Dispatch from Federal Workers’ Protest: Government Shutdown Day 2

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We returned to the Capitol steps for the second day of the government shutdown. We carried the same signs and spoke the same message, but there were changes from the previous day. Some Capitol Police officers expressed solidarity with our cause, and tourists joined our protest. Both police and tourists are being affected by the shutdown.

A Capitol Police guard walked up to me and jokingly said, “Keep one of those signs for me, I may join you next week.” Surprised, I asked him if he was for real. He said he was dissatisfied because he was working but without pay, a “mission essential employee” caught between the power players in the marble building above him he was guarding.

I asked another cop if he was being paid and he said no, they had to work but they’d have to wait for backpay. “People are getting a little salty around here,” he said. “I may need to take your dollar after this week,” referring to the dollar bill I had taped over my mouth.

All day I watched the police come and go with less suspicion than usual. It felt strange to consider them brethen in the shutdown, although they are. I regarded them with a kind of respect. Here they were guarding the U.S. Capitol from people like us, peaceful protestors (protesting on their behalf too), while the members of Congress they protected discussed our fates. Capitol Police were not getting paid for it, yet they reported to work anyway. Of all the ironies I’ve heard this week, this was one of the most contemptible.

Meanwhile, we were again besieged by hordes of curious tourists, turned away from every museum and monument on the Mall by signs saying “closed due to government shutdown.” So they came to visit one of the few sites open–the U.S. Capitol. There was a couple from Australia, deeply disappointed to had paid a $5,000 fare to fly all the way to DC only to find barricaded monuments and closed museums. A church school group of 200 high school students from Tennessee was also at the Capitol on a trip planned since last year. I spoke to one of the teachers who confided how disappointed he was the civic lesson he would give his students would be about a broken government.

Of all the tourists, the Chinese from Shanghai seemed to take the shutdown in stride, making the best of it. They took pictures of us and asked us to pose with our signs. It was sure to be the only time they’d see a protest of a U.S. Government shutdown. How could we not want to give them a keepsake photo?

The day wore on with too few clouds and too much sun, all of us getting burned from it. At least I remembered sun screen.

Soon the police came to ask us to leave the steps because ranking members of Congress were about to give a press conference. So we chanted as loudly as our small group could so they would hear us on camera. Several police officers smiled.

It’s hard to know if our protests are making a difference. Our numbers are too small to be significant. With 850,000 directly furloughed and perhaps another million family members affected by it, our numbers should be in the thousands.

We’ll be back there again tomorrow. We’ve dug our heels in deeply on the Hill.

John Zangas on West Lawn of U.S. Capitol
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