The tragic absurdity of the Democrats’ sit-in

Democratic, Sit-in, John Lewis, Gun vote, gun control, no fly, no buy, no bill, no break

While watching Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members, namely Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), lead a dramatic sit-in on the House floor, you can’t help but wonder how some constituents back in their gun-wracked districts feel about that.

{mosads}It raises uncomfortable and peculiar questions in the midst of #NoBillNoBreak. As the standoff continues (and House Democrats are feeling themselves for the insurrection), there’s a surge of spiteful social media conversation from detractors on the left searching for authorship amid great political theater. Some in the Bernie Sanders camp suggest his “revolution” is the inspiration behind it (when Sanders himself must ultimately acquiesce to the 30 percent of Vermont adults who are gun owners) and there are those in the Black Lives Matter camp grumbling that when they protested, it was viewed as lacking “direction” and “respectability.” And, that might be a valid point: Let well-dressed, upper-middle-class black elites wearing congressional pins go vintage Woolworth lunch counter and suddenly protesting is fashionable.

But what’s been missing for quite some time from any of these groups is that level of attention to the rising gun violence in underserved metropolitan areas of color. These leading political voices of the election cycle have virtually ignored that ceaseless grief and anxiety, no different from the casual ignorance society shows to it because the victims are largely black. Strangely enough, a focus on public space violence is what the majority of black voters want: A YouGov poll (deliberately ignored by a number of major African-American media outlets) found 42 percent of black voters identifying community violence as a top priority compared to 36 percent who said it was police misconduct; it was the same split when a majority of respondents said Black Lives Matter should focus more on rising crime rates. Yet that’s not happening in any concerted way as murder rates in the largest American cities rose by 17 percent last year, according to a recent Justice Department study.

Tragic as it is, Orlando, Florida wasn’t the first instance of mass casualty by firearm. Neither was San Bernardino, California or Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Ongoing is routine and mounting gun homicides in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore and even Washington, D.C. — in places just blocks away from the House chamber. When fed-up residents in D.C.’s low-income to working-class, and majority-black, Wards 7 and 8 were pleading for protection in the wake of pointless violence, it’s not like CBC members or endorsing House Democrats took a quick walk through those spots in shows of support and solidarity. The same could be said of other urban and majority-black suburban metropolitan areas where upticks in gun violence have raged on unabated. They are just as much in need of gun control as anywhere else.

But, as Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah put it quite correctly when talking to The Philadelphia Tribune, these are communities who need “more hands on deck.”

“This conversation … [is] still an indicator that there aren’t enough organizations in black communities addressing black demands,” Abdullah said. “This shows there really is a need.”

A persistent challenge to that need, however, is that continuous public space violence is not viewed in the context of an important gun control debate. It speaks to a subtle racism that refuses to acknowledge that more than half of all gun victims are black, or that, as the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves notes, “gun violence is part of a vicious cycle of race and inequality in the U.S.” And, so, playing with hypotheticals: What if Lewis and others had baked up a stubborn, yet understandably sensible sit-in on gun control after rounds of weekend killings in Chicago, for example? It’s unlikely House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would have openly endorsed that move (if at all) and white House Democrats would have equally shied away from it.

The problem here is that black deaths in socioeconomically battered urban neighborhoods are viewed rather separate from the gun control conversation. There’s an ugly segregation of focus despite the fact that mass shootings are less than 2 percent of all firearm-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If anything, the recent sit-in exposes the political weakness of the CBC in providing smart strategic public policy back-up to African Americans, its original national constituency. It’s not like the sit-in was spurred by brewing concerns from their own constituents back home, and it’s not like the daily loss of black life to gun violence was the main trigger (even when it should have been). While the sit-in provides some advantageous political acrobatics to Democrats in their bid to animate the base, its effect is short term, with no guarantee that any bill will be passed (much less the passage of a bill that invigorates a federal no-fly list that was racially suspect and not all that accurate from the start).

Optically, the House Republican response to the standoff is all wrong and racially off — but, in all seriousness, they don’t care. House members don’t run national elections; they simply head back to local districts they’re individually responsible for. Republicans, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), are insensitive for openly calling it a “stunt,” but no one should be surprised by the House GOP’s dismissal of the move when no existential political threat is really there. House Republicans, for the most part, head back to mostly safe, scarlet-red districts, many full of very active gun owners who don’t mind putting in the consistent advocacy work to maintain their “Second Amendment” right. It might be that theatrical sit-ins on the House chamber floor will give Democrats a political spike to win on this election cycle. But that offers very little comfort to the constant victims of gun violence they, too, have ignored.

Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Hill. He is also contributing editor to The Root, Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and the Weekly Washington Insider for WDAS-FM (Philadelphia). He is also Host of “The Ellison Report,” a weekly public affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM (Baltimore). He can be reached @ellisonreport.

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