona has cut ties with one of its closest Republican legislative allies after he gave a radio interview disparaging as terrorists the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators across the country who have marched to protest police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the knee of a white police officer.

Rep. Walt Blackman, a Republican from Snowflake, later posted a video on Facebook in which he repeatedly attacked Floyd’s character and highlighted his criminal background, calling him “no saint.” Floyd shouldn’t be lionized in death, he said, because he was “invested in crime” because he had a criminal history that included robbery, drug possession and theft. He also said people needed to know that Floyd had drugs in his system when he was killed.

The video was titled “I DO NOT support George Floyd and I refuse to see him as a martyr. But I hope his family receives justice.”

In response, American Friends Service Committee-Arizona said it would no longer work with Blackman on criminal justice reform legislation. AFSC-AZ has been at the forefront of the push for reforms in Arizona, including repealing the state’s “truth-in-sentencing” law that requires people serve the vast majority of their sentences before being eligible for release.

“We condemn the remarks made by Rep. Blackman. AFSC-AZ will not work alongside partners who are not aligned with our values and commitment to uphold the worth and dignity of all people, regardless of who they are or what they have done,” AFSC-AZ said in a press release Thursday afternoon.

Blackman is the first black Republican ever elected to the legislature. 

During the June 3 radio interview, Blackman told Phoenix KFYI talk show host James T. Harris – a black conservative, like Blackman – that the protests over Floyd’s murder have been “hijacked by liberal left extremists,” including Black Lives Matter. The group was formed in response to the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, by a white police officer.

Blackman called Black Lives Matter “a terrorist organization,” and incorrectly said the FBI has deemed it such. The FBI has not done so. 

In an interview with Arizona Mirror Thursday, Blackman said he spoke extensively about Floyd’s criminal background and time in prison to shed light on how failures in the criminal justice system “doomed” Floyd.

“Mr. Floyd was doomed long before that officer put that knee on his neck,” Blackman said. “The police officer committed a crime, but we did, too. And we are committing crimes every single day against those inmates that are sitting in prison right now, where we don’t give them programming to succeed.”

Blackman condemned the actions of former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, who is facing murder charges, and said he “needs to go to prison.” But Chauvin isn’t the only one responsible for Floyd’s death, Blackman said.

“Who are the real culprits? The system. The legislature. The police officer. Our failed systems in our prison, and also… Mr. Floyd, because he committed crimes. That is a fact,” Blackman said. “But there was failure along the way, and that is what I’m trying to prevent here in Arizona.

“The system failed him, just like the system is failing the over 42,000 prisoners that we have in our Arizona systems.”

Blackman said he respects and honors AFSC-AZ’s decision to cut ties with him.

“Arizona needs to wake up on criminal justice reform,” he said. “I will continue to work on criminal justice reform, with or without those groups that no longer align with me. But I’m going to get it done, with or without them, because this is a human issue, not a race issue.”

Blackman’s comments on the radio and Facebook were first reported by Arizona Capitol Times

In its statement, AFSC-AZ expressed hope that Blackman would “unlearn (his) harmful attitudes and beliefs and commit to do better.”

***UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from Rep. Blackman.

Jim Small
Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.
Laura Gómez
Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for Spanish-language news and feature reporting. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.