Katherine Clark was in the car. The radio was on. The news alert took her breath away: dozens of people shot to death at an Orlando nightclub, a sanctuary for the LGBT community, in the early hours of a Sunday in June.
For the two-term congresswoman from Melrose, and for much of America, a familiar, frustrating cycle cranked to life. First, hope that the toll wasn’t as high as reported. Then, horror, shock, sadness. Next, blood drives, hashtags, hoisted candles, and memorials. And then: nothing. No action. No changes to gun laws. Just a somber wait for the next mass shooting.
Clark could no longer abide it, not after Orlando. Gay-friendly bars have been a refuge for many friends, says the 53-year-old. When Congress paused for a moment of silence for the 49 victims, she joined Democratic colleagues in walking out. “The whole point,” she says, “is that we had nothing but silence.”
She wasn’t done. Clark cooked up a bold scheme with John Lewis, the civil rights icon and longtime House member from Georgia. On June 22, 10 days after Orlando, Clark, Lewis, and a small group of House Democrats launched a 25-hour sit-in on the House floor, an unprecedented act of civil disobedience meant to push Republican leaders to allow a vote on new gun restrictions. “She was the initiator and pillar of the whole effort,” Lewis says.
They sang protest songs. They listened to colleagues and constituents share stories about losing relatives to guns. When House leaders turned off C-Span cameras, Democrats used the live-streaming app Periscope to beam the protest around the world. US Representative John Larson of Connecticut, who helped Clark plan the sit-in, says her passion inspired many in Congress to join them on the floor. “Katherine’s effervescent energy and contagious personality had caught on,” he says.
Ultimately, the Republican leadership in the House didn’t budge. Clark and her fellow Democrats never got their vote. But Clark believes the sit-in succeeded in galvanizing the public. As she traveled the country afterward, people in both liberal and conservative districts expressed their thanks, she says. “I think we’ve awakened a connection with the American people,” she says. “I’m hoping that that’s going to be the legacy.”