Chanting "Pass the gifts ban, do your job" and "Drain the swamp," a boisterous crew of March on Harrisburg participants and members of the Teamsters Union jammed the hallways outside the office of Pennsylvania House State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe on Monday to demand action on a bill banning gifts to lawmakers. Many of the same protesters later disrupted proceedings outside a committee room buried deep in the Pennsylvania State Capitol. According to police, both actions resulted in 23 arrests for disorderly conduct.
March on Harrisburg targeted PA State Rep. Metcalfe because the gift bans bill, known as HB 39, is currently stuck in the State Government Committee. Without his action to call the bill to the floor for a vote, HB 39 languishes in legislative purgatory. Rep. Metcalfe has the power to unilaterally block this bill from passage that otherwise has wide support.
"We have met with 237 of the 253 legislators in this building," shouted March on Harrisburg organizer Michael Pollack before he was arrested for sitting before the office doors. "We know for a fact that this bill will pass. The one person who is keeping it from passing is House State Government Committee Chairman Daryl Metcalfe. We have been trying to meet with him for several months. He refuses to meet with us, so here we are. If he will just meet with us, we will end this action."
Locked behind his office doors, Rep. Metcalfe showed no desire for a meeting and allowed citizens instead to be dragged off to jail for desiring a civil discussion with him. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that doesn't limit the amount of gifts that lawmakers may receive from special interests, including free meals and tickets to expensive events. They can even receive large gifts like cars and vacations from individuals and groups who have business before the state. The protesters called this out as legalized bribery.
March on Harrisburg, which is demanding action on three pieces of pro-democracy legislation, completed its 100-mile trek from Philadelphia on Sunday and were greeted by over twenty Teamsters at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg. The Teamsters, members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED) which represents some 40,000 men and women who maintain Pennsylvania's railroad tracks, share the desire for an end to corruption in their state government.
"We are out here today because everybody knows that our democracy has been stolen," said Jed Dodd, Chairman of the BMWED, before being arrested on Monday. "A democracy with endless gifts for legislators and severely gerrymandered districts, where the people's voice isn't heard, is not a democracy. We are tired of this. We are prepared to take our country back."
This convergence of progressive activists and blue-collar workers produced a powerful message of solidarity from the people. Some participants of March on Harrisburg are also union members and military veterans. Chuckie Denison, an activist from the United Automobile Workers in Youngstown, Ohio, traveled to Philadelphia to complete the entire walk to Harrisburg. He, too, is tired of the corrupting influence of money in our politics.
"I am proud to stand here with my brothers from the Teamsters Union," said Denison as he was surrounded by Teamsters wearing shirts reading, "No Justice, No Peace." Shifting on feet that ached from his long march to Harrisburg, Denison said, "I may be sore all over from walking, but the sense of unity I feel here is much stronger. The time has come for all union members to rise up and stand together. The rich and powerful have erected a wall that blocks us off from our government. We want to tear down that wall."
Although he avoided arrest, Denison plans to throw his body on the line in the coming days as March on Harrisburg addresses two more bills before the State Government Committee. One bill calls for an end to district gerrymandering, and the other promotes automated voter registration. While these bills have large support from the public, many lawmakers oppose them on partisan grounds.
Pollack, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, envisions March on Harrisburg as more than just a prolonged demonstration to demand pro-democracy reform. He seeks to bridge the divide between lawmakers and the public. "We need to restore the trust between the people and the lawmakers," Pollack said. "Right now that relationship is in a very bad place. We are dedicated to healing our wounded democracy. March on Harrisburg is the marriage counselor striking at the root of the lack of trust, the poor communication and the sorry relationship between people and government."
Unfortunately, that sorry relationship was on clear display on Monday as Rep. Metcalfe hid inside his office while Pennsylvania residents requested a conversation with him. Despite arrests and rough handling from the police, March on Harrisburg activists promise to continue pounding on the doors until their voices are heard. They invite you to come to Harrisburg this week to join them, or to begin action on democratic reform in your own states.
Said Pollack: "We got arrested today to heal our democracy. We will continue to risk arrest this week to force the encounter with our state legislators so they will respond by ending this culture of corruption."