PHOENIX - Civil rights leaders including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and William Barber were among 39 people arrested on July 26 for refusing to leave the Phoenix office of Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has faced unrelenting pressure from liberal activists over her opposition to ending the filibuster to pass voting rights legislation.
Jackson, one of the nation's most prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, said the nation is in a "civilization crisis" with "battle lines drawn," and urged activists to fight nonviolently for their rights.
"The power's in you, the people," Jackson said.
Passing voting-rights legislation is a top priority for congressional Democrats and the party's activists, who say it's essential to push back against state-level efforts by Republicans to impose new restrictions on voting. It's been stymied by the filibuster, which prevents Democrats from passing most legislation without Republican support.
Sinema is among moderate Democratic senators who have ruled out changes to the filibuster, which she says encourages bipartisan cooperation and more lasting legislative compromises.
Kyrsten Sinema (file)
Several hundred activists marched about a mile from a park to Sinema's office in Phoenix's Biltmore neighborhood, chanting "end the filibuster now." Eliminating the filibuster would open the door for Democratic senators to enact voting-rights bills and raise the federal minimum wage to $15, they said.
"I taught kids for 25 years that this is what you have to do to change things, and now it's time to step up," Barry Smith, a 59-year-old retired school teacher from Phoenix, said through tears as he sat outside Sinema's office preparing to be arrested. "We're supposed to be a democracy, so having a minority running the Senate is just so infuriating."
Barber, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, said Sinema's opposition to changing the filibuster is imperiling not only voting-rights legislation but minimum wage, immigration and climate measures.
Those arrested were cited for trespassing and released, said Phoenix Police Sgt. Mercedes Fortune.
Sinema supports the voting-rights legislation, but critics say her support is hollow if she stands in the way of procedural changes that would actually allow it to be enacted. She is with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, on bipartisan legislation to raise the minimum wage, but any proposal they develop is unlikely to be as high as the $15 sought by many in the labor movement.
"The filibuster compels moderation and helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles," she wrote in the Washington Post last month in the most extensive explanation of her views that she's given.
Arizona Senator Martin Quezada was also arrested.
"These are the two icons in the Civil Rights movement and if anybody knows about fights for Civil Rights, and for issues that are important to the people, so important that they would risk that, they would fly out to Phoenix and actually risk arrest for this issue, to bring attention to it was really quite an honor," Quezada said.
He says he knows Sinema is watching.
"So my hope is that, after the events that took place today, she will take a closer look at this and she will start to reconsider what her position is on the issue," he said.
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