The House Democrats’ Sit-In Was a Joke, But No One is Laughing
The House protest involved a serious issue worth fighting for, but it was a ploy by the Democrats to attack a divided Republican Party.
Two weeks after the deadliest massacre in recent American history, followed by a Senate filibuster and this week’s sit-in on Capitol Hill, I am reminded of pre-revolution France.
Before the storming of the Bastille, the poor met in dark tenement cellars and the filthy Parisian alleys behind the glittering palaces. “The bread is rising” was the password to these meetings, referring to the fermentation of the feverish and raw contents of revolt, as they readied to end a reign of oppression in France.
The analogy was used again in the 1960s to describe a movement of young black college students in America.
The initial sit-in occurred on February 1, 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Four black male students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College left the cool of a fall Carolinian morning for Woolworth’s “whites only” counter. Ezell Blair Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and David Richmond asked the choleric eyes across from them for coffee and donuts. They were denied. These four young men sat with muscles tense, ready to be arrested; they did homework and sat quietly as the day wore down. There were no arrests made the first day.
The next day, other students joined what a local newspaper called a “sit down.” The term “sit-in” took, as word of the disobedience spread. By day three, more than 60 students statewide became Gandhi, bus-boycott descendants in the peaceful protest lineage, defying 100 years of segregation. Authorities arrested thousands of protesters between 1960 and 1964, as the movement grew; through South Carolina, Baltimore, New Orleans, it shook a nation until the defeat of segregation and signing of the Civil Rights Act. Black and white hands joined in the forming of human walls. Marches and boycotts erupted across the country, spurning from angry, fed-up college kids.
In March 1960, the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR) published an appeal for human rights:
“… [O]ur hearts, minds, and bodies in the cause of gaining those rights … We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally ours to be meted out to us one at a time. Today’s youth will not sit by submissively, while being denied all the rights, privileges, and joys of life … We must say in all candor that we plan to use every legal and nonviolent means at our disposal to secure full citizenship rights as members of this great Democracy of ours.”
These kids were not celebrated in the media. They were not even supported by many members of the “old guard” in the black community, who insisted on slow strategies of negotiation and litigation. They were lawless, idealistic, soon-to-be jailbirds.
On June 22, 2016, members of the House of Representatives decided to engender their chamber with the spirit of those first Greensboro protesters. “No bill, no break,” rung through the rafters. The country and—thanks to periscope—the world watched as for 15 hours Democratic House members sat ass-to-carpet ignoring the flustered Speaker Paul Ryan’s attempts to keep order.
At first, the rallying cry elicited strong emotion. Members protested in honor of those lost in Orlando and Newton to force a vote on gun-control measures. Republicans have been illogical and dishonest about gun-control and their National Rifle Association (NRA) ties. The leader of the sit-in, Representative John Lewis, is one of the last of the civil rights giants, integral in the protest back when those college kids stood up. He deserves admiration for his work. He was jailed and beaten in the 1960s in the name of human rights.
With new perpetrators of injustice, Republicans and Speaker Ryan set to ignore the dangers that guns pose and the massacres we are faced with year after year, this exaltation in the “Spirit of History,” this dramatization, this symbolic measure was inspiring. Right? This symbolic measure—coming from our democratic voices—was inspiring, right?
The protest involved a serious issue worth fighting for, not some “publicity stunt” as Ryan put it. They don’t just sit-in for any cause. They didn’t sit-in when there was a real chance at criminal justice reform in 2015, or chant when conservatives defeated bipartisan legislation that would end the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. They didn’t sit-in when a reasonable attempt to bring relief to the children of Flint failed. When it could actually make a difference, they didn’t sit-in.
This protest was a cruel joke, a ploy by the Democrats to attack the Donald Trump-infested Republican Party while they are divided. The gun-control amendments in question have no chance of passing. And experts suggest that these small measures—in the best case—would do barely anything to reduce gun-violence in America. These amendments, last week’s filibuster and Wednesday’s antics are no different than the Grand Old Party’s annual, ceremonial Defund Obamacare Vote.
This shady prognosis on what seemed like an honest symbolic measure is not a lightly passed proverb, prophesying the helplessness of the governing body. While the no-fly list amendment and background check changes wouldn’t substantially change anything, we know why the United States doesn’t have the gun laws and gun violence rates of our sister European nations: campaign finance.
The thought of those House members sitting, kicking and screaming will make you sick when you realize just who they are. Representative Scott Peters received $100,000 in Big Pharma contributions in 2016. Representative Judy Chu’s top contributors were Real Estate investors. Texas Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee’s campaign was kept alive by oil industry unions. Insurance companies are Representative Maxine Water’s top donors—she’s another California Democrat and also happens to be a Hillary Clinton superdelegate, like everyone else on this list. They didn’t support Bernie Sanders, the presidential candidate who consistently called campaign finance our biggest issue. Representative John Larson, Representative Tony Cardenas, Representative Jeremy Nadler and Representative Mike Doyle were down there too.
They all “shamed” the Republicans for bending to the will of the NRA, but not one of them co-sponsored Representative Adam B. Shiff’s 2015 House Resolution 58 to amend the Constitution to limit the role of big donors in political campaigns. Not one of them supported a similar 2013 resolution.
Why take the NRA’s control away when you can sit-in and make Republicans look bad instead?
Sixty years ago, protesters sat-in because they had no other options in the face of oppression. There were only seven inmates in the prison when the revolutionaries took down the symbol of the French monarchy. The representative standoff does not compare.
This symbolic measure may have opened the door to increasingly dogmatic, grand displays of passion. No moves are off the table in this era of political games. The situation could not be more serious. Nothing is funny about the loss of life we have faced as a nation. Nothing is funny about the state of our “democracy” that Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found to be plutocratic. In the shadow of such hypocrisy, cruel jokes can be deceiving. If you actually still find something genuine about this week’s sit-in, ask yourself: Is the bread really rising in Congress?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.