Protesters take to the streets — but can they take Congress?

- Maret 24, 2018

There’s energy on the streets, Joe Biden told a few dozen House Democrats in a private session last week, and it should be enough to produce a blue wave in November — but only if they figure out how to harness it.

“If we don’t win the House, Trump is there for eight years,” the former vice president and prospective 2020 candidate warned. Members of the “Blue Collar Caucus“ looked stunned. “I’m serious,” Biden added. “So, no pressure.”

The outcome in November hinges on whether the anti-Trump fervor on the left amounts as much action as words. But the mass gun control demonstrations across the country on Saturday — the main event in Washington drew hundreds of thousands of people — focused on addressing the issue Biden pointed to.

At the Women’s March last year the day after Trump’s inauguration, and at several demonstrations after that, protesters were swarming and angry but had no idea what to do next. The election eight months from now seems to have given the movement an organizing principle.

“March for Our Lives” volunteers circulated with voter registration clipboards and flyers for anyone who signed up with instructions to text “FIGHT” to a number to get more information and get in their database. The Democratic National Committee dispatched organizers all over the country with “commit to vote cards.” The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence passed out circular stickers reading “227 Days Until Midterm Elections.” Individual candidates worked local events.

The rally’s constant chant was, “Vote Them Out!” The biggest boo was during a brief video clip of President Donald Trump. The march was explicitly nonpartisan, but no prominent Republicans were visible, and many prominent Republicans were bashed. There were almost as many signs as people: “Change the Ref,” “This Congress Does Not Speak For Me,” “Prayers Aren’t Bulletproof,” “Grab Them By the Midterms,” and “Beware: We are coming for your seats!,” among others.

“Who here is going to vote in the 2018 election?” student leader David Hogg said from the stage in Washington, after hanging a red $1.05 price tag on the microphone that he said represented Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s valuing of human life, based on donations from the National Rifle Association divided by the estimated number of Florida students.


The crowd looking out at the Capitol dome behind the stage cheered.

“If you listen real close, you can hear the people in power shaking,” Hogg said. “We are going to make this a voting issue. We are going to take this to every state, every city.”

About an hour earlier, Ralph Northam looked out at the crowd. It looked familiar to the new Virginia governor, who won by a shockingly large nine-point margin in November, in part by supporting stronger gun laws opposed by the NRA, but mostly by tapping into the overall rage at Trump.

“We were up here a year ago for the Women’s March. We saw a tremendous amount of energy across Virginia after that. We picked up 15 seats in the House of Delegates. We had a statewide sweep of our elections,” Northam said. “No question” there’s a direct connection.

“We try to work with legislators on both sides of the aisle, and we try to change their minds. But sometimes when you can’t change their minds, you’ve got to change their seats. And so that’s what you’ll see happening in 2018 and 2019,” Northam said.

2006 was a wave election about the Iraq War. 2010 was a wave about Obamacare. 2018 is shaping up to be an election not just about guns, but a referendum on everything Trump — and Democrats are counting on the anti-Trump fervor that’s been turning people out to vote, and vote for Democrats, to turn into an even bigger wave.

“Whether it’s common sense gun safety, whether it’s Dreamers, whether it’s union organizing, the solution to me is the same: We need more Democrats in the House, we need more Democrats in the Senate, we need more Democrats in governor’s residences, up and down the ticket,” said DNC chair Tom Perez. “The way to make change is to pass laws.”


Rubio, who has been singled out by the Parkland students from the outset and continued to be on Saturday — one sign with red handprints read “Marco Rubio, Blood Is On Your Hands” — responded with a statement.

“While protests are a legitimate way of making a point, in our system of government, making a change requires finding common ground with those who hold opposing views,” Rubio said.

The student organizers called for marchers to use the next two weeks of the congressional recess to press senators and representatives at home. There will be more school walk-outs, and they’ll be registering and pre-registering students across them. They’re already laying plans to spread out to town halls through the summer.

“We will register, we will educate, and then when it comes down to it, we will vote,” said student leader Ryan Deitsch.

“It’s not just sustaining it through November. It’s sustaining it through November and into the next Congress and into the next presidential election,” said Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), whose district includes Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “These student leaders, they don’t view themselves as march organizers — they’re leading a movement, and this is the defining issue for them and their generation.”

Democrats are counting on that energy despite essentially giving up any chance for actual floor debate on gun laws for the rest of the year this past week. The massive omnibus spending package, which needed Democratic votes to pass, included a pair of modest gun-related bills: One boosts school-safety grants and the other aims improves the federal background-check database. But neither amounts to new gun control.

Democrats viewed the gun bills’ approval this week as a positive step, particularly because they were able to add a provision easing past limits on federal research of the public health effects of firearm violence. “We take what we can get,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in an interview last week, “and the rest is clearly going to be dependent on the vote of the body, and people have to step up.”

“These students are not going to stop,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in an interview at the Washington march, accompanied by his daughter. “And if they’re not 18, I believe they’re going to convince their parents, and when they turn 18 I think they’re staying on social media and I think they’re going to have an effect on the next election.”


The students said they won’t be satisfied without an assaults weapons ban, waiting periods on purchases, restrictions on magazines and universal background checks.

“When they give us that inch — that bump stock ban — we will take a mile,” proclaimed Delaney Tarr, another Marjory Stoneman Douglas student leader. “We are not here for breadcrumbs.”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter, Yolanda, was on stage in Washington declaring, “I have a dream that enough is enough and that this should be a gun free world, period.” Paul McCartney was on the streets in New York invoking John Lennon. Biden made a surprise appearance at the rally in Wilmington, Delaware.

And Jennifer Hudson, whose mother, brother and seven-year-old nephew were shot dead in 2008, closed the rally in Washington leading a gospel choir that sang, “The Times They Are A-Changing.”

“One last final plug,” student leader Emma Gonzalez said, taking the microphone from Hudson. “Get out there and vote. Get out there and get registered.”


 

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