They called it a sit-in, and they sang protest songs on the floor of the House of Representatives. But don’t be fooled. What Democratic lawmakers really did on Wednesday night was borrow the tools of the powerless and the dispossessed to cover up their own failure to use their power effectively to deal with gun violence until now.
News coverage and tweets about the display last night called House Democrats’ use of the sit-in tactic “unprecedented,” and “powerful.” Their Senate counterparts described them as courageous for breaking House rules to demand votes on two gun control measures.
That all overlooked the ways that Congress is responsible for the status quo those Democrats were suddenly moved to protest against. The boom-and-bust cycle of attention-grabbing foolery right after a national tragedy is how lawmakers appear as though they are truly invested in changing our gun culture. They have done this time and again without ever unsettling anyone’s Second Amendment rights. The sad truth is: Since the massacre at Sandy Hook, Congress has not passed a single piece of new gun legislation. None. And it’s not only because of Republican intransigence.
When Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House from 2009 to 2011, they didn’t pass any legislation that made guns harder to get. The party had been shying away from the issue for years, afraid of losing elections if they pushed it. Since the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, national Democrats have attempted to broach the conversation about gun control again, and again last year, after a massacre at Emanuel AME in Charleston, S.C., that drove Democrats to revisit gun legislation. This year, the horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando spurred the renewed interest. But they ended their sit-in about 26 hours after they started it, with no vote on the flawed measures they were pushing.
Meanwhile, young black, brown, queer and politically powerless people are often demonized for using the very same methods. Just a few months ago, President Obama himself accused Black Lives Matter activists of “yelling” at political leaders instead of working with them to make change. By this week, progressives were watching Periscope, transfixed, as House Democrats did more or less the same thing.
Yes, it’s true that long-time civil rights activists like Reps. John Lewis and Jim Clyburn have been supportive of groups like Black Lives Matter. But both also endorsed Hillary Clinton — who has struggled to address the concerns of young activists and protesters effectively. Clyburn even voted in support of the 1994 crime bill.
What was even worse about the sit-in was the exploitation of the lives and experiences of those American citizens who have been affected by gun violence.
On the floor of the House, Democrats held the names of victims and chanted, “No bill, no break!” and “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” This is the party that, even when it held the majority in both houses of Congress and the presidency, could not pass the very same gun show “loophole” background check legislation they are pleading to vote on now. It’s the same party that failed to take extreme measures when Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sean Bell and so many others were shot down by state and civilian assailants. Instead of advocating for the prevention of gun-related deaths in black and brown communities, Congress only makes a spectacle of gun violence when there is a national tragedy to latch onto.
The truth is: All gun violence is not created equal. All lives are not valued equally. When it comes to gun control, these facts are critical.
These regulations that House Democrats organized around last night do not address the complexity of gun-related crime in the United States. Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to be killed due to gun violence. They also tend to favor stricter gun laws, especially if they live in urban areas. Ideologically, gun violence and legislation play a greater role in the ways that black Americans move throughout society each day. Gun violence is even a top concern for many black parents. These issues aren’t addressed at all by the amendments House Democrats sat down for.
The protest last night failed to engage with the ways that gun violence is inseparable from disinvestment in communities of color, school closures, institutional racism and a host of other factors. Instead, it was all obscured under vacuous and stigmatizing terms like “terrorist” or “mentally ill.”
As the dust on the sit-in began to settle, I watched politicians take up “We Shall Overcome,” an iconic song often heard during the peaceful protests of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s for such issues as desegregation in the South, voting rights for black Americans and an end to the hyper-policing of communities of color — issues we are still fighting for. And as they sang it again Thursday ending the sit-in, I felt myself cringe. That song was meant to inspire those who had been excluded from the political process to keep the faith that they would, some day, supersede the barriers before them. I’m not convinced liberals in Congress fit that bill.
It may take courage to break House rules, but it takes even more courage to set out policies and agendas that prioritize the least among us. To overcome gun culture and pass meaningful legislation, it will take honesty about who holds the power and what they have accomplished (or failed to accomplish) with it thus far. When Democrats start to do that, maybe then we will all be moved to believe them.