Harkening back to his days as Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and his lifelong quest to create “The Beloved Community,” United States Representative John Lewis called his fellow Democrats to the well of the House of Representatives and has begun a sit-in.
Lewis, and the more than two dozen fellow Democrats who have joined him, have promised to remain in place until the Republican leadership of the House calls a vote on proposed gun restrictions following the June 12 mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.
One of the bills, called “No Fly, No Buy” by Democrats, would restrict gun purchases by those on the No Fly List, which may have prohibited the gunman in Florida from obtaining his weapon and ammunition. Similar bills, including tightening of background checks, in the Senate were brought to a vote last week following a 15-hour filibuster by Democratic Senators demanding they come to the floor, but House rules prohibit such a filibuster.
After Maryland Representative Donna Edwards spoke against the gun lobby, excoriating fellow House members for listening to the NRA rather than the American people, accusing pro-gun factions of “forcing a false choice between Constitutional rights and safe streets,” Lewis took the podium, calling his colleagues to come forward and join him.
“For months, even for years, through several sessions of Congress, I wondered what would bring this body to take action,” Lewis said. “What would finally make Congress do what is right, what is just, what the people of America have been demanding, and what is long overdue?”
“We have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence,” says Lewis. “Tiny little children. Babies. Students and teachers. Mothers and fathers. Sisters and brothers. Daughters and sons. Friends and neighbors. And what has this body done? Mr. Speaker: Nothing.”
“We have turned deaf ears to the blood of the innocent, and the concern of our nation. We are blind to a crisis,” Lewis says. “Mr. Speaker, where is our heart, and our soul? Where is our moral leadership? Where is our courage?”
“Those who work on bipartisan solutions are pushed aside. Those who pursue common-sense improvement are beaten down. Reason is criticized. Obstruction is praised,” says Lewis.
“Newtown. Charlestown. Orlando. What is the tipping point? Are we blind? Can we see,” Lewis asks. “How many more mothers, how many more fathers, need to shed tears of grief before we do something?”
“We must be headlights, not taillights,” Lewis says. “We cannot continue to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the reality of mass gun violence.”
“We must remove the blinders. The time for silence and patience is long gone,” Lewis says. “We’re calling on the leadership of the House to bring common-sense gun control legislation to the House floor.”
“Give us a vote! Let us vote! We came here to do our job. We came here to work,” Lewis says. “The American people are demanding action. Do we have the courage? Do we have raw courage to make at least a down payment on ending gun violence in America?”
“We can no longer be patient. Today, we come to the well of the house to drum the need for action: Not next month, not next year. Now. Today,” Lewis says.
“Sometimes, you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way,” says Lewis. “We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise. When you have to move your feet.”
“This is the time. Now is the time to get in the way. We will be silent no more. The time for silence is over.”
With that, Lewis took a seat on the floor in front of the podium, joined by colleagues including Pennsylvania Representative Mike Doyle. As the Dems made it clear that they would not give up the demand to vote, chanting “No Bill, no break,” Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan ordered the C-SPAN cameras recording the business of the House to be turned off, and the House was recessed until noon.
House members immediately began to communicate their message via Twitter and Periscope, urging voters to contact Republican House members to bring the bill up for a vote prior to recessing Congress for the July 4 holiday. By noon, the number of Representatives either sitting on the floor of the well, or in chairs surrounding it, had grown to more than 100.
Republican Representative Ted Poe, acting on behalf of Ryan, returned to the Chamber shortly after noon and attempted to call the House to order. After the opening prayer and Pledge of Allegiance, Dems began once again calling “No bill, no break,” Poe declared that “The chair finds that the House is currently not in a state of order, due to the presence of members in the well who are not recognized. The chair would ask members to leave the well so the House may proceed with business and decorum.”
When his request was shouted down, Poe put the House in suspension and again silenced the cameras and microphones.
The Democratic Representatives continue to Tweet, Facebook Live and Periscope from the Chamber, despite the Republican leadership asking the Sergeant-at-Arms to enforce the rule prohibiting such activity. Immediately, those involved in the protest organized a vote to suspend the House rules, which passed, and opened the floor to members to speak on the matter.
Some members also left the chamber to hold a press conference on the Capitol steps, with members relating stories of gun violence in their districts and lamenting the fact that nothing can be done without a vote.
“There is no scream more primal or more pathetic than the sound of a mom who has learned her child has been shot,” says Representative Nancy Pelosi, shortly before rejoining her colleagues and many Democratic Senators who joined them, including Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, to call for the votes in between speeches relaying stories of gun violence and calling Republican leadership to return, turn on the microphones and begin to consider the legislation.
In a Tweet, Casey says “some people believe there is nothing our nation, the most powerful in the world, can do to confront gun violence. I refuse to accept that.”
“We’re a nation of people who have always sought solutions to difficult challenges,” Casey says. “The scourge of gun violence should be no different.”
Ryan, who was absent from the Capitol on other business, issued a statement saying that House business cannot proceed while the protest continues. He can direct the Sergeant at Arms to censure and/or remove the legislators, an impractical solution considering the numbers, or suspend the House for an indefinite period.
“Sometimes you have to get in the way,” Lewis says in a Tweet. “You have to make some noise by speaking up and speaking out against injustice and inaction.”
By Nancy Hart
(photo credit: Twitter/@repjohnlewis)