The full-fledged revolt on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives began in the same way many of the protests engineered by U.S. Rep. John Lewis were launched: quietly, resolutely and in the face of long odds.
The chamber was partway through a comatose daily ritual of mundane speechifying known as “morning hour” on June 22 when a gaggle of House Democrats gathered at the podium in the well of the chamber and refused to move.
At their center was Lewis, whose savvy in orchestrating sit-ins made him one of the most effective foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. Here he was again, leading an outnumbered group bristling at the restrictions of a body dominated by majority rule, at the helm of a different sort of fight.
A tussle about gun restrictions in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre does not hold a candle to the centuries-long struggle over civil rights equality in America. And Lewis’ critics maligned his movement, which ultimately failed to force a vote, as a cheap publicity stunt that traded on his history. But, for the 76-year-old Lewis, it was a return to his roots.
The protest was fluid, but it was not impromptu. It was planned over the course of several days by Lewis and more than a dozen of his political allies, and it soon ballooned to incorporate virtually every member of the Democratic caucus.
The main goal was to force the chamber’s GOP leaders to agree to hold votes before the July Fourth recess on two bills the Senate had already rejected earlier that week: one that would expand background checks for gun purchases and another that would bar people on the government’s terror watch list from buying firearms.
Amid vocal opposition from gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association, Republicans held their ground. They dismissed the sit-in as a “publicity stunt,” in the words of House Speaker Paul Ryan, and a breakdown in House decorum, a hissy fit by cranky Democrats who lacked the votes to win outright.
Republicans ultimately denied the Democrats’ request. Ryan in the wee hours of June 23 adjourned the chamber for its July Fourth recess.
But Democrats did secure a consolation prize: increased public interest and attention thanks to their runaway social media campaign. Party members vowed to fight on in their districts and in Washington but were vague about what exactly would come next. What’s clear is the pressure won’t die down.
The party’s extraordinary 26-hour takeover of the House floor had little modern precedent and shocked even the most seasoned and jaded of Washington hands.
It spanned from the solemn — speeches that simply listed the names and ages of the recent Orlando victims — to the surreal, punctuated when dozens of Democrats stormed the well of the House during a late-night vote, chanting “no bill, no break” at their Republican colleagues, drowning out Ryan as he sought to reassert control of the chamber.
In other words, the events were not unlike the protests of Lewis’ youth. But instead of sit-ins protesting segregation and racial inequality, the civil disobedience this time was sparked by the lack of congressional debate and votes on stricter gun measures in the wake of one of the largest mass shootings in modern U.S. history.
Lewis first made his name in the civil rights movement in 1963 as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, but it was three years earlier when, as a college student in Nashville, Tenn., he began organizing sit-ins and protests. Each was timed for lunchtime for maximum effect.
In 1965 came his most famous protest, the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. He was beaten, gassed and left to die by state troopers. He woke up in a hospital with a fractured skull, not remembering how he got there. That violent fallout helped President Lyndon Johnson persuade Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.
Lewis has been in Congress since 1986, a daily reminder of the toll of divisive politics and hate. He’s not known for his success in passing legislation but as a standard-bearer for equality whom President Barack Obama calls the “Conscience of the Congress.” This November, he faces token Republican opposition in his deep-blue district, but he’s mum on whether he plans to stand for another term in 2018.
Symbolism in the face of impossible odds isn’t new in Congress. The Republican House has voted to repeal Obamacare more than 60 times since winning control of the chamber in 2011, even though its leaders know the president would never sign such legislation.
It was precisely Lewis’ legacy of civil disobedience that helped inspire House Democrats frustrated by the gridlock after a gunman in Orlando shot dead 49 clubgoers on June 12. Democratic aides and lawmakers interviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said rank-and-file members of the party were searching for a powerful way to take a stand in the days after the attack.
Their counterparts in the U.S. Senate were successful in forcing votes on new gun restrictions after a 15-hour filibuster — both attempts were ultimately rejected — but House Democrats were immediately stymied on the other side of the Capitol. A caucus-wide conference call June 20 set the wheels turning for many members, including John Larson of Connecticut and Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, who quickly pulled Lewis into the mix. The 15-term Democrat, never the most high-profile leader of the gun control movement but the recipient of an “F” rating from the NRA, came on board immediately.
Plans for the sit-in were finalized June 21. Party leaders were informed during a caucus meeting the next morning, and they quickly blessed the idea. The rest played out on the House floor, resulting in what Larson described as “an old-fashioned ’60s sit-in combined with modern-day technology.”
Democrats sang “We Shall Overcome,” replacing some lyrics with “we shall pass a bill someday.” And, after House leaders cut the C-SPAN camera feed, they broadcast images live to the world from their cellphones. The debate echoed in social media, with dueling hashtags (#holdthefloor for Lewis and Co. and #stopthestunt for their critics), images and celebrity endorsements.
For much of the sit-in, Lewis flitted between the podium, the floor and the nearby Statuary Hall, where he spoke to reporters and television cameras about the unfolding events. No longer the nimble man he was in his youth, he sat gingerly on the carpeted House floor and sometimes needed help from his colleagues to stand.
In the chamber, Democratic lawmakers crowded around Lewis, who held court at the center of the room, his back up against the desk typically used by the House clerk, his feet out in front of him.
As I continued to watch the sit-in on the various cable news outlets, I have to give a special shout out to the Southern California delegation. Reps. Maxine Waters, Karen Bass and Janice Hahn were front and center, taking a stand against gun violence. They should all be commended for that type of leadership.
On July 4, from noon to 10 p.m., join KJLH, along with Councilmen Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson at Exposition Park as they present a day of family fun, music and fireworks. The event will have food trucks, carnival rides and info booths plus a music stage featuring Timothy Bloom, Joshua Ledet, Gourdan Banks, Andrew Gouche and Band of Brothers, Rory Darvel and the Ultimate Tribute to Prince, Shaun B, Zeia King and N’Sessions, Markees Williams and Divine Destiny and so much more. It’s free and open to the Public.
And finally great news from Los Angeles City Hall. Mayor Garcetti will announce a new police commissioner this week. I’m sworn to secrecy for now but more to come on this brilliant and dynamic sister in next week’s blog.
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