Opinion

How the House Sit-in Happened, and What Happens Now

Organizer Katherine Clark, of Massachusetts: 'I had that sinking feeling'

Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., speaks during the news conference at the Capitol with other members of the Heroin Task Force on combating heroin abuse on Thursday, April 21, 2016. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After the shootings in Orlando took a record-breaking 49 lives, Rep. Katherine Clark , D-Mass., says she got “that sinking feeling that we were going to have yet another moment of silence” on the House floor in response.  

Not that she doubts the sincerity of her Republican colleagues in offering their prayers and condolences to survivors and the families of victims, she said in an interview. But she and others couldn’t bring themselves to participate in a ritual they felt had been rendered downright disrespectful by repetition.  

With 33,000 Americans killed every year in gun violence, “I wanted to do something dramatic’’ in support of laws that would expand background checks bar those on terror watch lists from purchasing guns, said the Harvard- and Cornell-educated 52-year-old lawyer and former state lawmaker.  

But what? Clark, who was elected to Congress in a special election in 2013, wasn’t sure, and approached civil rights icon John Lewis to see what he thought.  

His suggestion, of course, was that they organize a peaceful protest — a sit-in in the House of Representatives that started Wednesday morning and ended nearly 26 hours later — “and I knew that if he led it, it would be successful.”  

Over the previous weekend, she and John Larson of Connecticut worked the phones, and last Monday, June 20, the organizing group met in Clark’s office. House Democrats at that first meeting included Lewis, Larson, Robin Kelly of Illinois, her fellow Massachusetts representative Joe Kennedy III , Peter Welch of Vermont, David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Clark herself.  

By that afternoon, 15 members showed for a second get-together, and the idea so spoke to their colleagues that in the end, all but 11 Democrats participated. Those missing included one who is battling cancer, another whose brother died in a freak camping accident and the only two House Democrats to receive donations from the National Rifle Association in the 2016 election cycle.  

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi stayed all night and never dozed off, Clark said. “She kept the vigil.”  

What Clark calls the “IT team” of tech-savvy members like Scott Peters , Beto O’Rourke , Mark Takano helped transmit the more than 24-hour sit-in via Periscope and Facebook video after Republicans adjourned and turned the House cameras off.  

On Friday, Clark said organizers would be keeping in close touch over the recess on how to keep the momentum going while they are back in their home districts.  

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has called the whole thing a ‘stunt,’ and a NRA radio show compared the rule-breaking sit-in to acts of “criminals and terrorists .”  

But did Clark perhaps hear from others across the aisle who were more open to the bills on ‘no-fly, no-buy’ and universal background checks?  

No, she said, but “Frankly, this week I did not have a chance to have many conversations with Republicans; that’s the next phase.”  

Even though a coalition of House members Friday introduced a bipartisan gun safety bill similar to what's being considered in the Senate, Clark said she believes the House is less open to even modest change for a reason.  “We’ve drawn districts where our only concerns are the primaries,” she said.  

On Tuesday in her own district, she’s meeting with a group of mayors to talk about what they might do about gun violence on the local level.  

But even as Democrats continue to press the issue, she said now it’s up to voters to pressure their representatives.  

“I’ve heard from friends I haven’t heard from since junior high saying they’re proud of the Democrats.”  

And of course, she hopes her Republican colleagues are hearing the same thing.  

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