After months of grandstanding and cloak-and-dagger meetings by Republican leaders, we dealt a final blow to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Who are we? We are the thousands of people who attended town hall meetings around the country to confront our elected officials, marched on the streets, and occupied the offices of our senators until we got arrested.
Early Friday morning, dozens of us who have been active in the fight against the ACA repeal stood outside the Capitol, bleary-eyed from exhaustion and tears and holding on to each other for moral support. We were stunned and elated when the ‘skinny’ repeal vote failed.
For months, we have watched Republicans twist themselves into knots to come up with iteration after iteration of health care repeal plans, each one only slightly less draconian than the last. We were expecting after all their promises to kill the ACA, they would finally pass the ‘skinny’ repeal bill.
How could we not? We heard that Sen. McCain, after being diagnosed with brain cancer, had dramatically flown back from his hospital bed in Arizona to vote alongside his Republican colleagues. In fact, a member of our group confronted McCain as a fellow cancer patient and asked whether people without insurance deserved to live too. McCain showed no sympathy as he pushed past my colleague into the Capitol building to cast what would turn out to be a decisive vote in our favor.
We have been preparing for this vote since January. I spent the weeks after Trump’s inauguration criss-crossing the country to teach ordinary concerned citizens, many of them suffering from chronic illnesses, how to ‘birddog’ their elected officials.
We held trainings for hundreds of people in dozens of cities like St. Petersburg, Florida, Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsfield, Maine. We taught them how to put constant pressure on their elected officials by engaging them in conversation at town halls and their in-district offices, but also at airports, supermarkets, and train stations. ‘Birddogging’ entailed having the courage to share stories of how ACA repeal would affect them and their families, even if elected officials were trying to buy groceries or get on an airplane.
We also trained would-be activists on civil disobedience, whose legacy stems from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Once polite engagement has failed and elected officials stop answering our phone calls and slamming doors in our faces, we taught them that they had to be willing to go further ― that they had to match Republican zeal to strip health care from millions of people with courage, inventiveness, and energy.
Over the last few weeks this summer, we helped organize a series of sit-ins at Senate offices in Washington D.C. that resulted in hundreds of arrests. At the end of June, 42 people were arrested for occupying six senate offices, refusing to leave until their senators heard their stories. Week by week, the numbers grew. 80 people arrested. 100 people arrested. Finally, in the biggest demonstration yet, 200 people were arrested last Wednesday to save health care for millions of Americans.
Who were these people? They included Kati, a wheelchair-bound woman in her 20s from Arkansas, who suffers from a severe degenerative illness called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and has to be fed through a feeding tube. She was arrested three times.
And Andrea, another woman in her 20s, who, like Sen. McCain, flew out from Arizona to show her support. She suffers from severe migraines that often put her in the hospital. When she landed in D.C. the night before the sit-in, she was feeling so ill she had to be hospitalized. But that didn’t stop her. After being discharged the next morning, she took a taxi to Capitol Hill to join the sit-in at the offices of Arizona Senators Flake and McCain and later got arrested.
We sent a strong message to Trump and his Republican toadies in Congress that we will not let them turn back the clock to the way it was before the ACA or replace the ACA with a bill that would lead to thousands of preventable deaths.
Oh, and one more thing. Many Congress members who voted for ACA repeal are up for election in 2018, and their attempts to repeal the ACA remain alive in our memories. Our work has just begun.
Jennifer Flynn is Director of Healthcare Justice at Center for Popular Democracy