California House members were the public’s eyes during the Democrats’ gun control sit-in

A photo obtained from the Twitter account of Representative Joe Kennedy III (D-MA), shows House Democrats holding a sit-in to call for a vote on stricter gun control laws at the Capitol in Washington, DC.
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Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis might have been the face of the Democrats’ 25-hour sit-in on the House floor, but three California Congressmen were its eyes.

When Democrats demanded a vote on gun violence legislation Wednesday morning and sat down on the House floor when the answer was no, Republican leaders recessed, thus cutting off camera feeds in the House chamber to C-SPAN, as required under House rules.

In the past that would have been the end of the public’s view into the chamber. Reporters aren’t allowed to film or take photographs, visitors to the House gallery have to leave their phones in locked bins outside the chamber, and members are prohibited by House rules from filming or taking photos on the House floor.

But Democrats, who were already aiming to disrupt House proceedings, took a step for civil disobedience and pulled out their cell phones.

For the next 25 hours, the millions of Americans watching on C-SPAN, cable news or on the web as House Democrats occupied the floor of the U.S. House Wednesday and part of Thursday were getting a first-person perspective through the cell phone cameras of California Reps. Eric Swalwell, Scott Peters and Mark Takano and nearly a dozen other Democrats.

“I don’t think any of us expected that C-SPAN would be carrying pirated Periscope feeds from the floor,” Swalwell said in an interview during the sit-ins’ 19th hour.

Democratic Leaders praised those live streaming video for drawing attention to the hours of speeches.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called it the “conversation heard around the world."

“Thank God for technology,” she said.

House rules allow the cameras to run from gavel to gavel, and this isn’t the first time the majority party has turned the cameras off when the minority party was trying to be heard.

In 2008, Pelosi had the cameras shut off when Republicans began pushing for more oil and gas drilling. Livestreaming wasn’t prevalent at the time and the Republicans, then in the minority, spent hours giving speeches that were not televised. They eventually attached the provision to a bill.

Peters said his staff suggested livestreaming the speeches when they realized the microphones and video cameras in the House chamber weren’t on.

“A 28 year old told a 24 year old, [and] the 24 year old texted me to download Periscope,” Peters said, with a laugh. He loaded it onto his phone on the House floor and was one of the first members streaming.

Peters said he liked that the handheld video gave a first person perspective of the House chamber. The House cameras that feed to C-SPAN are fixed in the back of the chamber.

“It’s amazing. You’d never get that camera angle from the regular cameras,” Peters said. “It’s a pretty unique perspective.”

The handheld videos taken from the House floor are at times shaky, and viewers can hear members make side comments or laugh.

At first, House staff tried to step in and remind members that House rules prohibit them from filming and taking photos, but as the night went on and more members started livestreaming the proceedings they weren’t as forceful.

“It was getting such a response, I felt like, OK, it’s civil disobedience,” Peters said. “John Lewis is sitting on the House floor, that’s not allowed either, maybe the right thing to do is if the cameras are off to let our people out there know what’s going on. They noticed, too, the response we were getting from it.”

Peters turned off his feed while the House was in session and the C-SPAN cameras were rolling again.

“I figured since it’s a protest that’s not officially a session of the House,” Peters said. “I will not push my luck if we’re in normal order and the cameras are on.”

Swalwell said he switched from Facebook Live video to Periscope when House staff asked him to stop.

“I quietly told them I was going to continue, but they were pretty insistent that we not,” he said.

Takano said he struggled with whether to break the House rule, especially after the House Sergeant at Arms’ staff told him to stop filming.

“I made the decision that it was way more important to get the reality, tell truth to power, than be the normally good little boy that I am,” Takano said. “I don’t really like breaking rules that much.”

He said if there’s any punishment to come from House leaders he’ll accept it, though he doesn’t know what that would be. Still, he doesn’t expect to use the feed again on the House floor.

“It’s not something that I want to use liberally, it’s got to be a very strong purpose,” he said.

Shortly after Republican leaders adjourned the House at 3:54 a.m., House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office sent an email reminding members that filming isn’t allowed.

“When the chamber is on static display no audio and video recording or transmitting devices are allowed. The long custom of disallowing even still photography in the chamber is based at least in part on the notion that an image having this setting as its backdrop might be taken to carry the imprimatur of the House,” it states.

Hundreds of thousands of viewers watched Swalwell’s Periscope feed.

Swalwell, one of the youngest members of the House who jokes that he’s tech support for his older colleagues, has actively recruited House members to sign up for Periscope, Twitter and Snapchat to directly speak with voters.

He said he expects House members will begin to question why they can’t film or take photos in the chamber.

“Why are we so prohibited from using electronic means on the floor?” he said. “This is the people’s House, why not bring more people in and make them feel like they are a part of their Democracy?”

More than 155,000 people were viewing Takano’s Facebook Live videos at one point.

After his staff texted him instructions, the 55-year-old Riverside Democrat held his phone at eye level for hours broadcasting the feed, rather than leaning it against the back of a chair like other members did. Members shared charging cords and begged staff for portable chargers to keep the feeds on.

“We knew we had to have a strategy to get this out,” Takano said.

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