The mission on Monday afternoon was the same as it had been since June: Show up in the halls of Congress, and get arrested. More than a hundred protesters crowded into the meeting and dining rooms of the Capitol Skyline Hotel to get trained before the final burst of civil disobedience against the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. They chanted “When we fight, we win,” but the meaning of “winning” was slightly tweaked.
“When we fight, we win; when we drag this out, we win,” said Paul Davis, the national advocacy coordinator at the left-leaning Housing Works. “They thought that they would pass this thing before Thanksgiving, and it’s halfway to Christmas!”
Like the Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and like the ACA itself in 2009, the GOP’s tax cut package has spurred protests in Washington and around the country. There have been sit-ins (and sleep-ins) at congressional offices, rallies on the lawn outside the Capitol, and daily arrests outside of the rooms where the tax bill has been voted out.
The likely passage of the bill, however — both parties expect it to slide through Congress this week — has already sparked a discussion of why the opposition failed. Key Republicans who seemed to shift after health-care protests, such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), have listened to protesters and gotten behind the tax bill anyway. Protesters, like the Democratic Party itself, have watched the public support for the tax bill sink to somewhere between 25 and 40 percent, just as ACA repeal did.
They are also preparing to watch it pass.
Ady Barkan, a 34-year-old man suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), had become the public face of tax protests; in doing so, he had been rebuffed by Republicans twice. Last week, a video of Barkan confronting Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whom he happened to share a plane with, went viral; #FlakesOnAPlane, a reference to an 11-year-old cult film, “Snakes on a Plane,” briefly trended as millions watched Barkan, his condition slowing his speech, beseech Flake to vote no on the tax cuts.
“Think about the legacy that you will have for your son and your grandchildren if you take your principles and turn them into votes,” Barkan told Flake.
“You’re certainly up on all of the details,” said Flake.
“My life depends on it,” said Barkan.
By Monday, Barkan was an icon of the tax-cut resistance, a man whose relatable story was cited to describe why everyone should oppose the bill. The meeting at the Capitol Skyline offered cakes with “Happy Birthday, Ady,” and “Please stop killing us” written in red icing. The coalition opposing the tax bill put out a letter from Barkan, asking citizens to celebrate his birthday by killing the bill, or risk “serious cuts to disability funding that I’ll need before too long to pay for a ventilator to keep me alive and other crucial medical care.”
The only problem was that Republicans seemed able to face Barkan, then vote for the tax cut anyway. In a short interview, Barkan said he would keep plugging away, even though personal appeals to Collins and Flake had not moved them.
“We will raise our voices higher and higher until either Congress hears them, or we are removed from the building,” Barkan said.
The willingness of protesters to throw their bodies into the halls of Congress — technically, its House and Senate office buildings — has ironically led to less coverage of what the protesters are doing. Monday’s training session was open to the press, as was a 3 p.m. news conference. Trials of the “J20” protesters accused of disturbing the peace on Inauguration Day have been thoroughly covered. Just weeks earlier, Fox News hyped a weekend of organized protests by anti-fascists, or antifa, as though they could spark social unrest.
Most of the coverage of Monday’s protest, by contrast, was filmed by activists themselves. The crowded news conference was featured for just 30 seconds on MSNBC, as reporter Garrett Haake stood outside the room they’d booked and told viewers that it had fizzled.
“These protests have never been like what we saw with the health-care law,” said Haake. One protester, who could be seen glaring at Haake in the shot, began arguing with the correspondent about coverage of the anti-tax cut movement as soon as the segment was over.
The protest movement, unlike the Women’s March or other 2017 rebellions against the GOP, had been stoked by progressive groups that operate in plain sight but have low national profiles. The Center for Popular Democracy, the key organizer behind the Capitol Hill protests, had trained hundreds of activists around the country in effective techniques, including “bird-dogging,” the art of getting in a politician’s face and pressing a question over and over.
“This is bird-dog nation,” said Jennifer Flynn Walker, an organizer with decades of experience in direct action.
At Monday’s training session, Walker and Davis asked protesters how many people were facing their first arrests, then how many had already been arrested more than five times. There were cheers for each group of people, and then an hour of advice on what might happen in the hallways, how to lower tensions — “no snapping fingers,” a reference to what is usually seen as a lower-key way to applaud — and how Capitol Police were ready to help people get processed quickly. The Capitol Skyline, located an unglamorous half-mile away from the Hill itself, was at least close to the police department.
Anti-tax cut protesters, however, were not the only people getting arrested. Late Monday afternoon, as protesters arrived on the Hill, some encountered supporters of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, called “dreamers,” in the security line — recognizable because of the sleeping bags they would use to stay overnight in some Democrats’ offices. And over the weekend, there was talk of more protests, ready to launch if the president ended special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
“Activists suspect the risk of a firing spikes around Christmas, once Congress has gone home,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, and a co-founder of the “Trump Is Not Above the Law” coalition — of which the Center for Popular Democracy is also a member. “If Trump fires Mueller in the next week, we’ll just have to walk, chew gum, and defend the republic at the same time.”
Conservatives, who fully expect victory this week, have looked at the protests with bemusement. In 2009 and 2010, they did not stop the passage of the ACA with mass protests outside the Capitol and shows of massive resistance at town hall meetings. But they never tried civil disobedience, and were skeptical about its utility.
“We’ve never recommended breaking the law with our events,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, which co-sponsored many tea party events and spent time this year organizing behind the tax cuts. Protesters who oppose tax cuts, he said, did not break through because they had little to say. “It’s the same old class warfare, and I think it’s gotten a little old.”
The activists would plow forward, whether they got media coverage or not. On Tuesday, they would make one more push and try to disrupt the passage of a bill that probably had the votes.
“If you can only get arrested once, tomorrow is the big day,” said Davis at Monday’s training session. “Imagine a strategy to stop an entire vote in Congress. It depends entirely on how many people show up.”