Unless it's a part of their job description, Capitol Hill staffers generally shy away from the press. But Thursday afternoon, nearly 150 of them walked out of their offices to participate in a walkout to protest the Eric Garner and Michael Brown grand jury decisions and the deaths of other unarmed African-Americans. The walkout took place on a critical day as their bosses struggled to pass a budget in time to prevent a government shutdown.
Rev. Barry Black, the Senate chaplain, who is African-American, led the group in a prayer for the grieving families and for peace on the steps of the Capitol. They also posed for a photo, during which everyone made the "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture.
"Today as people throughout the nation protest for justice in our lands, forgive us when we have failed to lift our voices for those who couldn't speak or breathe for themselves,” Black said. “May we not forget that in our national history injustice has often been maintained because good people failed to promptly act. Forgive, oh God, our culpability in contributing to our national pathology as you keep us aware of our own capacity to be instruments of injustice.”
The heads of congressional staff associations in both the House and the Senate, including the Congressional Black Associates, Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus, the Brooke-Revels Society and the Congressional African Staff Association organized the walkout. Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Staff Association and the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association also participated.
Many of the staffers are struggling to figure out what their individual roles are in the burgeoning protest movement, but felt like they should take a collective stand, one of the organizers told BET.com.
"We will have discussions about how to move the ball forward, how to get involved with what's happening at the local level and how as individuals who are uniquely positioned to understand how policy is created, we can lend our expertise to those efforts," said the staffer, who asked to not be named.
Another staffer, who also requested anonymity, said he wanted to participate in the walkout "because this is where change can really happen. The power is right here and with the people [protesting across the nation]."
Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings and Texas Reps. Joaquin Castro and Marc Veasey joined the walkout to show their solidarity with the staffers.
Veasey said that he wanted to show his support to them, many of whom are at an age where they may be out having fun at a public establishment or private event and encounter the police. They are entitled to expect the same treatment as any other group of young adults, he told BET.com, but "there are some policemen who overuse force, especially when there's an African-American involved, regardless of age."
Cummings also felt it was important to stand with the staffers.
“Democrats and Republicans across the country are incredibly frustrated by what happened in Ferguson, Staten Island and elsewhere, and this protest reflects the mistrust they have in the integrity of the criminal justice system," he said in a statement issued after the event. "These congressional staffers put in incredibly long hours, nights, and weekends working to pass legislation to help people live better lives, so I fully support them taking a few moments today to pray with the Senate chaplain for Congress to take action to ensure that all Americans are treated equally before the law.”
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(Photo: Brendan Smiawolski/AFP/Getty Images)