Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The New Civil Right

Congress adjourned early for the Fourth of July weekend, but eventually it will return to Washington--and maybe a suddenly changed Washington.  I can't let too much more time go by without taking full note of what happened in the last days before its early break.

Without warning, a group of House Democrats staged an actual sit-in in the House of Representatives, demanding a vote on a gun control bill.  It was officially begun at the House podium by Rep. John Lewis, one of the last great heroes of the 1960s Civil Rights movement.

"I wondered, what would bring this body to take action?” thundered Lewis, who as a young man marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “What is right, what is just for the people of this country? … They have lost hundreds and thousands of innocent people to gun violence. What has this body done? Nothing. Not one thing.”

Commented the LA Times: The scene, including chants of “No bill, no break!” was like nothing that has occurred in Congress in recent years, more reminiscent of the civil rights battles of the 1960s than today’s often predictably scripted debates.

The ranks of protesters grew until nearly every House Democrat (one who hadn't joined yet got a phone message from his mother telling him to get down, and he got) and even a few Republicans joined in.  Democrats from the Senate came over to offer support, not just in words but in the more spirited form of tasty junk food.

The protest went on into the night, and culminated in a surreal scene of protesting House members disrupting GOPer Speaker Paul Ryan's attempt to ignore them and conduct majority business.  He finally had to adjourn.  Amy Davidson provides a fuller narration.

The protest, according to the WAPost, was about more than gun control. "It was the culmination of rising Democratic anger about the increasingly conservative reign by the GOP House majority..." and in particular about Ryan's reign. "Even Democrats who admire Ryan said they were done treating him with grace and that more disruptions would come in the months ahead. “There will be no more business as usual,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who served four years as the top Budget Committee Democrat while Ryan chaired the panel."

The specific bill at issue had to do with denying guns to people on terrorist watch lists, which as Jelani Cobb noted in the New Yorker, has civil liberties problems due to the secrecy and lack of recourse involved in some of those lists.

 Cobb's main point is that such a bill really doesn't confront the daily crisis of gun violence.  But the sit-in itself recognized this, as members of Congress spoke in heartfelt terms of constituents killed and maimed by guns, or even family members, or even threatened by guns themselves.  (Not to mention Gabby Giffords, who sent her support for the sit-in in the House where she would still be a member if not for her gun wounds.)

Such a bill doesn't confront the gun tragedies that continue, such as the gun-proud mother in Houston who shot her two daughters repeatedly until they were dead.  Nor does it confront the power of the NRA or its financial backers, the gun industry (subject of a powerful New Yorker piece, "Making a Killing.")

  But that a bill intending only to keep likely terrorists from buying guns (even as the Supreme Court affirmed laws preventing anyone convicted of domestic abuse from ever buying a gun) would be politically impossible to even discuss, suggests how far the Congress is from dealing with this deadly problem.

It is precisely in such cases of intransigence that a sit-in becomes a necessary and an electrifying tool.  Cobb confirms my impression, that the sit-in and particularly the leadership of John Lewis elevates the gun debate into the realm of civil rights--the right to be protected from gun violence.

Stay tuned.

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