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Voting rights protests: D.C. expected to host thousands amid delta variant concerns

Demonstrators gather in August 2020 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for a rally for civil and economic rights. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

A summer of voting rights protests is culminating with crowds of thousands expected to descend on the National Mall on Saturday, demanding that elected officials enact federal legislation to protect and expand access to the ballot.

The marches and rallies Saturday — the 58th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech — will feature civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King III and the Rev. Al Sharpton. National civil rights organizations, including Black Voters Matter and Until Freedom, are behind the Make Good Trouble Rally, which draws its name from the teachings of the late civil rights leader and Georgia congressman John Lewis. D.C. statehood is also expected to be featured among demands for federal voting rights legislation that would override restrictive bills being passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures.

The events also coincide with the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus across the country at a time when only about half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated and immunity may be waning for those vaccinated many months ago. Local officials recently reported that cases in D.C. are once again rising, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser reinstated an indoor mask mandate.

Frustration and persistence for activists on the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act

Local officials are aware of demonstrations planned this weekend and advise attendees to reduce their risk by wearing a well-fitting mask. They also recommend staying outside where the virus is less likely to spread.

If you are in a crowd, D.C. Health recommends maintaining six feet from others. If people are raising their voices, extend that to 10 feet. For those who are not fully vaccinated, the safest option is to attend only small gatherings with people who are fully vaccinated. If you feel sick, D.C. Health said to stay home.

Organizers of two of the headliner marches — the March On for Washington and Voting Rights near the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Make Good Trouble Rally at the Lincoln Memorial — are aware of health concerns and said they are taking steps to ensure the safety of all participants.

There will be free masks and hand sanitizer, and organizers said they will encourage social distancing. They ask those who are experiencing covid-19 symptoms or were exposed to someone who recently tested positive for the coronavirus to stay home. Both rallies will be live-streamed.

Jesse Jackson among voting rights protesters arrested in D.C.

The National Action Network, Sharpton’s organization, estimated a crowd of 4,500 people will march from McPherson Square to the National Mall, where they estimate the crowd will grow to 50,000, according to a permit issued Wednesday by the National Park Service. Organizers for the Make Good Trouble Rally estimated a crowd of 100,000, according to a permit application with the Park Service. The agency has not yet granted a permit for all the planned demonstrations but said that is likely to happen later this week.

Make Good Trouble Rally organizers say there will be coronavirus testing and Johnson & Johnson vaccinations on-site. Backstage there will be temperature checks with special guests and speakers required to show proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours. Those without either can take a rapid rest.

People who are traveling with one of the partner organizations for the March On for Washington and Voting Rights can expect temperature checks and masks on all buses.

The groups behind that march are also organizing other voting rights demonstrations across the country, including in four other major cities: Atlanta, Miami, Houston and Phoenix.

The Douglass Commonwealth Coalition is hosting a rally at Freedom Plaza from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. in support of D.C. statehood before marching to the Make Good Trouble Rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Organizers said they view themselves as a “feeder march.”

The March On for Washington and Voting Rights will start at 8 a.m. at McPherson Square before marching past Black Lives Matter Plaza, passing the White House and the Washington Monument and rallying on the Mall.

The rallies come after a summer of voting rights demonstrations, including Democratic state lawmakers in Texas fleeing to D.C. to block Republicans from passing voting restrictions and the arrests of prominent leaders including the Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and William J. Barber II and members of the Congressional Black Caucus in protests in and around the Capitol.

The Poor People’s Campaign protested for voting, workers’ rights. More than 75 people were arrested.

Voting rights advocates have been calling for the passage of the For the People Act, a sweeping elections and ethics bill that would impose national standards for voting and override state-level restrictions, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which aims to restore voting rights protections that have been weakened by the Supreme Court.

But liberal advocates have said it’s unlikely enough Republicans will join Democrats in the Senate in passing voting rights legislation. So protesters throughout the summer took aim at eliminating the filibuster — the 60-vote threshold that allows a united minority of 41 senators to block legislation from passage.

The fight for voting rights took a greater sense of urgency this month with the newly released 2020 Census redistricting data. Activists say Democrats could be boxed out of power in key states by the 2022 midterm elections as most state legislatures begin redrawing congressional districts based on the new census data. The voting rights legislation that protesters are fighting for would ban redrawing districts in a way that would benefit one party over another.

Voting rights protesters this weekend are united behind the belief that expanding and protecting the right to vote is essential for the country’s democracy. Organizers are also calling for D.C. statehood so residents of the nation’s capital have full congressional representation.

Democratic lawmakers rally in D.C. to demand the passage of voting rights legislation

They point to the influence that the original March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s seminal words had on the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the momentum it created for the Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

In addition to federal voting rights legislation and D.C. statehood, organizers of the Make Good Trouble Rally will be highlighting a list of demands, including reparations for slavery, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, canceling student debt, reforming immigration, reimagining public safety and ending gun violence and mass incarceration.

Tamika Mallory, the co-founder of Until Freedom, one of the organizers of the Make Good Trouble Rally, said many people who voted for Democrats in the 2020 election are disappointed by a lack of movement on these social justice and civil rights issues. On Saturday, protesters will be demanding that officials take action.

“Folks are tired of hearing that we need to wait, because oftentimes we find that waiting means nothing happens at all,” Mallory said. “We always honor our history and recognize that the struggles we’re facing today, they are not new. It gives us the energy we need to keep going in the fight.”