WASHINGTON -- John Lewis knows blood. And more than 51 years after he led marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday in the struggle for civil rights, he knows what it means to take a stand.
So it was no mistake that his Democratic colleagues turned to the congressman from Georgia on Wednesday, asking him to lead a new stand by taking over the floor of the United States House of Representatives.
He did. And again, it was about blood -- the blood that has been spilled over and over and over in mass shootings across America, each time a shock, each time inspiring in most Americans a fresh hope that maybe the country’s lawmakers could act to stanch the flow.
They did not.
So the 76-year-old icon strolled across from the Democratic side of the House floor at 11:18 a.m., calling dozens of other lawmakers to his side at the lectern.
"We have turned deaf ears to the blood of the innocent and the concern of our nation. We are blind to a crisis," said Lewis, preaching like the pastor he was on that brutal, landmark day in Alabama.
"Where is the heart of this body? Where is our soul? Where is our moral leadership? Where is our courage?" Lewis asked, before serving notice to the other party that Democrats, this time, were more than serious in demanding votes.
"There comes a time where you have to say something and make a little noise, where you have to move your feet," Lewis said. "This is the time."
For all of Lewis' rhetoric, and a stand by Democrats that has no clear end in sight, what the party is seeking is actually not that much. They want votes on a pair of bills that would bar potential terrorists from buying guns, and would close background-check loopholes for firearm sales at gun shows and over the internet.
Around 90 percent of the country supports those steps. Yet, even to compel a vote is requiring a hostile, historic takeover of the House.
Chances of success remain slim. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) affirmed on Wednesday that he wouldn't bring the bills up for a vote. But the act of disruption still made for a remarkable scene. Numerous lawmakers were drawn to the floor as talk stretched into the night.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq war veteran who lost both of her legs in the war, sat on the floor next to her empty wheelchair. Nearby, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) was sprawled out as if he were lying on a couch at home with a TV dinner on his lap. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a vice presidential contender for Hillary Clinton, came by as well. So did Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), still adjusting to life back in Congress after a year-plus on the campaign trail.
Democrats intermittently broke into chants -- most often led by Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) -- of “no bill, no break,” and “no fly, no buy.” At one point, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) led an emotional singing of “We Shall Not Be Moved,” while members, one by one, came to the foot of the empty leadership podium to make pleas for action.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the embattled Democratic National Committee chairwoman, cried as she referenced several high-profile shootings, vowing, “no more Orlandos, no more Auroras.” Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) noted in a hushed voice that, in the time since Democrats had taken the floor, three people had been shot in his home state. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) condemned the chamber in which he stood.
“This House is drenched in blood,” Nadler said.
While Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) captained the speaking order, it was Lewis who remained -- literally and figuratively -- front and center, The legendary civil rights leader sat on the floor, leaning against the podium, while his colleagues spoke into a microphone that was turned off, in front of C-SPAN cameras that weren’t rolling. With the help of social media and video livestreaming, the message got out.
Democrats insisted the sit-in was spontaneous. Members had just left a caucus meeting fired up about trying to force Republican leaders to vote on gun control measures. They'd been scheming about dilatory tactics they could use to tie up business on the House floor this week -- making requests to adjourn, asking for votes on gun-related bills during debate on other bills -- but they said the plan to literally sit down on the floor was hatched just before it happened, somewhere in the hallways between the Capitol Visitor Center and the House chamber.
Even Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she was caught by surprise, though she said many Democrats were simply exasperated by congressional inaction on gun violence and were itching for dramatic measures.
"They were ready to go to jail, some of them, for civil disobedience," Pelosi said during a Wednesday roundtable with reporters. Asked how long Democrats are prepared to sit on the floor in protest, she replied, "Until we have a bill."
As the hours passed, Democrats broke some rules here and there. With Republicans having turned off the C-SPAN cameras, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) openly filmed his colleagues -- that's not allowed -- and dozens of other lawmakers took pictures. Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) streamed the sit-in on Periscope. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) posted live video on Facebook. At one point, a flustered-looking House floor official appeared to be repeatedly asking Maloney to stop filming. He continued anyway.
"This is the House equivalent of a filibuster," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) declared at one point. "Enough is enough!" A smattering of tourists in the gallery applauded.
Democrats in the Senate, which has been tied up in its own debate on guns, drifted in to sit on the floor with fellow Democrats.
Absent were Republicans, save those who had to formally close House business and a few members like David Jolly (R-Fla.), Tom Rice (R-S.C.), and Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), who sat intermittently in the back of the chamber, seemingly just taking it all in. Attention eventually turned to the most notable no-show: the chamber's most powerful member.
“Mr. Speaker, where the hell are you?” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) thundered at one point, while Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) repeatedly said during his emotional speech, “Mr. Speaker, you can run, but you can’t hide.”
Ryan did not show up. But he did say in an interview on CNN that it was all just a "publicity stunt"; an attempt to try "to get attention."
Democrats probably wouldn't quibble with the second part. Beyond their own personal beliefs about the need to act on guns, they clearly see the “No Fly, No Buy” legislation -- as the bill is known -- as a winner with voters.
Procedurally, the sit-in also presents Ryan with a tricky decision. If he and Republicans allow a vote on the legislation, they will have shown Democrats that GOP leaders will capitulate when the minority hijacks the House floor. Such a precedent could expose Republicans to more situations like the sit-in, where Democrats force votes on any number of proposals, as long as they’re willing to occupy the chamber.
But not allowing a vote presents Ryan with another challenge: How does he stop this? In the Senate, a filibustering lawmaker cannot sit down or leave the floor, so filibusters eventually end. In the House, there are 188 Democrats who can keep the sit-in going.
"Let us vote. We came here to come to do our job. We came here to work. The American people are demanding action. Do we have the courage? Do we have raw courage to make at least a downpayment on ending gun violence in America?" Lewis said. "Sometimes you have to do something out of the ordinary. Sometimes you have to make a way out of no way. We have been too quiet for too long."
Laura Barron-Lopez contributed reporting.