The Samizdat Sit-In
There’s a certain frustration that sets in after every mass shooting. We’re all too familiar by now with the dance that follows: Thoughts & Prayers, consoling words from the President, recitations of the history of gun violence in America, condemnation of the NRA for perverting the Second Amendment like extremists pervert Islam.
And then, always, nothing.
Really: If shooting up a grade school or a church doesn’t lead to reform, why should anything else?
The Senate filibuster to force an inevitably losing vote on a couple of weak measures was a fine gesture — truly — but destined to be forgotten, filed away even as it happened with Ted Cruz’s earlier Green Eggs and Ham marathon. The moment had passed, and we were back to our general dread of a Clinton-Trump race.
And then John Lewis stepped up.
Or, rather, sat down.
John Lewis is Living History, possessed of a dignity so elemental that you’d think a bronze statue had achieved sentience. The tactic he literally brought to the House floor is the same tactic we celebrate him for, but instead of recalling it through old stories and grainy footage, we all got to see it live on samizdat Periscope feeds.
The tactic is easily copied but poorly understood — we’ve been complaining about wanton pointless protests for forty years — so let’s take a moment to see how The Master does it.
First, the sit-in had a clear, stated, reasonable goal: a House vote on a couple of profoundly modest gun-control measures. The vote itself would be as doomed to failure as the previous Senate votes, and no campaign would be harmed by going on the record — we all know where everyone stands — but by keeping the goal reasonable, the resistance is shown to be unreasonable by contrast.
Since a jeering Republican brought it up, yes: It’s the Woolworth’s lunch counter. And the effectiveness of the tactic is shown, in this respect, by the jeering Republican bothering to ridicule it, thus drawing that much more attention to both the demonstration and the weak objection.
Which brings us to the second point: A tactic like this is, as Paul Ryan tried to dismiss it, a publicity stunt. It is an act of the powerless against power, directed toward an audience that possesses the ultimate power: public opinion. Whatever the immediate goal, and whatever the immediate results, the broader point is to draw attention to the issue at hand.
And then, with a sustained effort: Change minds.
Not that America’s minds need changing — there’s been a sustained consensus on the major themes of gun control for decades. But we all know the situation: The opposition to any reform is deeper and more pointed than the broad support. You’re not going to get primaried out of your job by toadying to the NRA.
Instead, what needs changing is the hopelessness that nothing can be done, that we’re doomed to an endless cycle of Thoughts & Prayers. One filibuster, one sit-in, won’t change that, nor are they intended to. John Lewis knows that. But he also knows that tactics like his helped bring down the seemingly interminable Jim Crow South. A little hope can go a long way.