Marchers challenge Biden to act now on voting rights
Supporters of voting rights march outside the White House in Washington Wednesday morning, Nov. 17. Poor People's Campaign via Twitter

WASHINGTON—Challenging President Biden to live up to his promises to defend democracy, hundreds of voting rights marchers and advocates descended on the White House on Nov. 17 to demand he force the Senate to end the filibuster threat once and for all and successfully lobby lawmakers to strengthen the Voting Rights Act and end voter suppression.

In a demonstration recalling the heyday of the civil rights movement, progressives, union leaders, white, Black, brown, Jewish, Christian, and other speakers took turns sounding those themes outside the White House in Lafayette Square. Then more than 150 people peacefully sat down on the sidewalk in front of the White House itself, defied Secret Service and police demands to move, and were arrested on misdemeanor charges.

As in the civil rights era, unionists, from the AFL-CIO—led by Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre—the Communications Workers, the Association of Flight Attendants and the Service Employees made up a large share of participants. Members of Workers Circle, led by CEO Ann Toback, joined.  Marchers started in front of the AFL-CIO headquarters, three blocks north of the White House.

Civil rights groups, led by Poor People’s Campaign Co-Chair the Rev. William Barber II, the League of Women Voters, People for the American Way, and Public Citizen were also a big share of the crowd. Religious speakers included Barber and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Speeches were preceded and punctuated with civil rights era songs, including We Shall Overcome and This Little Light of Mine. Campaigners, who came from as far away as San Mateo and Los Angeles, flourished signs demanding Senate passage of the For The People Act, the Freedom To Vote Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. GOP filibusters have killed all three and only elimination of the filibuster by Democrats in the Senate, at least on matters of constitutional rights, will enable voting rights legislation to become law.

And marchers emphasized voter repression is not a Black issue or a white issue, but “an issue for all Americans,” as Barber put it. “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob women and children,” he declared, quoting the Prophet Isaiah.

He also pointed out GOP-enacted voter suppression laws could disenfranchise 56 million people in the 2024 balloting. Other speakers said those deliberately barred from the ballot box would be predominantly, though not exclusively, Black and brown.

Rev. William Barber and Minister Rob Stephens display their citations from police following their arrests for demonstrating for voting rights in front of the White House Wednesday morning. | Poor People’s Campaign via Twitter

And the filibuster, which the Senate’s Republicans use to protect that repression, “is backed by the Chamber of Commerce,” Barber said, gesturing at its headquarters facing the White House across Lafayette Square.

“We need to understand the connection between that and money and greed,” he said.

The deadly filibuster, which is not in the U.S. Constitution, is used to repress civil rights laws and workers’ rights laws, kill increases in the minimum wage, and harm women, Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, among others. “There’s an unholy alliance between racism, sexism, and classism,” said Barber.

Service Employees Local 2015 President April Verrett of Los Angeles, who led the delegation which flew in from the West Coast, backed that point by reminding the crowd that the forces of repression had recently mounted an assault on democracy there, too: the unsuccessful recall vote against Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Right-wing Republicans organized and financed that drive, but a labor-led counter-campaign convinced voters to clobber it.

Detroit Councilwoman Mary Sheffield added the GOP-dominated—and gerrymandered—state legislature is trying to enact repressive measures there, too.

Signs marchers flourished ranged from printed ones demanding an end to the filibuster to a hand-drawn one, by a Black woman National Action Network member, reading “Our ancestors were lynched, beaten, castrated and killed for the right to vote! Do not let their suffering be in vain!!”

“It’s a disgrace that we have to be here today,” she said.

Would restore 1965 Voting Rights Act

The Lewis Act, the For The People Act, and the Freedom To Vote Act all would restore the force of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the GOP-named U.S. Supreme Court majority has emasculated in several rulings, starting in 2010.

The legislation would also negate voter repression laws Republicans jammed through in at least 15 states and are pushing in 33 more. A recent High Court ruling, in a case from Arizona, gave a green light of sorts to those, too.

“Suppressing the vote is a tradition in America,” Jacobs commented.

Campaigning against then-GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump last year, Biden called the election a battle for the soul of democracy against autocracy, plus Trump’s racism and xenophobia. But in their fourth protest there this year, the speakers said that right now, on the voting rights issue, the Chief Executive is missing in action.

“We are now putting you on notice that you’ve got to keep your promises,” said Virginia Kase Solomon, CEO of the League of Women Voters. A common sign in the crowd read “No more excuses.”

“You can try to pass the Build Back Better agenda,” Solomon added, referring to the president’s wide-ranging expansion of the social safety net, now also threatened by the filibuster. “But you can’t have the Build Back Better Act without us. And you can’t have that act without voting rights.”

Voting rights and its spinoffs, such as repeal of GOP-enacted voter repression laws, and conferring statehood on the District of Columbia, were the drivers of the demonstration, the fourth at the White House since Biden took office. One speaker pointed out one person was arrested at the first for peaceful civil disobedience, then five at the second, 25 at the third in August, and 150 now.

The biggest issue, aside from voting rights, was ridding the Senate of the filibuster, the rule the Senate GOP uses to hamstring and kill all the other legislation.

Gebre demanded Biden, a longtime senator before becoming Barack Obama’s VP, get rid of the filibuster first, as it lets a minority of senators–representing an even smaller minority of people—block worker rights, Biden’s economic agenda, and voting rights.

“If the choice comes down to between Build Back Better and getting rid of the filibuster, drop the filibuster,” Gebre, in his remarks, implored. “If the choice is to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or get rid of the filibuster, drop the filibuster. If the choice is to pass worker rights, drop the filibuster.”

“We want you to fight against the filibuster because the filibuster is being used to bring down this democracy,” Barber, speaking earlier, concluded.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.