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The House Democrats' Sit-In Comes to an End

After 25 hours, lawmakers end their occupation of the floor, but vow to continue their fight for stricter gun control.

The House floor on Wednesday night House Television via AP

The fight is only just beginning. Democrats were eager to impress that message upon a crowd that gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday afternoon after emerging from a sit-in on the House floor demanding action on gun control that lasted more than 24-hours.

“Don’t give up, don’t give in,” the Democratic congressman and civil-rights leader John Lewis said as onlookers waved rainbow-colored signs that read “Disarm Hate.” The crowd began to sing the civil-rights protest anthem “We Shall Overcome,” with lyrics slightly modified to suit moment: “We shall pass a bill someday.” A woman recording a video on her cellphone remarked aloud, “This is history, baby,” to no one in particular.

The sit-in was an unusual moment of protest inside the United States Congress. The willingness to make such a bold, publicity-ready move suggests the Democratic Party feels emboldened to demand action on gun control in the wake of a tragic mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub earlier this month. In the end, however, Democrats did not succeed in securing a vote on the gun-control measures they had hoped for in staging the protest.

Faced with that failure, Democrats insist this is only the beginning. “We’re going to continue to work,” Lewis said in a brief interview outside the Capitol. “Many people are supporting our efforts,” he said. “People all over America and around the world are supporting our efforts to do something about gun violence.”

The sit-in may also indicate that House Democrats are increasingly willing to make use of confrontational tactics to make their voices heard. “It’s not just about guns,” the Democratic congressman James Clyburn said in an interview. “This particular issue is about guns, but this is just the start … I wouldn’t get hung-up on sit-ins, but I would call it activism.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seemed reluctant to declare that this will be the way Democrats try to get their message on future issues. “No, I think you have to just take it on a day-to-day basis,” she said at Thursday’s press conference. She called the sit-in a reflection of the “the complete insistence that we cannot go through another moment of silence without taking action” on gun violence.

The sit-in seemed to intensify the divide between Democrats and Republicans on guns. House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced the action as a “publicity stunt,” during an interview with CNN. “This is not about a solution to a problem,” he said. “This is about trying to get attention.” House Republicans expressed frustration over the Democrats’ action, describing the event as a political distraction and a way to obstruct the business of legislating.

In an interview, the Republican congressman Mark Meadows said that while it is “certainly within every member’s right to be able to articulate their concerns,” he disagreed with the tactics deployed by Democrats. As Yoni Appelbaum noted, “even having phones switched on, much less snapping photos, tweeting updates, or periscoping the proceedings, is a violation of the rules of the House”—all common sights during the sit-in.“I think it poses a very bad precedent and quite frankly other nations are watching what is happening,” Meadows said.

The Democrats’ agenda faced criticism from progressives as well. Democrats were agitating for a vote on measures to expand background checks for gun purchases and prevent suspected terrorists from buying the weapons. As The Intercept’s Zaid Jilani wrote, the “unusually bold and moving tactic was undercut by the fact that its chief goal is a political gimmick that would do little to stop gun violence, while expanding the use of a deeply flawed anti-terror watchlist.”

In spite of various criticisms, many House Democrats appeared defiant and energetic Thursday afternoon. “The American public has been crying out for help on this issue, for their families, for their kids, and we said ‘We hear you, we’re listening to you and, we’re going to do something about it,’” the Democratic congresswoman Rosa DeLauro said in an interview. “We may leave here today, but everybody is going home to a district where they’re going to take this fight on, and in addition to that we get back on July 5th and nothing changes. We’ve only just begun.”

Other Democrats reveled in the fact that they had been able to broadcast to a wide audience using social media. Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic congressman from Texas who live-streamed the Sit-in on Facebook, said, “In a one-hour period, when I was streaming, we received 10,000 comments.” He pointed to his social-media metrics as evidence of the event’s resonance. “There was obviously a lot of pent-up urgency and excitement about this.”

For now, it seems unlikely that House Democrats will win the votes they seek on gun control. But their agitation on the issue will probably continue, and maybe increase. —Clare Foran

Updates

This live blog has concluded

Roll Call photographer Tom Williams tweeted several images of the scene outside the Capitol this afternoon. House Democrats addressed on-lookers after concluding their sit-in at roughly 1 p.m.

