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Chauvin trial judge says Maxine Waters' 'confrontational' protest remarks could fuel appeal

NBC News logo NBC News 4/19/2021 Alex Seitz-Wald
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WASHINGTON — The judge in Derek Chauvin's murder trial in the death of George Floyd criticized recent comments by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., saying her words could be grounds for the defense to appeal a verdict.

Waters, who has long been a lightning rod for criticism from the right, was already facing a torrent of Republican criticism for her comments over the weekend urging protesters in Minnesota to "get more confrontational" if Chauvin is not convicted. Several GOP lawmakers called for her expulsion from Congress.

Chauvin's attorney asked the judge to declare a mistrial over Waters' comments, arguing that she had prejudiced the jury. Judge Peter Cahill denied the request but said that Waters' comments were "abhorrent" and that she may have handed the defense a lifeline anyway.

"I'll give you that Congresswoman Waters may have given you something on appeal that may result in this whole trial being overturned," Cahill said as arguments concluded Monday and the jury began deliberations.

Waters appeared at a racial justice protest Saturday night in Brooklyn Center, a suburb not far from where Chauvin's trial is taking place, which has been roiled by protests after a police officer killed Daunte Wright, 20, this month.

"We've got to stay on the street, and we've got to get more active. We've got to get more confrontational," Waters told reporters when asked what would happen if Chauvin's trial, which is wrapping up this week, ends in acquittal. "We've got to make sure that they know that we mean business."

While Republicans called for Waters to be sanctioned, she is unlikely to be punished because Democrats control Congress.

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"No, I don't think she should apologize," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters Monday. "Maxine talked about 'confrontation' in the manner of the civil rights movement."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., accused Waters of "inciting violence" and said that if the Democratic majority in the House does not do anything to censure her, "I will bring action this week."

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who herself has been the subject of calls to be removed from Congress, introduced a resolution to expel Waters. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., called for Waters to be "immediately removed from Congress," and other GOP lawmakers called for a "sanction" to "hold her accountable."

"Rep. Waters is a danger to our society," Greene, who was accused of helping encourage the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol, said in a statement.

Waters said Greene had distorted her remarks.

"I am not worried that they're going to continue to distort what I say," Waters told The Grio. "This is who they are and this is how they act. And I'm not going to be bullied by them."

Conservatives said her comments encouraged more violence and rioting. Waters' allies said Republicans were trying to distract from right-wing violence, like the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, by picking another fight with one of their go-to targets.

"What she said is nothing new. She has always said the same kind of thing. She has always stood up for the downtrodden," said the Rev. Jewett Walker, a politically connected African American pastor in Los Angeles who has worked with Waters for years. "There are people who do not like that."

In 1992, a year after Waters was elected to Congress, her South Central Los Angeles district exploded after the acquittal of the white police officers who beat Rodney King, a Black motorist. While other politicians denounced the riots, Waters questioned whether the disturbance should even be called a riot.

"If you call it a riot, it sounds like it was just a bunch of crazy people who went out and did bad things for no reason," Waters said at the time, according to the Los Angeles Times. "I maintain it was somewhat understandable, if not acceptable. So I call it a rebellion."

Republicans have long used Waters as a boogeyman to raise money and to excite their base — and as a wedge to try to persuade moderate swing voters not to support other Democratic candidates in battleground districts.

Now in her 15th term in Congress, Waters has never faced much of a political threat in her overwhelmingly Democratic district, where she regularly wins re-election with over 70 percent of the vote.

"For decades, Congresswoman Waters has been one of the most outspoken women leading the fight for justice," said Aimee Allison, who founded the group She the People, which works to advance women of color in politics. "She will not be deterred, and neither will Americans who are demanding more accountability from our criminal justice system."

She is such a lightning rod, however, that her Republican challenger last year, Joe Collins, raised a whopping $10.6 million, and he went on to outspend Waters more than 5 to 1, according to campaign finance reports. Even though Collins lost by 72 percent to 28 percent, he has already raised more than $500,000 for a rematch next year.

"Maxine Waters is a complete disgrace to the United States and to South L.A.," Collins said Monday on Fox News in an appearance likely to garner even more donations.

Collins called on Congress to remove Waters from office by invoking a clause in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that disqualifies federal officeholders who have "engaged in insurrection." It is the same clause that liberals wanted to use to prohibit former President Donald Trump from running for office again after the Capitol riot and to expel Greene — an effort Waters supported.

Waters defended her rhetoric Sunday on MSNBC.

"I wanted to be there, kind of as 'Auntie Maxine,' to show them that not only do I love them and I support them, but they can count on me to be with them at this terrible time in all of our lives," she said of her trip to Minnesota.

"Auntie Maxine" is the nickname Waters, 82, embraced when she became an early hero to younger progressives opposed to Trump.

Waters, one of the first Democrats to call for Trump's impeachment, frequently accused Trump of being controlled by Russians (the featured post on her Twitter account is still a 2017 meme with the hashtag "#KremLINKlan"), and she encouraged supporters to harass Trump officials.

"If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome," she told a crowd in 2018. Her remarks came after criticism of incidents in which Trump officials were antagonized in restaurants.

That earned her a spot near the top of Trump enemy's list, as he frequently railed against the "extraordinarily low IQ person" in tweets and at rallies, where audiences loved to boo Waters, with whom they were already very familiar from conservative media.

Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for mailing pipe bombs to Trump critics, sent one to Waters, and her office has repeatedly been targeted.

Just last week, she earned blowback from conservatives and applause from the left for telling Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a staunch Trump ally, to "shut your mouth" during a committee hearing with Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser.

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