If you’ve ever participated in a protest, you know that it changes you forever. I remember wearing a button when I was kid, probably pinned on me by my hippie mom, that said, “Free Kuwait or Else.” I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew that wearing it made me powerful in some tiny way. I knew that I was representing something that was important and that the phrase on the button was telling other people something that they should know.
Fast forward a few years and I attended an anti-war rally during the George Bush’s reign. It was 2003 and we had just announced “victory” in Iraq, a sad state of affairs that seems glaringly obvious now and was the discourse of us dissenters then. We knew that we shouldn’t be there and we knew that innocent people were dying as a result. I stood with my fellow peaceful protesters, thousands of us, and held signs high into the sky that called on our lawmakers to end the bloodshed. The hair on my arm stood up on end as the crowd chanted in unison, law enforcement looking nervous on the sidelines; they were far outnumbered.
But we weren’t there to cause more violence. We were there to stop the sanctioned murders that were being committed in our name. And in a bizarre twist of fate, that’s precisely what Democratic lawmakers are now doing within the halls of government.
When Republican lawmakers refused to allow a bill that would place restrictions on those seeking to purchase guns to come to the floor, Democrats in the House rebelled. In an incredible show of solidarity and resilience, lawmakers, led by Representative John Lewis staged a sit-in in the House Chamber. The sit-in started Wednesday and continues to unfold, with nearly 200 members of the House of Representatives participating. They didn’t budge even when Speaker Paul Ryan forced the news cameras to off position; everyone just picked up their cell phones and continued to broadcast.
The unprecedented protest on part of our elected officials comes on the heels of the most tragic and deadly shooting our nation has witnessed with nearly 100 people injured or dead in Orlando. Their actions reflect the collective frustration of the country, the majority of whom are OK with reforms that will make it harder for the wrong people to get their hands on deadly weapons and kill innocent people. But in a weird twist of circumstances, instead of lawmakers setting the pace, it’s activists who inspired this act of civil disobedience among those who by definition are on the other side of the fence.
The irony is that it was most often the very lawmakers in that chamber throughout history that activists on the outside were trying to reach when they staged sit-ins and protests. The most famous sit-in took place in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960 when four black college students sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in a Woolworth’s and asked to be served. When they were refused service, they sat quietly until they were arrested. When they were taken out, another line of students took their place. The act was born from the civil rights’ movement’s ethos under Martin Luther King Jr. and ilk that violence would not help advance equal rights and that peaceful protest was the way forward. The incident is largely credited with helping to spurn the actions that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the story appears on the pages of every student’s history book in America. I’ll bet those protesters felt the same adrenaline that I did standing outside with my signs and t-shirts and demanding a better America.
Fast forward half a century, and we arrive at another juncture in sadly the same state. When Governor McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law this spring, he authorized discrimination against LGBTQ North Carolinians. The legislature slipped this bill under the radar and passed it in record time (ironically, given how long most bills take to pass through most legislatures), and it stripped existing non-discrimination protections away for LGBTQ people, prevented localities from passing new protections, and forced transgender people to use the wrong restroom or else break the law. When the state legislature was scheduled to reconvene, LGBTQ and ally groups staged a massive protest at the capitol and the NAACP staged a sit-in. The struggle captured the attention of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who compared the anti-LGBTQ House Bill 2 to other civil rights struggles throughout history. “This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry.”
I protested North Carolina in the 21st Century version of protest. I tweeted and I signed digital petitions and I crafted op-eds. I knew that I was one small voice of many, but that together we had the power to sway public opinion and hopefully the law.
It’s no accident that the news of the congressional sit-in is trending on social media. The thousands of people who have taken to the streets in the past weeks to pay honor to those who were slain in that Orlando nightclub want the same reform those inside the Congressional chamber are fighting their counterparts on the other side of the aisle for. And what’s fueling them is the same thing that fueled me and so many others when we took to the streets after the Iraq War. And it’s no accident that Rep. Lewis was the one who facilitated this sit-in in Congress. He used to be the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participated in sit-ins at segregated spaces, including churches, lunch counters and busses in the 1960s.
We don’t know how this momentous occasion will play out or where we’ll land, but we know that House Speaker Paul Ryan got it wrong when he said of the sit-in that, “Democrats can continue to talk, but the reality is that they have no end-game strategy.” His words couldn’t be farther from the truth. The end game is very real and it has already been decided, even if he forces an end to the sit-in or to the vote. Just as the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in in 1960 and the NAACP orchestrated one in North Carolina more recently taught us that speaking up and speaking out are powerful tools for diplomacy and social change, so too this staged sit-in in much more than an act in the political circus. We are witnessing a four-dimensional historic act that our grandchildren will read about in their history books. And this act of defiance, the time our elected officials stood with the people and against the will of the power elite, will most certainly help steer the moral arc in the right direction. And the best part? You can participate and be a part of history.