The California lawmaker explained that "I'm talking about speaking up. I'm talking about legislation. I'm talking about elected officials doing what needs to be done to control their budgets and to pass legislation"

By Sean Neumann
Updated April 20, 2021 09:02 AM
Rep. Maxine Waters
Rep. Maxine Waters
| Credit: Susan Walsh/AP Photo/Bloomberg via Getty

Rep. Maxine Waters shrugged off conservative backlash — saying she was misunderstood — after she encouraged protesters to "get more active" and "get more confrontational" if a guilty verdict is not reached in Derek Chauvin's trial in the death of George Floyd.

As Republican outcry mounted, the judge in Chauvin's trial likewise criticized Waters' rhetoric as "disrespectful" to the judicial process but said she had not prejudiced jurors.

The judge said, however, that Waters may have helped a possible defense appeal in the future, according to The Washington Post.

The jury is expected this week to hand down their verdict on the former Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin is accused of murdering Floyd after pinning him by the neck for nearly nine minutes last May while Floyd pleaded for help.

Waters, an 82-year-old California representative, had joined crowds protesting police brutality this weekend in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where another Black man, Daunte Wright, was fatally shot by police during a traffic stop. 

The Democratic lawmaker was speaking with reporters during a brief gaggle at a Black Lives Matter demonstration on Saturday night when she made the comments Republicans say went too far.

"We've got to stay on the street and we've got to get more active, we've got to get more confrontational," Waters said. "We've got to make sure that they know that we mean business."

"We're looking for a guilty verdict and we're looking to see if all of the talk that took place and has been taking place after they saw what happened to George Floyd," she told reporters. "If nothing does not happen, then we know that we got to not only stay in the street, but we have got to fight for justice."

A spokesperson for Waters did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment on Monday, though, she told The Grio that "I am nonviolent" and that conservatives were trying to "distort" what she said.

Rep. Maxine Waters
Rep. Maxine Waters
| Credit: Shutterstock

Who Is Maxine Waters?

Waters is a leading member of the Democratic Party's caucus in the the House of Representatives. She represents California's 43rd district in the Los Angeles area.

She has served in Congress since 1991 and is the highest-ranking Black woman in the House, where she chairs the House Financial Services Committee.

She is also no stranger to controversy among conservatives. 

Waters' Comments Have Irked the GOP Before

In 2018, Waters told supporters they should confront Trump administration officials in public spaces: "You get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere." For that, she faced backlash from Republicans as well as some other Democrats.

Her comments came after then-White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant amid the controversy over Donald Trump's "zero-tolerance" immigration policies.

More recently, Waters was also involved in a tense exchange during a hearing with Rep. Jim Jordan.

Waters told Jordan to "shut your mouth" after the committee chair, Rep. Jim Clyburn, tried to move on from Jordan, who was pressing Dr. Anthony Fauci about how COVID-19 guidelines were infringing on his and other Americans' "liberties."

Waters' sister Velma Moody died of COVID-19 last year.

Rep. Maxine Waters
Rep. Maxine Waters
| Credit: Rich Fury/Getty

Waters Explains 'Get More Confrontational' Comment

Waters told The Grio that the conservative criticism against her was wrongheaded.

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

She explained: "I talk about confronting the justice system, confronting the policing that's going on, I'm talking about speaking up. I'm talking about legislation. I'm talking about elected officials doing what needs to be done to control their budgets and to pass legislation."

Waters added that that backlash to what she said "does not deter me from speaking truth to power."

"I am not intimidated," she said. "I am not afraid, and I do what needs to be done."

Rep. Maxine Waters
Rep. Maxine Waters
| Credit: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Who Is Criticizing Waters for Her Comments?

Waters' remark quickly became a flashpoint among Republican lawmakers.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the GOP leader in the House, said Waters' rhetoric was "dangerous" and vowed to "bring action" against her in Congress if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not carry out some form punishment.

Freshman Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene — a controversial figure in her own right, who was removed from all House committee posts earlier this year — called for Waters to be expelled.

On Monday afternoon, the Chauvin trial judge, Peter Cahill, pushed back on comments that were "in a manner that is disrespectful to the rule of law and to the judicial branch," according to the Post.

"I think if they want to give their opinions, they should do so in a respectful and in a manner that is consistent with their oath to the Constitution, to respect a coequal branch of government," the judge said.

"Their failure to do so, I think, is abhorrent," he continued.

Cahill however denied the defense motion for a mistrial and said Waters' remark "really doesn't matter a whole lot anyway."

Pelosi told reporters Monday that Waters didn't need to apologize and that she felt Waters wasn't inciting violence. However, she suggested she would have spoken differently.

"I, myself, think we should take our lead from the George Floyd family," Pelosi said. "They've handled this with great dignity."

Some of the same Republican politicians criticizing Waters now were faced with a similar controversy over speech earlier this year — in the wake of the U.S. Capitol attack by a pro-Trump mob.

Five people died during the January rioting, for which President Donald Trump was charged and later acquitted of incitement after encouraging attendees at a rally before the riot to march on Congress.

Rep. McCarthy later said the blame was shared by everyone, though he and other Republicans had backed the evidence-free claims of fraud that fueled the rioters.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Waters' comments on Monday but she avoided directly addressing the congresswoman.

Instead, Psaki, 42, said President Joe Biden believes "exercising First Amendment rights and protesting injustice is the most American thing that anyone can do, but as he also always says, protests must be peaceful."

Will Waters Face Punishment Over What She Said?

McCarthy, 56, has limited power in his capacity as the House minority leader. He could introduce a censure of Waters, but such a disciplinary action would likely be voted down by the body's Democratic majority.

He maintains, however, that some Democrats would vote with him.

A spokesperson for Pelosi, 81, did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.