The threat of a shut down of the federal government put a crimp in protests planned for DC, but it didn’t shut them down. On Tuesday, October 8, 10,000 people came to demand immigration reform. Backed by major unions, the rally and march had been in the works long before anyone thought a small group of Republican House Members would force the federal government to close in order to compel a delay in the start of the Affordable Care Act.
As the clock ticked on passing a continuing resolution to pay federal bills, permits were in place and everything was set to go. Several hundred people had signed up to be arrested at the foot of Capitol Hill in order to demand that the bill passed by the Senate in June be voted on in the House. Plans were thrown into turmoil when the deadline passed and numerous federal employees were told not to report to work on October 1. Parks all over the country were closed, including the Mall. There is no fence to actually keep people off the Mall, but the shutdown did affect uses requiring a permit, such as the erection of a sound stage. Rally permits were revoked at the last minute.
The organizing committee didn’t cancel the rally; instead it negotiated with the National Park Service and the US Capitol Police, whose personnel were among those furloughed. At the last minute, it was agreed that events could go on, including the planned civil disobedience at the foot of Capitol Hill, with some adjustments.
For many years civil disobedience in the nation’s capitol has been negotiated and choreographed somewhat like a stage play. Fifty years ago, when large protests resumed in DC after a hiatus of several decades, such actions were spontaneous. Police cracked down to discourage future disruptions. This did not work. It just made the cops look bad. The resulting court cases, both criminal and civil, were expensive.
Over time police and protestors learned to work things out in advance. The cops knew how many personnel and paddy wagons to have available, and the protestors knew that they would have a chance to do their thing before sorting out who did and did not want to be arrested. With occasional exceptions, behavior on both sides became far more civil.
These changes happened throughout the nation, though not evenly or everywhere. Essentially, sitting in to get arrested, whether it was blocking the sidewalk or filling a room, became institutionalized, as had the unruly practices of picketing, striking and leafleting before it. Rules emerged to govern behavior, which were mostly followed by police and protestors. The goal was to get maximum messaging at minimum cost.
Following post-shutdown negotiations, the permit to have a sound stage was restored, though the sound stage had to be assembled the day before the rally in a heavy rain. After a welcome by the DC Mayor, numerous Members of Congress, members of the clergy and union leaders spoke from this stage. Ordinary immigrants got mike time to tell their stories.
A rousing address by Rep. Leon Guierrez (D IL), leader of immigration reform efforts in the House, sent thousands of people down Jefferson Drive to the street between the reflecting pool and the west lawn of the Capitol. The list of those to be arrested had been reduced to 211 to accommodate the U.S. Capitol Police, who had to report for work every day even though they were not being paid.
It was an “A” list, with eight Members of Congress and 90 union leaders as well as some ordinary folk. Most of the union members wore identifying t-shirts, especially UNITE HERE and LiUNA local 78. The 211 lined up on the east side of the street, facing west, so the photos could show the Capitol dome in the background. Observers crowded across the street, cheering and calling out to each one arrested. In between were several lines of police, one for crowd control and the others to handcuff each person arrested and escort her or him to a paddy wagon. The cops did not interfere with the organizers who gave selected protestors letters to spell out the message:
CONGRESS GET TO WORK –AMERICA NEEDS IMMIGRATION REFORM
Twelve hours later everyone had gone in and out of custody. Each had paid a fine of $50 so they did not have to return to court or face trial. This was also negotiated; the usual fine for one of these actions in DC is $100. Most of those arrested paid their own fines, but arrangements were made for those with insufficient funds.
And now that the government shutdown is over, immigration reform is again on the top of the public agenda.