Twenty-eight people were arrested outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday as a group of college students, faith leaders and civil rights organizers on a hunger strike demanded that the Senate pass federal voting rights legislation.
After months of advocacy and in the absence of legislative action, voting rights activists have said they would keep escalating their tactics to make sure their voices are heard.
"This is a desperate time," said Shana Gallagher, the co-founder and executive director of un-PAC, an advocacy group that launched in March, employs student organizers and describes itself as nonpartisan.
The people arrested about noon Tuesday were charged with crossing a police line and with "crowding, obstructing and incommoding" under the District of Columbia code, according to Tim Barber, a Capitol police spokesman.
The Revs. Jesse L. Jackson and William J. Barber II were among about 200 people arrested outside the Capitol in August. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been arrested during nonviolent demonstrations, including Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex., who was arrested in July outside the Hart Senate Office Building. And relatives of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were detained and issued citations in November for obstructing traffic outside the White House during a voting rights demonstration.
Tuesday's demonstration comes a day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when members of the late civil rights icon's family marched across the newly rebuilt Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge with several hundred other activists and residents and demanded that the Senate pass voting rights legislation.
On Tuesday, the Senate began debating the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, a combination of bills already passed by the House in a package that would create national rules for parts of the electoral process, such as voting by mail, and restore the federal government's authority to review certain state voting laws to prevent discrimination.
Voting rights advocates are calling for changing the Senate filibuster so the bills can be passed without meeting a 60-vote threshold - something President Joe Biden endorsed last week in a voting rights speech in which he compared Republican opposition to the legislation to opposition to civil rights bills in the Jim Crow era.
But Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin, W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, Ariz., have said they would oppose attempts to change the filibuster. The protesters on Tuesday included people from West Virginia who are hoping to meet with Manchin, un-PAC's Gallagher said.
The groups at the Capitol were part of two hunger strikes, including college students and recent graduates who were outside the White House last month for an earlier hunger strike, calling for the Senate and Biden to enact voting rights legislation.
The group of 25 faith leaders on Day 13 of their own hunger strike includes the Rev. Stephen A. Green, chair of the Harlem-based Faith for Black Lives - a coalition of faith leaders and activists - who led protesters in song over the summer as they blocked traffic outside Reagan National Airport.
"We intend to become ungovernable if the Senate fails to protect the right to vote because it is that important," said Green, who was one of the protesters arrested on Tuesday. "More direct action, more protests in streets, more airport shutdowns, because that's what it took to get the first Voting Rights Act to pass, and we know it will take that plus more for us to protect the democracy again."