By David Smith & Nicky Woolf
Democrats drowned out the Speaker with chants, sang We Shall Overcome on the floor of the House of Representatives and held up pictures of gun violence victims as they continued a sit-in demanding action to curb mass shootings in the United States.
The rebellion began before midday on Wednesday and continued into Thursday morning as one extraordinary day on Capitol Hill merged into another. A group of Democrats led by the civil rights veteran John Lewis occupied the “well” in front of the dais, demanding a vote on gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando massacre.
Raucous scenes continued through the evening and past midnight as the group defied Speaker Paul Ryan with shouts, chants and songs. There were ugly exchanges with Republicans at times, including raised voices and jabbed fingers that momentarily appeared likely to escalate into violence.
The sit-in continued through a series of legislative proceedings – unrelated to gun control – that dragged into the early hours of Thursday, with representatives coming and going in the chamber to take part in various votes while the Democrats maintained their encampment.
Ryan, struggling to make himself heard, at one point called a vote on labor legislation, then left the podium as Democrats booed and chanted: “Shame! Shame!”
One Democrat cried out: “Mr Speaker, give us a vote!”
The Democrats crammed into the well also burst into soulful renditions of the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome. One member placed a hand on Lewis’s back as he joined the chorus.
Republicans looked on from their seats or stood and chatted to each other. Once the vote on labor legislation was complete, Democrats chanted: “Give us a vote, give us a vote, give us a vote.” But the House went back into recess.
Most Republicans filed out, though a few lingered and heckled Democrats. At one point a Republican, Louie Gohmert of Texas, stood toe to toe with Corrine Brown of Orlando in a confrontation that looked set to spiral out of control until Lewis and others intervened. “Radical Islam killed these people!” Gohmert shouted.
The Texan later told the Guardian he was angered by disregard for the procedures of the House, which he called a “last bastion of civility”, and that “these 49 victims [of Orlando] were being disrespected … I’m amazed here on the House floor that to them [Democrats] it’s all about guns. The truth is that radical Islam is at war with western civilisation and moderate Muslims want this to stop.”
The Democrats started their sit-in at 11.25am on Wednesday demanding a vote on gun control measures that they insist will save lives.
Lewis, 76 – who half a century ago took part in sit-ins and acts of disobedience during the struggle for civil rights – told the House: “We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.”
He added: “How many more mothers? How many more fathers need to shed tears of grief before we do something? Give us a vote. Let us vote. We came here to do our job. We came here to work.”
Shortly afterwards Democratic members sat down in an area near the podium known as the “well” – some cross-legged on the floor – and began reading the names of the 49 people shot dead in an Orlando nightclub. They also prayed and sang We Shall Not Be Moved.
Exasperated Republicans were forced to call a recess while shutting off microphones and TV cameras, but coverage and photos of the protest spread fast on social media. Barack Obama’s Twitter account responded: “Thank you John Lewis for leading on gun violence where we need it most.” Hillary Clinton tweeted: “This is what real leadership looks like.”
Later, as the scheduled time for an evening vote approached, Lewis addressed the group again. “Thank you for getting in trouble – good trouble. Yes to trouble!” he told them, to cheers.
The moment was broadcast via Periscope on the phone of Democratic congressman Scott Peters, who was orchestrating a group of lawmakers to record the event and broadcast it after the cameras in the chamber were turned off.
“I never, ever thought that one day, after sitting in here many days and many nights, that one day I would be more than lucky but very blessed … to sit down on the House floor with all you great ladies and gentlemen,” Lewis continued. “We have a right to protest for what is right. That’s all we can do. There are people hurting, there are people suffering, so we have an obligation, a mandate, to do something.
“Maybe our forefathers all came to this land in different ships,” Lewis said, “but we’re all in the same boat now.”
The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, also addressed the protesting representatives. “The press and others are saying, ‘How long will they stay?’” she said. “I said, it’s totally up to them. If John says we stay, we stay.”
The assembled lawmakers erupted in a chant of “no bill, no break”.
The sit-in was the latest move by Democrats to push boundaries in their long battle for tighter restrictions on firearms. A week earlier Senator Chris Murphy staged a near 15-hour filibuster to force votes in the Senate on gun legislation. The votes failed on Monday night.
House Democrats are demanding a vote on measures to expand background checks and block gun purchases by individuals on the FBI’s terror watch list. They are demanding that Ryan, keep the House in session through its planned week-long recess next week to debate and vote on gun legislation.
Ryan told CNN late on Wednesday that their action was “nothing more than a publicity stunt”.
Lewis was beaten by police in the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, and led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Tennessee.
Lewis told the Guardian: “Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary to dramatise an issue, to make it real, to make it plain so the American people could understand what it’s all about. At another period of our history, at the height of the civil rights movement, we had sit-ins and stand-ins and rioting so maybe, just maybe, we thought it would be effective by having something similar on the House floor.
“It brings some unbelievable memories but I never thought, never dreamed that one day I would be sitting down on the floor of the House of Representatives, not on a chair, but on the floor, to say to the leadership of the House, bring a bill to the floor, give us a vote to do something about gun violence.”
