This Is What Democracy (of, by, and for the People) Looks Like

I’d never been in a Senate office building before. Although it made perfect sense, I wasn’t expecting to have to walk through a metal detector right when I entered. “Oh, do I need to take off my jewelry?” I asked the security guard, holding up my ring-laden hands. The guard, who could only be described as downright jolly, flashed a big smile, “Just walk through and we’ll see.”

The process was simultaneously disconcerting and comforting because I was entering the Hart Senate Office Building with the intention of covering the Monday afternoon healthcare sit-in where dozens of activists were risking arrest by these friendly Capitol Police officers smiling at me. I cautiously walked further into the building.

I entered the big, open atrium where a massive black, abstract sculpture sat on the orange-pink marble floor. At this moment, the atrium was quiet, but clearly revved up for the coming ruckus as camera crews sat on benches around the perimeter of the space with their jeans, baseball hats, and boom mics providing a contradictory sight to all the suited-up men walking through the Senate office building.

“They’re ten minutes out,” a big man in cargo shorts that showed off his leg tattoos announced to the crowd of people pooling to the center of the atrium. By 1:54p.m. a line of doctors sporting authoritative white lab coats stood in front of the abstract statue with signs reading, “Improved Medicare for All” and “Say No to Trumpcare.” As they stood proud but defiant, one of the female doctors pulled out her phone and asked, “Can somebody take a picture for my granddaughter, please?” The solidarity was palpable. Cameras flashed and more activists joined the doctors.

Soon, front and center of the Hart Senate Office Building, was a group of people displaying a large white banner, “#KILLTHEBILL, STOP TRUMPCARE.” Chants rang out: “Kill the bill, don’t kill us!” Individual protesters stood in the center of the half-circle and a call and response story-time began as countless people shared their experiences of disease, of disability, and of disadvantage that had been alleviated by the Affordable Care Act and Medicare. They called upon senators to vote “No” on the Better Care Reconciliation Act proposed by House Republicans. “I am one of your constituents,” a protestor called out, “without [healthcare] I will die!”

A lump began to form in my throat. Witnessing this kind of active political participation, seeing people literally raise their voices to speak to and be recognized by their representatives was inspiring. It reminded me of another chant from another demonstration I was a part of: “This is what democracy looks like!”  On November 9, 2016, I was among my fellow students at the University of California, Berkeley. We had congregated under our iconic bell tower offering solidarity and support to one another as people felt frightened by the newly elected president, Donald Trump. Students shared stories, fears, and calls to action that afternoon. We raised our voices and chanted protest slogans.

“This is what democracy looks like!” There could be no truer words. People in the streets, people on campuses, people in US Senate office buildings of our country’s capitol making a scene and creating a disturbance because they know their self-worth, because they recognize their own dignity, and because they know they deserve more from those in power—this is the purest manifestation of our democracy. I felt honored to go and bear witness as these activists, these US citizens, sat on the floors of their representatives’ offices and demanded respect from the powers that be.

What struck me as the most surprising (and even a bit comical, if I’m being honest) was the amicable way in which the Capitol Police officers dealt with the demonstrators. While I hate to feed into a stereotypical perception about the level of violence that surrounds protests at my university, there is a vein of truth to it. I know students who’ve been beaten by Berkeley city police. I’ve been tear-gassed at a Black Lives Matters protest by these same city police officers. I’ve seen scorched ground where a tree no longer stood on my campus as a result of an extremist fringe group co-opting a peaceful student protest.

Nothing close to this kind of chaos erupted in Senate offices on Monday. Instead, the capitol police were actually quite pleasant. “Folks, you want to be arrested?” one of the Capitol Police officers asked politely before escorting us down the hall, away from the sit-in and the activists who would be arrested. I was a bit dumbfounded by the rather fair protocol followed by the officers. Protesters were given three warnings to stop chanting and remove themselves from senators’ offices. This gave protesters who were not willing to be arrested the opportunity to yell and shout, but then also quietly remove themselves and go on to the next office sit-in, which took place at a total of six GOP senators’ offices: Shelley Moore Capito (WV), Dean Heller (NV), Mitch McConnell (KY), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Rob Portman (OH), and Pat Toomey (PA).

Protesters sit outside Sen. Capito’s office

It was an exhilarating day that added more voices to the many who have expressed opposition to the ACA replacement offered by the GOP—a bill opposed by individuals within the party and many governors from both parties whose citizens rely on existing insurance plans and Medicare. Two Republican senators, Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas, announced Monday night that they opposed the repeal of the ACA, ultimately killing the bill so many found to be harmful and unproductive. And yesterday a last-ditch effort to merely repeal Obamacare with no replacement collapsed. Of the offices targeted Monday, Senators Capito, Murkowski, and Portman have all come out against the ACA repeal.

It speaks volumes what can happen when dedicated citizens demand what they deserve from their government. Monday’s sit-ins serve as an important inspiration and model of behavior for a government that truly listens to its people. Now it’s time to send the message that they must work in a bipartisan way to improve the quality and affordability of healthcare for all.