It was an odd juxtaposition, this sit-in. Led by Representative John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, it drew its spirit from the non-violent protests at lunch counters and bus terminals across the South that ignited national interest and eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Throughout the day Wednesday, black Democrats shared stories of people shot and killed in their communities, driving home the point that gun violence is not merely a problem of policy—it is also a matter of race and justice.

But some have pointed out the incivility of the proposal the sit-in supports, the so-called “no-fly, no-buy” bill.

As the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Senate version of the “no-fly” bill, argued in a letter, government terrorist watch lists have long been criticized for targeting Muslims with little evidence:

Publicly available information and the ACLU’s experience with people who know or credibly suspect that they have been watchlisted raises serious concerns that the government applies the watchlists in an arbitrary or discriminatory fashion, particularly against American Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. An internal August 2013 government document, for example, shows that Dearborn, Michigan—home to the country’s largest concentration ofArab-Americans—was second only to New York City in the number of people on the government’s “known or suspected terrorist” watchlist. This was despite the fact that, as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan noted at the time, not a single person from Dearborn had ever been prosecuted for terrorism.

Granted, Democrats also want other things, including stronger background checks and a ban on assault weapons. But while the central chant of “no-fly, no-buy” may incrementally help solve one civil-rights crisis—the slaughter of people of color by guns—some say it unfortunately worsens another.

House Democrats are now hugging, shaking hands, and taking photos on the floor. The sit-in is now over, and they plan to address supporters outside the Capitol in the next few minutes.

Georgia Representative John Lewis, who helped lead the House sit-in, is addressing his fellow members on the floor right now. “We’re gonna win the struggle,” Lewis said, calling for members and constituents to organize. To his colleagues, he said: “You got it out there, you got in the way, you got in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble. So we must never give up or give in. We must keep the faith and come back here on July 5, more determined than ever before."

It sounds like House Democrats might be wrapping up their sit-in. They held a meeting earlier today on steps forward. “We’re going back to our congressional districts...and we will not allow this body to ever feel as comfortable as they have felt in the past silencing our voices,” South Carolina’s James Clyburn just said on the floor. They'll return on July 5, he notes, and “we will be operating on a new sense of purpose."

House Speaker Paul Ryan's disdain for Democrats' sit-in is clear: “I don't think this should be a very proud moment for democracy or for the people who stage these stunts.”

Ryan, speaking at his weekly press briefing Thursday morning, seemed agitated, criticizing Democrats for violating the norms of the House. He told reporters that he was worried about the precedent the sit-in could set, and hit Democrats for sending fundraising missives off the sit-in.

“If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money off this—off of a tragedy?” Ryan said.

Social media has played a critical role in the House sit-in. Democrats used platforms, such as Periscope, to live stream from the chamber floor when C-SPAN was unable to air the protests. Similarly, the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak and #HoldTheFloor took off on Twitter. Politico’s Carla Marinucci reports:

It appears some Democratic members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives are staging a sit-in of their own in the state capitol. Local reports say about dozen legislators are participating.

While Periscope was the Democrats' streaming app of choice on Wednesday amid a broadcast blackout, the New Hampshire legislators are recording their broadcast using Meerkat.

The mood inside the House gallery feels subdued this morning as Democrats continue speeches and a sit-in demanding a vote on gun control measures.

It was a long night, and members of Congress who stuck around are clearly exhausted. At least a few lawmakers dozed off, according to Ted Deutch, a Democratic congressman from Florida. “There were definitely some people sleeping,” he said, adding that he wasn’t going to name any names. “I have not pulled an all-nighter in quite a while,” Deutch said. “It’s certainly my first one on the House floor.”

Jan Schakowsky, a Democratic congresswoman from Illinois, said she was stepped on while sitting on the floor. When asked if it was by a Republican, she said yes. “I don’t know if it was intentional, but there certainly was no apology,” she said, though she noted that she wasn’t hurt. “He was in a hurry to get over to his side ... and there was a certain amount of contempt.” Democrats have been “inspired, in part, by the kind of cynicism we saw last night from the Republicans,” she said.

What happens next? “It could be another hour, it could be five hours, ten hours, that I don’t know,” Deutch said. “I really don't know what the plan is,” Schakowsky said, “[but] what I do know is this is really just the beginning.” She added: “We own this issue now. This is now the issue for the Democratic caucus. I don’t know what form it will take…but we are not giving up.”