Asked if the Orlando attack – the worst mass shooting in US history – was a tipping point, Lewis replied: “Something had to be done. When you have 49 people murdered and many more shot and wounded and hurt, and then hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, and our little children, our little babies, are being wounded and killed, you have to act, you say something, you have to make some noise.”
Lewis and his colleagues had not had any direct contact with the Republican leadership, he added, declining to specify how long the sit-in would continue. “We’re not going any place. We’re going to stay here for a while. We want action now.”
Judy Chu, a representative from California, told MSNBC: “When 49 people were murdered in Orlando and nothing done about it and the only responses were moments of silence, well, so many of us said, enough is enough, we have to do something about this.”
Both expressed gratitude to Senate Democrats for showing support and expressed hope that people would pressure the Senate to reconsider the legislation.
Murphy said: “John Lewis is a true hero. No one in Congress has done more throughout the course of their life to stand up for justice and righteousness. I’m proud of my Democratic colleagues in the House today.
“We will not alter the way Congress responds to the mass slaughter of our constituents without ripping up the usual script and demanding change. We forced Senate Republicans to allow votes to keep guns away from dangerous people – the House should not go on vacation until Speaker Ryan and House Republicans do the same.”
Democrats began their demonstration about half an hour before the House was due to go into session. Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, tried to start business at noon. The customary prayer and pledge of allegiance went ahead, but Poe banged the gavel several times in vain and was forced to call a recess when Democrats refused to leave the well.
Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania shouted: “We’ve had it. We’re not going to watch any more people in this country get slaughtered and do nothing!”
Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the number two House Democrat, said defiantly: “We will not be shut up. We will not be shut down.”
Democrats accused Republicans of political cowardice by failing to schedule a vote. “Are they more afraid than the children at Sandy Hook?” asked Mike Thompson of California, referring to the 2012 shooting that killed 26 people, including 20 elementary school children, in Newtown, Connecticut. “What is so scary about having a vote?”
John Larson, a Democrat from Connecticut, cited polls showing broad public support for expanding background checks for firearms purchases and blocking suspected terrorists from buying guns. “Rise up Democrats, rise up Americans,” Larson said. “We will occupy this chamber.”
Republican leaders ordered the C-SPAN TV network’s cameras to be switched off but Larson said: “They can turn off all the TV they want, but they can’t stop us from doing what we know is the right thing here in this well.” A senior Republican House leadership aide said, according to rules voted on by all members of the House at the beginning of the Congress, cameras are only switched on when the House is in session.
Ryan said on Wednesday that House leaders were “waiting to see what the Senate does before proceeding” on gun legislation, including a possible compromise being sought by the moderate Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Ryan’s spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, said: “The House cannot operate without members following the rules of the institution.”
John Fleming, a Republican from Louisiana, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “We don’t view the fact that someone becomes radicalised and decides to kill a bunch of Americans … as a gun problem. We view that as a terrorist problem.”
By 5pm more than a hundred members were present in the House, most sitting in its brown leather chairs, although about a dozen sat or even lay on the blue carpeted floor. Many were using phones, presumably to distribute words and pictures on social media in the absence of TV coverage.
One after another, members of congress took to the podium to make impassioned speeches calling for tighter gun controls, often citing examples of victims and raising their voices to compensate for the dead microphones. In between each speech there were the lusty cries of “no bill, no break”.
Rep John Garamendi of California unleashed an angry tirade at the absent House Speaker. “Where the hell are you?” he shouted. “Take your responsibility seriously and give us a vote!”
Garamendi described it as “insanity” that someone too dangerous to board a plane was not deemed too dangerous to buy a gun. “This is not only crazy, it is downright dangerous.”
One member asked: “When was the last time you sat on the floor?” Someone shouted back: “The 60s!”
Senator Bernie Sanders, who contested the Democratic primary election, made a brief appearance in the chamber to cheers and applause. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, was also present. There was a healthy attendance in the public gallery watching the drama unfold.
Messages on Facebook and elsewhere showed that the majority of Americans, including members of the National Rifle Association, support reforms, said Rep Jan Schakowsky. “The Republicans have not figured out that the world has changed.”
Outside there were messages of support from gun control campaigners. Lucy McBath, who became faith and outreach leader for Everytown for Gun Safety after her teenage son was shot dead, said: “I am deeply grateful for the leadership of Rep John Lewis in staging a sit-in on the House floor today and I applaud all the House members who participated.
“I’m a product of the civil rights era, and my father was a civil rights leader. I understand the power and authenticity of being able to move people for a cause – and Rep Lewis has demonstrated the passionate desire in our country for laws that will help save American lives from gun violence.”
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said: “We applaud Leader Pelosi, Congressman Thompson and all the House leaders demanding a vote on gun safety today.
“The next step is clear for both parties and for both chambers of Congress – it’s time to buck the NRA, protect the public and ensure that dangerous people, including suspected terrorists, cannot buy guns.”
Back in the House, Rep Maxine Waters of California said: “I am willing to stay here until hell freezes over. We’re here because we can’t take it any more … We can’t take burying our young people.”
Courtesy: The Guardian