Lawmakers are frustrated that they can’t bring their fight over the killing of George Floyd to Congress right now. So they’re taking to the streets.
With the House scattered across the country because of the coronavirus pandemic, dozens of Democrats — including Speaker Nancy Pelosi — are joining throngs of protesters in major cities across the U.S. to march, kneel and declare that they will use their power to demand change in Washington.
They’re young and old, white and black, veteran protesters and first-timers, liberal and moderate and even Republican lawmaker — a snapshot of the diverse mix of demonstrators swarming parks and blocked off highways to stand against police brutality and racial inequality in the wake of Floyd’s killing last week. From the Bronx to the Boston suburbs to a beach town in California, protesters have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with powerful lawmakers who’ve served for decades and rank-and-file members new to Congress.
Some lawmakers have even found themselves at the center of the action: Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was pepper-sprayed by police during a protest in Columbus last weekend when she tried to deescalate a confrontation that broke out near her.
“I was as angry as the protesters were, and frustrated … that’s not the way it should have ended,” Beatty said. “I’ve never been pepper-sprayed, but now it says to me what so many of the African American protesters have been saying: People aren’t listening to us.”
The growing civil unrest has renewed the national push to address age-old problems of police brutality and racial disparities. But with a divided government — and internal divisions in both parties over how far to go — a substantive or swift response that actually becomes law seems unlikely.
So for now, House Democrats say showing up to protest and bearing witness — despite the global pandemic — is the most effective way to show their solidarity, at least until Pelosi and her leadership team summon lawmakers back to Washington to vote on a package of police reforms in the works.
“I saw a young protester say, ‘This is the same damn fight that my grandmother and my mother had. I’m 20 years old and I'm having the same damn fight.’ And all of us who have been here awhile are feeling that,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) said in an interview. “I was 12 years old during the civil rights movement ... I mean hell, that had an impact on me.”
Lawrence took part in a rally in Detroit, which is just outside her district, that was organized by young, black activists to promote peaceful protests and to avoid the destruction that hurt so much of her home city during protests in the late 1960s. She encouraged protesters to channel emotions into action.
"I said, I want you to keep protesting, keep leading ... but you are a black man in America, and I do not want you arrested," Lawrence said, "because if you’re arrested, the consequences are going to be greater than a white person who’s just in the city protesting."
In a key difference from earlier social movements, the push for policing reforms is gripping the country at a time when the House has departed Washington because of the ongoing threat of a pandemic. The usual attention-grabbing tactics for House members — sit-ins on the House floor, endless streams of news conferences outside the Capitol, marches to the Department of Justice — can’t happen as the coronavirus continues to ravage America.
Top Democrats are weighing other ways to honor Floyd in Washington in the coming days, such as organizing their own marches or rallies. And several Democrats are planning to attend the funeral services for Floyd in Texas and his memorial service in Minnesota on Thursday.
But until they return to the Capitol, many lawmakers feel that it’s up to them to make their stand at home — including some who have been fighting the same battle for decades.
“I think of myself when I was that age, that was me, trying to change things,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who has joined multiple events in his home city of New York, said. “It’s even better than the 60s in that I see it more ethnically diverse. You see people coming from all different walks of life who are out there.”
At one point, Meeks said, a crowd he was with began to cheer loudly as it passed a hospital, where frontline health workers fighting the coronavirus had stepped outside to voice support for those fighting for racial equality, as well.
“It was contagious. It was energetic. That was the reason why I went out there, and continue to go out there,” Meeks said.
At least two Republicans — retiring Rep. Will Hurd of Texas and moderate Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan — have publicized their decisions to take part in the nationwide protests. Hurd, who is the only black Republican in the House, joined a march in Houston to honor Floyd, whose family still lives in the area.
Hurd described the event as “peaceful” and said thousands of people “from all walks of life, all sizes, all colors” marched in solidarity with the Floyd family.
“The march was for justice. And for me, justice is ensuring we don’t have a society where this kind of sh-- happens,” said Hurd. “I know what it’s like to have uncomfortable interactions with the police.”
“But I also know that the officer that put his knee on George Floyd is one person,” added Hurd, a former CIA officer.
Lawmakers who have protested said they felt it was important to show what a peaceful demonstration looks like, hoping to draw a distinction from the violence, vandalism and rioting that have been highlighted by national media.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon who was beaten by police during the march from Selma to Montgomery in the 1960s, denounced the fires and looting, but acknowledged the pain of the protesters.
“Rioting, looting, and burning is not the way,” Lewis, who is undergoing treatment for stage 4 pancreatic cancer, said in a statement. “Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive.”
Some lawmakers had already become one-person help centers for their districts during the coronavirus, fielding calls from business owners and first responders. Now those roles have again morphed. Particularly in cities like NYC that have seen massive protests and forceful police responses, lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have sought to use their massive social media presence to help protesters as police cut off access to certain parts of their city.
“The right to protest is as American as baseball and apple pie,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who attended a rally in New York City over the weekend and handed out masks to young protesters earlier this week.
In some cities, multiple Democrats marched together. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher marched together in the crowded streets of Houston, later taking a knee to honor Floyd's memory. And Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, joined presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for protests in Delaware over the weekend.
While the Senate is in Washington and voting, some senators have been able to sneak away to join the protests near the White House: Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was greeted with cheers on Tuesday as she, her husband and their golden retriever worked their way through the crowd. And Pelosi was spotted on Wednesday joining a group of demonstrators outside the Capitol.
But even as the crowded protests are sparking concerns about another spike in coronavirus cases, lawmakers say speaking out against police brutality is equally as important as ending the health pandemic — two crises that have hit the black community especially hard.
“Of course I’m concerned about the spread of Covid, but I’m also concerned that a black man who was handcuffed was murdered by a police officer,” said Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), who joined a black family unity walk around her district on Sunday. “It’s so important to stand up and say this is wrong, this is unjust.”