The Democrats’ cynical sit-in

June 27, 2016

The congressional sit-in was not just political theater, but it was organized to promote a reactionary cause, explains Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, in an article for Jacobin.

IT'S THE season of political antics, and this time around, the Democratic Party refuses to be outdone. House Democrats, led by civil rights godfather John Lewis, have staged a sit-in to allow for votes on gun control legislation.

Earlier in the week four such measures were rejected, including a bill sponsored by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, which called for expanding the "Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment," known more commonly as the "terrorist watch list."

The entire watch list has more than 800,000 names on it, far more than the "no-fly" sub-list with 64,000 names. Feinstein's legislation called for a weapons ban to be applied to the entire list.

So while Democrats were also pursuing legislation calling for stricter background checks and a ban on assault weapons, the focus of their protests have coalesced around a demand to bar people who have been placed on the "terror watch list."

THE FAILURE of Republicans to act on gun control legislation is a curious breaking point for the Democratic Party. House Democrats have endured the political recalcitrance of the Republican Party without protest on any number of issues that affect millions of Americans.

Democratic members of the House sit in to demand a vote on gun control
Democratic members of the House sit in to demand a vote on gun control

Where have the sit-ins been to protest the continued cuts to social welfare? Where have the congressional protests been to demand affordable housing or a public option for health care? Where have the sit-ins been to demand an end to police brutality and mass incarceration?

There haven't been any sit-ins on these issues because this is not really about protest more than it is about political theater. The demonstrations are too late because the votes have already been taken and failed.

But by focusing their ire on the Republican Party's refusal to ban gun sales to people on the government's anti-terrorism list, the Democrats hope to paint the party as "weak on terrorism."

Indeed, after the failure of the vote in the Senate, liberal stalwart Sen. Elizabeth Warren claimed that Republicans just voted to "sell weapons to ISIS." Senator Feinstein went so far as to say that her bill was not about gun control, but a "national security issue."

The Democratic leadership is also hoping to get the added bonus of invigorating a voting base that is underwhelmed by Hillary Clinton's campaign of low expectations. Clinton has spent most of the primary season contrasting her pragmatism to what she has described as Bernie Sanders's desire to give away "stuff for free."

She, like Donald Trump, has an unfavorability rating over 50 percent. Their hope is to rally rank-and-file Democrats around the idea that the party is willing to fight for issues--even if it takes dramatic action to get things done.

But the Democrats have resorted to Republican dirty tricks to spur interest and support in the 2016 presidential election by relying on racism, xenophobia and fear as their rallying cry.

THE DEMOCRATIC Party has never been more cynical. In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy of the Orlando massacre, House Democrats are exploiting people's genuine fear to strengthen the country's security state and to further justify the "war on terror."

In fact, as more evidence comes to light, it appears that the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando may have had nothing to do with any terrorist network.

But even if it had, it would still make the shooting the exception, not the rule. The majority of "mass shootings" in the United States involve people not found on the "terror watch list."

But the absence of a connection between the Orlando massacre and international terrorism has not stopped both Democrats and Republicans from trying to pump new life into the moribund "war on terror."

Support for the terrorist watch list only serves to justify its existence in the first place. The federal government has already admitted that almost half of the people on the list have no connection to terrorism at all.

This database is not composed of people convicted of a crime or even formally charged with one. It is secretly generated and so arbitrary that even sit-in leader Rep. John Lewis found himself inexplicably on it.

In a 2014 letter addressed to Homeland Security, Lewis complained about the absence of due process to remove oneself from the list. Lewis correctly noted that the no-fly list "provides no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations."

We should call it what it actually is: a mostly Arab and Muslim watch list. If we accept that such a database--for which there is no formal or legal process to be placed on or removed from--is justified, then we are sanctioning the institutional harassment of brown people who the U.S. government arbitrarily charges with "suspicion" of terrorism.

Most people want something done about the threat and actual experience of pervasive gun violence in the United States. But framing the issue as one of "national security" and as part of the "war on terror" does not address the underlying causes of violence in America.

It will lead to the further isolation and oppression of communities who have been repeatedly and unjustifiably victimized by the U.S. security state at home and abroad.

First published at Jacobin.

Further Reading

From the archives