Twenty-six hours after occupying the House of Representatives with a sit-in Democrats dismissed themselves with a strange contentment—sure, they didn’t have anything to show for it, but they sure made a whole lot of trouble.
“You got out there, you got in the way, you got in trouble, necessary trouble, and we must never ever give up. We must come back here, more determined than ever before,” Lewis said, with dozens of Democrats standing behind him on the House floor.
Sens. Cory Booker grinned and held up his phone, either to record or livestream the events. Members of Congress sauntered by the press, joking about how little sleep they had gotten during the round-the-clock protest-a-thon.
But nothing had happened. After the murders of 49 people in an LGBT club in Orlando, the House had not moved to vote on gun control legislation, and Democrats were largely planning to leave the nation’s capital to go home for an extended recess.
“Once we had been here for 24 hours, we had reached a certain goal,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters.. Beyond a symbolic goal, no action had been taken.
Not everyone was willing to call it quits.
On Thursday morning, Democrats were divided on how to proceed: some suggested wrapping up the protest Thursday, while a vocal faction, unsatisfied with a mere one-day symbolic protest, wanted to continue the protests throughout the next two weeks, when Congress will be taking a Fourth of July break.
New York Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter brought up the idea of having members of Congress “rotate and stay here, for those of us on the east coast” to continue the sit-in: she joked that this idea was initially about as popular as a “dose of typhoid.”
But Slaughter added that among her fellow Democrats, “there are lots of people who are really into this. There’s no question—we’re not going to let this go.”
But Slaughter’s view—or some version of it—eventually won out: Democrats will be pressing the issue with their constituents at home during the recess, while members of Congress within a reasonable distance of the capital will take turns holding sporadic events in the House to continue to protest.
The sit-in itself will end, but the outcry will continue, Democrats pledged.
“[Republicans] are willing to allow more carnage with every passing mass shooting… we’re not just going to think and pray anymore and just let it go,” said Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Democrats, led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, are pushing for a proposal to prohibit persons placed on terror watch lists from buying guns, known as “no fly, no buy.”
Speaker Paul Ryan criticized House Democrats’ sit-in as publicity and fundraising stunt. In a press conference, Ryan held up printed-out DCCC fundraising solicitations related to the sit-in as he reprimanded Democrats for disrupting the chamber.
“If this is not a political stunt, then why are they trying to raise money of this, off of a tragedy?” Ryan said.
“For anyone who has followed his life, there is nobody in the world who has internalized nonviolence and love the way John Lewis has,” shot back Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn. “John does not have any time for stunts, and neither do you.”
As Lewis announced the end of the sit-in on the House floor, he mentioned that Democrats want a vote on other proposals as well: expanded background checks, preventing people accused of hate crimes from obtaining a gun, and changing the law that allows federally licensed dealers to sell a gun after three business days, even if a background check has not been completed.
The sit-in was unusual not only because Democrats remained on the floor, even though Republican leaders quickly ordered the House into recess - but it was broadcast live. The sit-in was not viewable on C-SPAN cameras—these cameras are only used when the the House is formally in session and are controlled by the majority party. Democrats flouted chamber rules by using their phones to live-stream the sit-in via the app Periscope.
At one point on Thursday morning, four iPhones were propped up on the front of a row of chairs so that the feeds would continue if one of the others went out.
C-SPAN eventually used the members’ Periscope feeds to broadcast the sit-in.
Only about 15 Democrats had remained on the floor during the morning on Thursday. Some of the speeches even seemed to go off topic--one member quoted Shakespeare. But around 12:30 p.m., the House Democrats returned to the floor for an emotional finale. Dozens of Democrats crowded the well of the chamber, with Clyburn at a lectern in the middle of the crowd. Clyburn compared the sit-in to his and Lewis’ work during the civil rights era, as he proclaimed that Democrats were asking for “the right to vote” on a gun control bill.
Members responded with resounding cheers. The dramatic scene continued as Lewis made his way to the lectern to announce the official end of the sit-in. While Lewis spoke--sometimes quietly to his colleagues, sometimes loud enough to be clearly heard in the press and public galleries above--his colleagues listened intently.
“It’s a struggle, but we’re going to win the struggle,” Lewis said.
After the sit-in ended, House Democrats joined protesters in support of gun control measures outside the Capitol. A large crowd gathered around Democratic leaders Pelosi, Lewis and Clyburn.
The three Democrats began to lead the crowd in song: “We shall overcome.”