The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

26 protesters arrested outside Reagan National Airport while demanding voting rights legislation

The demonstration, on the 56th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, capped a heightened week of Washington protests.

A small group of protesters, including Shenita Binns, holding a bullhorn, and her 8-year-old daughter, Ysrael, center, gather and march from the MLK Memorial. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Twenty-six people were arrested Friday outside Reagan National Airport after a group of voting rights organizers, college students and faith leaders rallied with a message for the Senate: Recess can wait, voting rights legislation cannot.

They marched through the airport and back outside in the afternoon heat, when about half the group sat in the street and began to sing an anthem of the civil rights movement:

“Hold on, hold on,” they sang as Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority police encircled them, warning that they disperse or risk arrest. “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”

The demonstration, on the 56th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, capped a heightened week of Washington protests by civil rights leaders, low-wage workers, clergy, state lawmakers and some Democratic senators, all calling to protect and expand voting rights to override proposed Republican-led restrictions at the state level.

Advocates said they worry that the opportunity for Democrats to pass federal voting protections could vanish after the 2022 midterm elections. That leaves little guarantee, they say, that Democrats will have the power to push through voting protections in the future.

“We’re here to ensure that the senators know that the pressure is rising for them to bring the Voting Rights Act, a voting rights bill, to the table,” said Linda Sarsour, who co-founded Until Freedom, an intersectional justice group and one of the organizers of the march. “In order for us to protect voters in states across America, it is Washington, D.C., that needs to do their job.”

The For the People Act, a sweeping elections and ethics bill to expand and protect voting rights, has stalled in the Senate because of the filibuster, which allows a united minority of 41 senators to block legislation. Protesters are calling on Democratic senators to eliminate the rule.

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The Friday protest came one day after civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and Arndrea Waters King held a news conference calling for the expansion of voting rights and in support of D.C. statehood.

They said the movement will culminate in a March on Washington on Aug. 28, the anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, with demonstrations planned in Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix and Houston.

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On Friday, a coalition of organizers, including Black Voters Matter, Faith for Black Lives, college students and Tennessee state Rep. London Lamar (D) and Wisconsin state Rep. David Bowen (D) gathered around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial before marching to the airport.

They criticized President Biden for not using his influence to push voting rights legislation into law and said they want to push back against what they described as lawmakers choosing their voters through restrictive laws, instead of voters choosing who represents them.

“I was born and raised here in Washington, D.C., and so I know what it means that we can’t send a representative to go vote on the big issues,” said Ty Hobson-Powell, founder of Concerned Citizens of D.C. and advocate for 51 for 51, a campaign for D.C. statehood. “The American democracy is at its best when it is for the people and by the people.”

As the group marched over Arlington Memorial Bridge before noon, its members sang: “Marching for D.C. statehood, we’re gonna let it shine.”

Outside the airport terminal on Friday, the Rev. Stephen Green, chair of the Harlem-based Faith for Black Lives — a coalition of faith leaders and activists — led the group in song as they blocked traffic.

He had marched earlier in the week with prominent civil rights leaders including the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, in a demonstration near the U.S. Capitol calling on Congress to end the filibuster, protect voting rights and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

But Friday, he wanted to try a different escalation, targeting the airport as lawmakers may be leaving for summer recess.

“Of all the ancestors who come before us, who fought for the right to vote, we are a new generation rising up to demand that President Biden choose a side,” Green said from the street. “That’s either freedom or the filibuster.