The final push to save the country from the Graham-Cassidy proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) began on September 25 at 8 am, with a massive line of people extending from the Dirksen Senate Office Building to the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.
Epic lines like this one typically form for Bruce Springsteen concerts, the Super Bowl, or the latest iPhone. But this time, the big event was… a Senate Finance Committee hearing.
I had headed to DC along with members of affiliates of the organization where I work, Center for Popular Democracy, and with people who had trained in political tactics with Housing Works, the nation’s largest community-based AIDS advocacy organization. We had come to join hundreds of others to try to save our health care. As far as the eye could see, the hallway was crammed with bodies—young and old; black, brown and white; women and some men—but definitely more women, so many women. Many were accompanied by wheelchairs and walkers.
Despite the high stakes, the mood was jovial and energetic. People were happy to wait. But when, shortly before the hearing was to begin at 2 pm, the doors to the hearing room were closed and the activists shut out, this mass of friendly, patient bodies snapped into action. In a matter of moments, they transformed from a group of people calmly waiting to attend a hearing into a fierce army of nonviolent, civil-disobedience activists.
Among the first to take action were members of ADAPT, the national grassroots disability-rights organization. As soon as they were denied access to the hearing, they began chanting—“Kill the bill, don’t kill me!”—as they refused to move their wheelchairs. Meanwhile, members of what we have come to call “Birddog Nation” sat on the floor and blocked access to the elevators, even as Capitol Police forcibly removed and arrested them.
For many of the protesters, this was a case of putting their bodies on the line—literally. Kati McFarland, a pre-med student from Arkansas who requires a feeding tube and walker as a result of complications from Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, was one of these fearless activists. She collapsed during the wait, but got back up and back in line.
Also in line was Elizabeth Deutsch, a nurse whose severe peanut allergy was triggered as she waited for the hearing to begin. Shortly before the actions commenced, she collapsed. By the time the two EpiPens in her bag were administered, her hands and feet had started to turn blue.
In the end, 181 people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience that Monday afternoon, with many getting arrested for the second or third time during the last few months. But the struggle didn’t end there. As the day continued, those who didn’t get arrested kept up the pressure by descending on the offices of key congressional targets and holding press conferences. And the next morning, they were back in action, lobbying their Senators, attending civil-disobedience trainings, preparing for more actions. By 1 pm, about 20 people had descended on the Capitol Rotunda and lain down, blocking entrances to the internal subway that shuttles members of Congress from their office buildings into the Capitol.