At some 36 events in nearly two dozen states, Republican senators heard a single message loud and clear on Thursday: do not take away health care.
According to Our Revolution, one of the national organizers, at least 1,000 activists participated in sit-ins at local state offices of senators who are considering backing legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare. The nationwide effort combined the forces of Democracy Spring, a civil resistance organization, Our Revolution, the political organization that stemmed from Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, Democratic Socialists of America, the Working Families Party and more.
The country-spanning protest came about in response to the threat of an imminent vote on the Better Care Reconciliation Act, the Senate’s version of repeal efforts and the lack of scheduled GOP town halls during the congressional recess this week. The idea was that if these senators would not provide a forum to hear from their constituents, their constituents would come to them—risking arrest in the process.
“What we wanted to do is dramatize and make as clear as possible the moral stakes of this fight,” Kai Newkirk, mission director for Democracy Spring, told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen this bill and we know that if it passes, millions of people will lose health insurance. Lives are on the line and we had to draw a line in the sand.”
The earliest event began at 9 a.m. in the Oshkosh, Wisconsin office of Senator Ron Johnson, who has said that he would not support the current version of the bill. About a dozen people, including activists with the local Wisconsin Progressive Alliance, remained in the office until 5 p.m. with the stated goal of ensuring that Johnson would not vote for the legislation no matter what changes it undergoes.
“It has been very inspiring I’d say, motivating to know that there are so many people across the country who are dedicated and committed to working to make sure that people can have health care without going into bankruptcy and major changes to their living situation,” Beth Alleman, the 30-year-old vice president of Wisconsin Progressive Alliance, said.
She said that the group had been looking for a means of bringing more attention to the health care legislation on the table and had found a way to do it through Our Revolution’s site.
This was exactly the intent of this superteam of national organizations behind this massive push; give local activist groups and chapters of their own organizations a tool to advocate for themselves and allow them to go forth and participate in a sit-in in solidarity with other groups on the same day.
“We discussed it among Democracy Spring organizers less than two weeks ago that we saw a need for more escalation around this,” Newkirk told The Daily Beast, referring to the plan that developed in the blink of an eye with Our Revolution and the other activist networks.
He said that the immediate impetus for the action was seeing the arrest of disability activists with the organization ADAPT outside of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on June 22. ADAPT had over half a dozen events today as well, in addition to an all-day campout in Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s office on Wednesday during which he actually spoke to the group and remained noncommittal on the legislation.
“From there we gave people a resource, a document about how you could organize,” Newkirk explained after they came up with the original sit-in plan. “Plugged them into Slack and set up channels for all the states and channels for different roles.”
Through these various Slack channels, roles were delineated, plans were crafted and local leaders emerged to organize and shepherd the events on Thursday. There were also webinars hosted on Our Revolution’s site with which activists could learn the nuts and bolts of a sit-in and generally how to make their voices heard during these local protests.
“It’s been incredible to see lots of new leaders step up,” Newkirk said. “Grassroots level in all these states who hadn’t worked together before. We need to do whatever it takes to stop it.”
One of these new leaders was Resist STL, who worked with Mobilize Missouri and St. Louis Democratic Socialists of America to stage a sit-in at the Clayton office of Senator Roy Blunt. Eight people were arrested at the event and have since been released.
“They worked very fast, in a small window and provided clear direction, along with several training webinars that people could attend to learn what to do,” Michael Dorwart, the 29-year-old fundraising director for Mobilize Missouri told The Daily Beast, referring to the efforts of the national organizations.
He said that their specific efforts however were mostly locally organized through “DSA Facebook groups, private messages, in person meetings, texts and Signal app.” Although they did make use of a broader “Stop Trumpcare slack.”
For other groups, the hastiness and sheer scope of the nationwide event resulted in them being largely left on their own.
“The coordination with national groups went poorly but our dedicated group plus some other incredible folks that heard about the event came out with a strong presence,” Amber Mathwig, co-chair of the Piedmont, North Carolina DSA chapter told The Daily Beast. “Limited planning time and the long holiday definitely had an impact. A short turn around time is always going to be messy.”
Their group staged a die-in outside of the Raleigh, North Carolina office of Senator Thom Tillis.
Nevertheless, Mathwig viewed the day’s events as an overall success on a pathway to not only killing the Senate bill but pursuing the long sought-after goal of a Medicare for all system.
“We should not be having sit-ins because health care should be a right for all of us, not something we have to fight for every time a Democrat or Republican has figured out a new way to profit from the medical industrial complex,” Mathwig said.
As the events were staggered throughout the day, with at least five still ongoing as of 8:30 p.m., staffers with the national organizations (Democracy Spring and Our Revolution) updated a live Google document complete with the list of the day’s events. The document included up-to-the-minute information about the status of the events complete with links to livestreams so that people could share the feeds on social media. Two hashtags were launched on Twitter to draw attention to the protests and collect the videos and images in one space: #StopTrumpCare and #SitInSaveLives. That way, a disparate and widespread event spanning nearly 12 hours, could feel even more like a unified front.
What resulted was a visceral daylong event that indicated these groups will not give up without a fight.
“There have definitely been days of action in opposition to Trumpcare (especially while it was winding through the House) that had massive days with bigger crowds outside many House offices,” Joe Dinkin, the national communications director for the Working Families Party told The Daily Beast. “But this is an escalation insofar as it’s geared around people taking higher-risk direct actions.”
And that risk in many cases was in fact arrest.
According to a tally put together from Our Revolution, over 43 people were arrested throughout the country by 9:30 p.m.—ten of which were arrested outside of Senator John Cornyn’s office alone.
A spokeswoman for Our Revolution told The Daily Beast that they expected even more to come as activists have committed to staying overnight in four offices: Senator Rob Portman’s offices in Columbus and Cincinnati, Senator Lisa Murkowski’s office in Anchorage and Senator Marco Rubio’s office in Tallahassee.
As the day drew to a close, a marginal victory emerged in the form of a concession from McConnell himself. Speaking at an event in Glasgow, Kentucky, McConnell raised the idea of potentially working on a bill with Democrats to improve current Affordable Care Act insurance markets, a tacit acknowledgment that his bill could fail. At least a dozen GOP senators, with the recent addition of North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, have opposed or criticized the legislation.
But as activist groups told The Daily Beast last week in advance of the recess, they do not want to be caught flat-footed and will not rest until the bill is dead in the ground.
“I think when Congress comes back from the recess, I know we’re going to be ready for them and there'll be direct action when they return,” Newkirk told The Daily Beast. “We hope that continues in D.C. and across the country until this bill is dead.”
And if he has any say, the fight will go on.