Capitol buildings are citadels of power.
Their ornateness and their discongruity from the neighborhoods that surround them tends to engender equal parts awe and hatred, and this is by design. They could also be a place, however, where the working class captures the attention of those who have long ignored their voices. A place where we make democracy something tangible, something real. However, there are few moments in our political process that crystallize the limits that are placed on popular participation in our government than the public comment period of legislative hearings.
It is intended to be a space for elected officials to hear the voices of the people that they represent so that the fullest consideration can be given to community concerns when deciding on public policy and legislation. After all, very few people actually follow politics on a daily basis unless the issue at hand is something that directly affects them, and they obviously do not have the sort of round-the-clock access to policymakers and their staffs that their bosses and the industry groups that represent them do.
Even though the public gets an opportunity to comment at legislative hearings, legislators will use parliamentary processes to limit their voices as much as possible. While industry lobbyists — by virtue of their having been invited by the legislators in question — get plenty of time to make their feelings on policies heard, members of the public will typically be limited to no more than two minutes to address their grievances with a piece of legislation being proposed.
While the mouthpieces of capital get all the time in the world to calmly put forth their reasoning for dismantling the regulatory state, those who would be the most profoundly impacted by doing so have to rush and fumble through their presentations, only to be ignored wholesale by their elected representatives. In addition to this, rules and regulations are placed on what the public can say, which particular attention paid to anything that a legislator might deem to be an insult or an attack.
The members of the Judiciary Committee in the West Virginia House of Delegates might have thought that they could use their power and processes to limit the voice of one Lissa Lucas, who was in Charleston to testify against HB 4268. This piece of legislation would have allowed oil and gas companies to drill on a tract of land so long as those who own a majority of the land gave their blessing to do so. This means that one’s neighbors could essentially greenlight fracking on their property without their consent, and there would be no legal recourse in West Virginia for doing so.
Lucas’s testimony simply noted that many of those legislators who would be deciding on this policy have received copious amounts of campaign donations from the very oil and gas companies that would benefit from this bill. But when she began to read the list of legislators and their industry donors, Del. John Shott (R-Mercer) — who chairs the committee — ordered Lucas to stop making “personal comments”. When Lucas continued from where she had been interrupted, Shott cut off her mic and ordered her to be removed from the room. She was eventually dragged out of the chamber by security.
If the limited form of democracy that we endure in the United States is to have any meaning for working-class communities, then incidents like this cannot be allowed to stand. As Lucas pointed out in her testimony, oil and gas industry representatives already get plenty of opportunities to reach legislators both in-chamber and outside of it through sponsored galas and happy hours, in lobbying meetings and golf outings.
They should have to know where we stand, too.
Many people reading this would state that we should do so through the electoral process, and vote these people out of office if they are so unrepresentative. That is one way to do it, but we all have some inkling as to the unfairness of our electoral system, with its biases towards those with substantial resources and its laws designed to eliminate challenges to our current political duopoly. Besides, uprooting one’s life to undertake a political campaign should not even be the primary means by which we register disagreement or anger in our system.
So, then, we must tap into our inner protester and engage in a bit of civil disobedience.
The thing that makes the 2011 Wisconsin protests and the 2013 Texas protests stick out in our collective political memory is not simply the issues that were being animated — public-sector collective bargaining and reproductive rights, respectively — it was also the physical place where these protests occurred. The protests managed to break down, even if it was just for a moment, the artificial wall between the rulers and the ruled, and it forced those with power to listen to those who typically move through life without it.
Even if the pieces of legislation that inspired the protests still passed, every moment of delay was one more moment that had to be covered by the press, where the issue was made more salient, and where people who do not typically have time to engage in politics outside of elections came to realize how the issues at hand affect them, their families, and their communities. The protests did not simply open up spaces for democracy; they also provided opportunities for community organizations, political organizations, and other partners in the work to engage in political education.
We must be that roadblock in the plans of the bosses and the legislators that they have bought and paid for. When someone like Lissa Lucas is having their rights to speak in a public meeting revoked without cause, we must act as physical barriers between law enforcement and the speaker in question. When those politicians who claim to be on our side only manage the meekest of defenses against policies that murder working-class communities inch by bloody inch, then it falls on us to be the official opposition and occupy our city councils and legislatures — both state and federal — until our demands are heard and incorporated into legislation and policies.
Simply put, the moment calls for a radical rethink of how we engage civically. Democracy cannot, and should not, be confined to a ballot box and rote electioneering at neatly appointed times on the calendar. Not when inequality is spiraling out of control. Not when our most marginalized and vulnerable populations are actively being targeted by their alleged representatives for repression and privation. Not when there are unrelenting attacks on the franchise of communities of color across the country. Not when the water in rural Kentucky or Flint, Michigan is unsafe to drink. Not when Immigration and Customs Enforcement is engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing from Florida to California to New York.
And certainly not when a simple public comment gets you dragged out of the West Virginia State Capitol because a politician deems you to be too mouthy.