African American Congressional staffers staged a walkout Thursday afternoon, disrupting their workday to gather on the Capitol steps in a display of unity with demonstrations against the Eric Garner and Mike Brown grand jury decisions.
More than 150 staffers quietly ascended the House of Representatives steps to lodge a silent protest in response to the deaths of both black men at the hands of white police officers.
Senate Chaplain Dr. Barry Black led the crowd in prayer, accompanied by dozens of Congressional staff and members of Congress, including Rep. Elijah Cummings. They were gathered there, Black said, to be a "voice for the voiceless."
"Forgive us when we have failed to lift our voices for those who could not speak or breathe themselves," Black prayed, making an unmistakeable reference to the case of Garner, whose cries of, "I can't breathe!" became an animating impetus for protesters.
After the Thursday prayer, the crowd of Congressional staff and lawmakers posed in the iconic, "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" pose.
The protest follows large demonstrations in New York and other major cities last week, held to speak out about the grand jury decisions relating to Garner and Brown.
“Black staffers on Capitol Hill wanted to do something in support of ongoing national and global protests against police aggression,” an organizer said Wednesday before the event. “Many of us felt we needed to stand with others who were taking on the issue of police abuse and do it here, where we work, even though not all of us have had that same experience, personally. Everyone I talked to has known someone who’s been directly impacted.”
It's a busy week for Congress, currently debating a spending bill to avoid a government shutdown, its annual Pentagon policy bill, and a bill to authorize the president to use military force against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
“As black staffers on Capitol Hill, we saw a stark disconnect," the event organizer said. "While we hold education credentials and broad access in the overall political system, often when we walk outside, we contend with the fact that we are seen as dangerous, merely because of the color of our skin.”
There was a debate among organizers about how aggressive the action should be: a die-in somewhere in the Capitol Complex and a rally with posters were also considered.
But organizers wanted to do something that would welcome participants, Democrat and Republican, from throughout the House and Senate. These organizers decided more militant tactics could have made the gathering less inclusive, and opted for a more moderate approach.
One thing that all organizers agreed on: that it would not be held during Congressional recess, when their bosses, American Senators and Congressmen, were out of town.
The Congressional Black Associates, Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, the Brooke-Revels Society, the Congressional African Staff Association, and the African American Women on the Hill Network—all dedicated to representing African American staffers on Capitol Hill—are helping to organize the protest as a "show of unity and solidarity… to stand shoulder to shoulder with other peaceful demonstrations."
These groups will be joined by members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association and the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association.
The event has some precedence: in 2012, some 250 to 300 aides rallied on the Capitol steps with hoodies, in reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said John Lewis attended the event, not Elijah Cummings.