How the House Sit-In Went Down, From the People Who Made It Happen
You know it’s a weird day when C-Span is must-see TV—or, more precisely, when a C-Span broadcast of shaky smartphone livestreams is must-see TV.
But that’s what happened this past week when House Democrats, led by famed civil rights leader John Lewis, staged a sit-in on the House floor to demand a vote on gun control legislation. House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, called the floor into recess, and the live C-Span feed that typically broadcasts the action (or lack thereof) from Congress went dark.
So the protesting members of Congress took to social media to tell their story. They tweeted. They used Periscope and Facebook Live to document nearly every minute of their 26-hour sit-in. And the world tuned in. By 8PM ET on Wednesday, people had viewed Periscope streams of the day’s events more than 1 million times, parent company Twitter said. Even C-Span picked up the feed.
The day marked a turning point not only for social media but for government. For what felt like the millionth time over the last year, Washington’s traditional power structures crumbled. Politicians found themselves able to communicate directly to the people Washington ostensibly represents.
We talked to some of day’s key players, including US representative Scott Peters of California, US representative Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, C-Span communications director Howard Mortman, and Periscope engineers Aaron Wasserman and Sara Haider to get the inside story on how it all went down.
Representative Peters: I found out about it after it started. I was supposed to be at a meeting at 11 o’clock, the senior whip meeting. I got there and found out it was cancelled, so I walked back to my office, and they said, ‘They want you on the floor.’ I said, ‘What’s going on?’ and they said, ‘John Lewis is putting people on call for a vote.’ I walked back over and thought my day was blown. My schedule’s a mess. I had no idea how much different it would be.
Representative Duckworth: I did not know about the sit-in until that morning. They kept it very closely guarded, because they were afraid we would be stopped. When the word went out to everybody in the morning, they got as many people as they could to get on the floor. About a couple dozen members happened to be in the Capitol. I got there about a half-hour after they sat down.
Representative Peters: If we’d known, we would have given some thought to the media side of it, but it just sort of grew. We noticed as this thing started to take shape the House was going to shut down the cameras and microphones. So we’d end up talking to each other and that wouldn’t be a very successful thing.
Howard Mortman, communications director, C-Span: Those aren’t our cameras on the House floor. People think we’re government funded, and we’re not, or that we control the cameras, and we don’t. The feed that comes from the House recording studio provides the video, audio, and even the camera angles. When they gavel in, we start showing it, and when they gavel out, we stop showing it. They gaveled in for about three minutes, from about noon to 12:03PM ET. Then the feed goes dark, so C-Span, but also the public, can’t see what’s happening on the floor.
Representative Peters: I mentioned it to my staff, and one of them suggested I try Periscope and broadcast it. I downloaded it. I don’t know anything about the app, but I turned it on and pointed it at some people. It’s in violation of the House rules, though, so the woman who works for the Sergeant at Arms came over and reminded me I needed to shut off my phone. I thought it might not be that way because we weren’t in session. But I got an immediate flood of comments, like what happened to Peters’ feed? I snuck another couple videos. Every time I shut it off people were complaining. I thought a little about it. We were in a situation of civil disobedience. We had John Lewis, the civil rights icon, sitting on the House floor. That wasn’t in compliance with House rules. And the speaker was refusing to turn on the cameras. I thought the American public should have a chance to see the discussion that was happening, to see the frustration we had over not being able to have a vote on these two measures. So I did it.
Representative Duckworth: Scott Peters downloaded the app right then and there, and he became the guy.
Representative Peters: I had no idea until the end that there were 2 million likes in one day. I’m like a 50-something millennial, I guess.
Representative Duckworth: There were a few of us there who had been live-tweeting it. At one point they started to say you can’t do that. That’s when some of us got afraid. That’s when I took my phone and stuck it in my artificial leg. (Duckworth lost both her legs in combat as a US Army helicopter pilot during the Iraq War.—Ed.) At first, we didn’t know people were paying attention to the Periscope streaming. Then we started getting messages. People were.
Representative Peters: It was really amazing how thrilled people were to be in my seat. The House cameras are high up so you don’t get the same feeling. People were enjoying it and saying lots of thank yous. I got a lot of: Do you have food? A couple suggestions for how to do it right: ‘Can you turn it landscape? Can you clean the lens? Thank you for cleaning the lens.’
Mortman: What we did was unprecedented. We started noticing the video component of this on Periscope and Facebook Live, and we decided to show them live on air. There was no opposition on our side. We cover Congress and the big story unmistakably was what was happening on the floor. The only way we could show what was happening on the floor of the House were these media the members of the House were providing.
Sara Haider, mobile engineering lead, Periscope: A lot of us simultaneously started seeing tweets about the fact that the cameras had been shut down on the House floor and that C-Span was now showing live Periscope streams. Aaron said we should put together a channel to make it easy to find the broadcasts.
Aaron Wasserman, senior engineer, Periscope: This is the first time we’ve seen something so historical that really justified having its own category. There was a whir and atmosphere in the office. Everyone’s putting different feeds up on the screens, like, ‘Come look at this or that.’ I got a text from someone whose next-door neighbor happened to be with Scott Peter’s entire staff. I was frantically texting with them to offer tech support.
Haider: We’re product builders, and we built this platform and don’t know how it’s going to be used. What happened yesterday is the reason we wake up in the morning.
Representative Peters: I don’t think a lot of the people participating appreciated like those of us who were right in front of the screen what a great response this was getting. We’re often concerned that young people in particular are disconnected with the government. But here was a place where they were really engaged. They were engaged in real-time. They could sense the frustration we shared with them for not being able to vote on these simple bipartisan measures and how frustrated we are with the way DC is right now.
Representative Duckworth: We started getting phone calls into our offices saying, ‘Hey, you’re getting picked up.’ At 3AM one of my staffers said, ‘Your video was just retweeted by Hillary.’ It’s funny. I’ve been looking at how dissident groups have been using social media for years. Underdeveloped nations who don’t have the freedom of speech and access we do in the US, this is what they have to resort to. Then I find myself sitting on the floor of Congress of the United States having to rely on these same technologies. I just had a surreal moment.
Mortman: I might leave it to the political experts to place it in political history. But it does continue to show the value of video and how we need to be evolved and aware.
Representative Peters: Part of the deal I made with myself was I was going to turn off my camera when they turned on their camera. The House moved all the day’s business to 2:30 in the morning, so at 2AM some of them started trickling in. I guess the shoe could always be on the other foot, but in general I think the more sunshine you put on government, the better. Twenty, thirty years ago this is a fight a newspaper might have covered, but nobody would pay attention to it. Without cameras there’d be no way to know what’s going on. This was such a fundamentally different connection between the American people and their democracy than you could have ever had without this technology.
Representative Duckworth: We’ve demonstrated the power of the majority is not as absolute as it’s been in the past. In the past you could shut the doors and access by reporters. You could shut off the TV cameras, and you could shut off access to telephones, and you were stuck. Now you’re not. Our entire democracy is founded on the dissent of the populace against those who are in authority.