Yesterday I Was Arrested to Send a Message to Congress. Here’s Why.

By Laura Williamson, Program Advancement Manager at People For the American Way

Yesterday I sat on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with 300 others, singing, chanting, and eventually being arrested, to send a message to Congress — amend the Constitution to get big money out of politics, restore the right to vote for all Americans, and do your job on the Supreme Court. With our arrests, we joined hundreds of others who have been arrested since last Monday as part of the Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening; all told, more than 1,400 people were arrested as part of this escalated effort to save our democracy.

As I marched to the Capitol and occupied those steps — our steps — my spirit was buoyed thinking of the rich legacy of civil disobedience in our country.

I thought of the freedom fighters of the Civil Rights movement, individuals who risked far more than arrest in the struggle for the right to vote. I imagined the brave American heroes who, more than half a century ago, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge demanding the right to vote, an act of moral courage that ultimately propelled Congress to pass the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Like my companions yesterday, they were organizers, faith leaders, youth, elders — everyday people who could no longer suffer the injustices of the Jim Crow South or the unfulfilled promises of our democracy. United by an earnest desire to push our nation to live up to its founding ideals, they refused to turn back in the face of hatred and violence.

I thought about my ancestors, working class Midwesterners who, a century earlier, joined the abolitionist movement and defied federal fugitive slave laws by housing runaway slaves along their journey to freedom. Like those rallying at the Capitol this week and crossing the bridge in Selma 51 years ago, they were people of conscience who recognized the urgent need to take action.

The risks we faced sitting at the Capitol were negligible compared to the dangers associated with civil disobedience over the course of our nation’s history. However, the imperiled state of our democracy today must be taken just as seriously. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections, and three years later in Shelby v. Holder it held that the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that so many fought and died for during the Civil Rights Movement, were no longer necessary. Both decisions delivered devastating blows to our democracy, but from both new movements of conscience have been born.

From the Moral Monday Movement in my home state of North Carolina, through which more than 1,000 have been arrested protesting the state’s unjust and immoral laws; to the Movement For Black Lives’ powerful occupations of university offices, state capitals, police stations, and public spaces; to the Dreamers movement, which has for years invoked nonviolent direct action to prompt action for immigrant justice; to this week’s civil disobedience at the Capitol, our contemporary justice movements are making clear that we understand the power of civil disobedience and take seriously our nation’s legacy of social change through resistance.

Congress has the power to act and the tools at its disposal — including the Democracy For All Amendment and the Voting Rights Advancement Act — to fix our democracy. Each day Congress does not act, our movements will grow stronger, our tactics bolder, and our voices louder, until we achieve that promise of a democracy that works for all of us, upon which our nation was founded and for which so many have fought.