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Hundreds of activists crashed Senate GOP offices, yelling about Medicaid and getting arrested

Activists Protest Senate Health Care Bill On Capitol Hill Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Art Jackson was diagnosed with HIV in 1989 and given three years to live. Almost 30 years later, the social worker entered the offices of Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) — and began shouting that the Republicans’ Senate health care bill must be defeated.

“I’ve lived each day I’ve been given to speak for other who can’t,” said Jackson, 52, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Monday afternoon minutes before entering Burr’s office with about 10 other activists from his home state. “We have to stop this.”

On Monday, 80 activists like Jackson were arrested while protesting Senate Republicans’ health care bill at Senate and House office buildings. Monday’s protests saw activists from 21 states storm the offices of 13 different Republican senators and at least five Republican House members, including Speaker Paul Ryan, according to Jennifer Flynn Walker of the Center for Popular Democracy, which coordinated the demonstrations.

They happened in nearly 30 minute intervals, one after the other, and shouts over Medicaid cuts echoed throughout the Russell Senate Office Building as each floor swarmed with Capitol Police. When I tried to record the protests at the offices of Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), Senate Periodicals reminded me that reporters needed permission to film the inside of a Senate office — even if the video was being taken from the public hallway.

The fate of the Senate health care bill, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would leave 22 million more individuals uninsured than under current law, is awaiting legislative changes. Reports say a new version of the bill might be released this Thursday, with a vote coming late this week. If a bill does manage to pass the Senate, it’s near-certain it will become law, which is why activists are putting pressure on the Senate.

The arrests are a dramatic display of civil disobedience in the nation’s Capitol, although one that has become relatively common as activists seek to ratchet up their attempts to draw attention to the Republican health bill. Protesters took similar action in the states over Congress’s July 4 recess and outside the Capitol when Mitch McConnell was trying to rush the bill to a vote before the break.

Activists’ theory of the health care case

To understand why dozens of activists are willing to risk arrest in opposition to the bill, it’s useful to take a step back and look at their theory of congressional legislation.

Most stories of the health care bill center on the internal dynamics of the GOP Senate caucus — for instance, what Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) thinks about the Medicaid expansion, or what Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) is demanding by way of solutions for the opioid epidemic.

Activists see it differently. As’s Ben Wikler explained to Vox in June, many leaders of the resistance believe the crucial factor to watch is not the whims of the GOP senator, but whether a given public outcry can reach a large enough volume to change those whims.

“Every senator has a mental Richter Scale in which they can measure the scale of the upheaval caused by any political movement. They look to a key set of signals for how destructive an earthquake is going to be,” Wikler told me. “The question is whether the resistance can now create not just smoke and mirrors, but the reality of a career-ending political decision for these senators so they vote against this.”

Monday represented an attempt not to let the activists’ momentum slip. Several dozen protesters from Adapt — a national disabilities rights organization — arrived at the Capitol Monday morning with the expectation of being arrested, but were denied entry to the building, said Marilee Adamski-Smith, an Adapt spokesperson.

But as Adapt waited outside the Russell building, inside it a group of nurses moved into the offices of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). “All of us are really concerned, and they need to hear that we’re out here,” said Sylvia Searfoss, 72, a nurse from El Paso, Texas, who flew to DC on Sunday, shortly after she entered the office.