The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters stage ‘die-in’ in Capitol Hill cafeteria

The Longworth Building cafeteria, a heavily trafficked lunch spot on Capitol Hill, was bustling around 12:30 p.m. when two to three dozen clergy members let out a cry of "Black Lives Matter" and lay down on the floor in front of the cash registers.

The protest comes as demonstrations continue throughout the country, spurred by several high profile cases of unarmed black men being killed by police officers last year.

"It's important to see a congressional hearing on police practices," said the Rev. John Vaughn, of New York, who participated in the protests and said one of the things that compelled him to take part was his two sons.

"I have a 13-year-old who is [5 feet, 10 inches], looks like an adult, and I'm scared for his life as he gets older," he said. "I want safety for my boys."

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The demonstrations have ignited a tense conversation nationally about policing practices and distrust for police in communities of color. President Obama has commissioned a task force to give him federal policy proposals related to law enforcement, and in St. Louis -- where the killing of Michael Brown in suburban Ferguson sparked much of the protest -- another commission is examining local policy proposals related to systemic inequities.

The protesters on the Hill said they had four goals: to call for a congressional hearing on policing, end police militarization through the Pentagon’s Excess Property Program, urge Congress to pass a bill to end racial profiling by law enforcement, and see an end to "jump out" tactics employed by D.C. police.

"I'm the pastor of a multiracial congregation and I understand that black lives matter," said the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, of Middle Collegiate Church in New York. "It actually leads to death when we live in a society where black lives don't matter."

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The commotion momentarily captivated the busy lunchroom, where many lawmakers and their staffs were eating during one of the first weeks of the new congressional session.

One cafeteria employee, who recorded the protest on her phone, exclaimed with excitement. "wow, I never thought I'd see this here!" Across the cafeteria, a woman wearing a congressional staffer badge remarked with disdain: "Now they're here to harass local police."

It remains unclear if the ongoing demonstrations will spur any congressional action. Late last year, Congress passed a bill to begin requiring local law enforcement to report statistics about in-custody deaths to federal officials and at least five bills are expected to be introduced this year related to policing -- but each faces a difficult path toward passage.

Organizers had originally planned to lay in the cafeteria for 4 1/2 minutes - a timing often employed during "die-in" protests to symbolize the amount of time Michael Brown's body lay in the street after he was killed.

But, with Capitol police threatening arrests, the clergy members stood up after about three minutes and filed out of the cafeteria singing "ain't gonna let nobody turn me around."

"This is where the work gets done, so we wanted to be here, in this place to disrupt things," said Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization. "We showed up today as people of faith to signal that Americans are not backing down."