Washington is a funny place where it is acceptable to wear full business attire and Skecher sneakers. It is a place where it is normal to have heartfelt discussions with friends on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a place where Sushi Burritos become a reality (shout out to Buredo, I will never try you). So far, this is the Washington I have come to know. However for many, the District is not just a conglomeration of interesting people and superb restaurants. For many, DC represents a landmark where visions of brave protesters, defining legislation, and historical movements have become realized to shape our world, as we know it. Yesterday, I traded the “intern-land” of 9-5s, poor coffee, and Sign of the Whale outings for a five-hour taste of political Washington- and not just any sort of politics, Congressional politics. From the House of Representatives viewing gallery, seated between two friends who whimsically agreed to join me, I watched from 7pm-12am as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia lead a Democratic Sit-In (yes, these 50, 60, 70 year olds literally sat in the middle of the floor of the House of Representatives) to force a vote on two pieces of gun control legislation.
The pieces of legislation often referred to by their supporters as “common sense gun reform,” enact a “no fly no buy” restriction, where individuals deemed too dangerous to fly on a plane would be unable to obtain a firearm, and would also expand background checks. For those who don’t understand why such a demonstration was necessary to introduce the bills, to quote an article released by the Washington Post, in the House “The [Republican] majority party wields near-absolute control over what bills come to the floor, in what form they come to the floor, what amendments are considered and what kind of debate will be had.” This unbalanced dynamic effectively bars discussion, debate, and voting surrounding gun violence, a public health crisis and topic that has regained spotlight as a priority on the Democratic agenda given the Orlando tragedy. You have by now undoubtedly heard of the 25-hour sit in (#NoBillNoBreak) that took place this past week. While I was only there for a fraction of the time, as requested by some friends, I’ve reflected on my time in the gallery and summarized some of my thoughts after witnessing this unusual evening in the House.
First of all I recommend that if you are ever in DC, you go to your representative’s office and get gallery viewing tickets- the “process” is almost instantaneous. Go visit Congress for a few minutes, or a few hours. Watching the House operate was an insightful, frustrating, and invaluable experience that shed some light on the magnificent efforts that are occasionally necessary to drive the legislative process. In this case, the tremendous desire for action was apparent not only by the determination of the representatives, but also by the packed viewing gallery, where some people waited 2.5 hours to merely peek onto the floor. In fact so many members of the public came, that they greatly outnumbered the present Republican representatives who were overwhelmingly absent to hear the eloquent, moving speeches of their colleagues. This frustrating partisan dynamic became a disappointing reality that stifled any action on the two bipartisan clauses.
But my disappointment stemmed far beyond inaction on the clauses. It was broader, rooted in great indifference of some of our country’s “leaders,” who deemed the display unworthy of their presence. It was rooted in the fact that I raced straight from my unpaid 9-5 to the capital, eagerly stood in line for hours, and skipped dinner and Skyping with my family to find the House half empty. My disappointment lied in the fact that these same representatives capable of taking action or communicating, were sitting on their hands in their offices only to finally saunter into the House around 10:30pm. Most importantly, my disappointment lied in the fact that I came to be inspired by my representatives, and instead found that my friends and I seemed more invested in the discussions than some of our sworn in officials.
It was all too surreal. I felt shocked, disappointed, concerned, angry, and motivated all at the same time. I mean, here I was, an excitable 19 year-old with a front seat to a political hurricane. Here I was, witnessing former civil rights leaders hold the floor for hours with great conviction, to vehemently stand up for the safety of their constituents. Here I was, watching Paul Ryan try to gavel down the chanting representatives as they asserted “No Bill No Break,” holding signs of the names and photos of the victims of Orlando and Sandy Hook. There I was in the House of Representatives at 11pm on a Wednesday night, eyes wide open, as opposing representatives exclaimed that their colleagues ought to take action or be complicit in the murder of thousands of Americans. Wow. Multiple times I looked to both of my friends to make sure that this was really happening, and this was not a weird dream or gone-wrong reality TV show.
And it was surprisingly empowering. Not that I expected the Sit-In to be mundane, as relentlessly fighting for a salient cause is anything but. However, what was striking was that in a political system where individuals can so effortlessly feel small and powerless, especially in seemingly deadlocked issues like gun control, I, an unpaid student intern, felt relevant. Maybe it was being physically present in Congress, having the ability to cheer on my representatives, or chanting along to fight for a vote. In any case, I felt utterly focused and engaged. Seeing the hundreds of other people chanting beside me, or the others stopped in an endless line to merely enter reminded me that to participate in the political process, we don’t need to be politicians. This doesn’t sound groundbreaking; it’s a cliché realization that we’re constantly bombarded with, using words like “civic duty” and “national responsibility.” Nonetheless, without witnessing the implications of our efforts or personally watching our elected politicians do their job, it’s easy to deem the consequences negligible or unimportant.
For the first time this November, I play a particularly exciting and important role in both the presidential and congressional elections. I’m finally of age to vote, and am thrilled to voice my first political opinion at the polls. While I was never remotely close to being politically disengaged, this evening poignantly asserted the consequences and effects of my involvement. For this opportunity I’m grateful to be in Washington, a city where such abnormal moments can arise during a mediocre workweek and remind us all of our individual significance.