Yesterday afternoon, an estimated 150 Congressional staffers walked out of the job in Washington, D.C., joining the tens of thousands across the country who have already rallied under the growing banner of #BlackLivesMatter.
Among those who planned and participated in the event were the Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, the Brooke-Revels Society, the Congressional Black Associates, the Congressional African Staff Association, the African American Women on the Hill Network, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association and the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association. A number of elected representatives, including Georgia congressman and civil rights veteran John Lewis, also took part.
While a die-in and rally were considered, organizers landed on a simple photo-op, with everyone posing in the now-iconic “Hands Up” pose that’s been adopted not only by protesters and House representatives, but the St. Louis Rams, and other professional athletes.
Leading the crowd in a prayer, Senate Chaplain Barry Black connected yesterday’s demonstration with ongoing demonstrations across the United States, saying, “Today as people throughout the nation protest for justice in our land, forgive us when we have failed to lift our voices for those who couldn’t speak or breathe for themselves.”
The majority of those who walked out represent the often-ignored labor that keeps the three branches of government running. Behind every senator, representative, Supreme Court judge and president is a team of dedicated advisors and office staff, not to mention a veritable army of janitors, cafeteria workers and security guards. As yesterday’s event showed, this “hidden” congress holds tremendous power. According to the Daily Beast, all the organizers agreed “that it would not be held during congressional recess, when their bosses, American senators and congressmen, were out of town.
The logic of the action, then, is in keeping with the spirit of #ShutItDown, which has pervaded protests nationwide. But what if every congressional staffer decided to go on strike until protesters’ demands were met? The idea might seem far-fetched, but social movement history provides some precedent.
During the non-cooperation movement — one stage of the much larger Indian independence movement — Mohandas Gandhi implored the country’s civil servants, including village headmen, to resign from their posts, cautioning that “It will be regarded as cowardice to hand in one’s resignation and then to withdraw it. There is no compulsion to resign. It is advisable to give up the post of Headman, looking upon it as something base, dirty and filthy” for its complicity in British rule.
Backed by the Indian National Congress, the idea was to gradually withdraw Indians’ support for colonialism politically, socially and economically, undermining the legitimacy of British administrators.
Bureaucrats’ resignation would be the movement’s final stage, the last in a series of escalating actions taken by different sectors of Indian society. Combined with tax resistance, consumer and education boycotts, and continuous civil disobedience, the resignations drove a major wedge between the Indian people and the crown, even if that campaign alone did not win independence.
In the aftermath of a Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Dream Defenders executive director Phillip Agnew spoke with MSNBC’s José Díaz-Balart. After discussing the verdict and its surrounding circumstances — namely, a legal, economic and political system that “has proven time and time again that it has no love” for communities of color — Díaz-Balart asked, “Can you change the system? How?” Agnew answered plainly: “Non-cooperation.” Continuing on, he explained that “The system can only be perpetrated if people are complicit in that system. Opt-out: Take a sick day. Say you’re sick and tired of growing up or living in a system that does this to you.”
The growing movement against police brutality — and the much deeper crisis of entrenched racism — has already begun to experiment with non-cooperation, calling for a boycott of corporations silent on and even supporting the criminalization of black and brown youth, on Black Friday and beyond. As a tactic, non-cooperation can take many forms. In a movement moment as significant as what has happened in the last few weeks, there’s plenty of room to continue innovating with strategies that expand to stores, the streets, and maybe even to the halls of Congress.