Capitol Hill police arrested the president of the North Carolina NAACP on Thursday morning after he led a protest of the Senate’s proposed health care repeal-and-replace bill.
Rev. William J. Barber II, who was protesting in his role as president of Repairers of the Breach, was released from jail by 2 p.m. In the morning, he and other faith leaders led a group of about 50 people to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office in the U.S. Capitol. The group gathered a few blocks away at 10 a.m. and walked to the Capitol, chanting and singing along the way. Many carried signs that said “Love Thy Neighbor. (No exceptions.)”
Once the group entered the Capitol and gathered outside McConnell’s office, several leaders spoke, couching their objections to the proposed legislation in moral and religious terms. McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, was not present at any point during the protest.
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Two individuals who have pre-existing conditions also spoke to the protesters as police shouted warnings. After several warnings from police telling the protesters to disperse, officers arrested seven women and four men and charged them with “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding,” according to Capitol Hill Police.
The proposed Senate bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act could leave an additional 22 million Americans without health care insurance and make dramatic cuts to Medicaid in the future, according to the Congressional Budget Office. McConnell unveiled a new version of the bill Thursday, but it didn’t include the type of changes the protesters wanted to see.
“The senators are preying on the sickest and the poorest in this country. That kind of prayer is hypocritical. Their kind of prayer is the prayer that makes God weep,” Barber said. “... We come here today to talk about sin. Sin. This bill, an attempt to use power to take health care, is sin. It’s immoral.”
Repairers of the Breach is a nonpartisan and ecumenical organization that seeks to build a progressive agenda rooted in a moral framework, according to its website.
Barber said 5 million African-Americans could lose health insurance coverage that they obtained through the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, 1.3 million fewer North Carolina residents would have health insurance by 2026 if the original Senate bill passed.
Republicans have made repealing and replacing Obamacare their top priority for several years, decrying the taxes and regulations it imposes as well as rising premiums.
Some insurance companies have pulled out of the exchanges that were set up to provide choices for the uninsured, leaving people many areas with a single option for an insurer. “No action is not an alternative,” McConnell said earlier this month. “We’ve got the insurance markets imploding all over the country.”
“We cannot afford to continue with the unsustainable status quo of Obamacare, which has imposed skyrocketing premiums, costly mandates, and fewer choices on the American people,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said Thursday.
Thursday’s protest lasted about an hour.
Barber, 53, has previously been arrested in protests at the North Carolina Legislative Building. Most recently, he was one of 32 protesters banned from the Legislative Building after being arrested during a May 30 protest. He has announced his intention to step down as president after a new leader is elected in October.
“While the Senate debates this immoral bill, I feel God’s call to act. I can’t bring myself to call the bill a health care bill at all. It is a death bill. It robs from the poor to give to those who already have luxuries beyond our imagination,” said Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life.
Barber said the Republicans’ proposals would transfer $700 billion from the poorest Americans to some of the richest. He called it the “worst transfer of wealth since slavery.”
In a fiery speech, Rev. Traci Blackmon, the executive director of justice and witness ministries at the United Church of Christ, admonished lawmakers for their “greed.”
“It is time to stop calling God by other names when you really want to call God ‘capitalism.’ It is time to stop cloaking your greed in religious language. I’m here to tell you there ain’t nothing right about the religion that’s happening in these halls. This should be where we come for help,” Blackmon said. “Yet, we are coming, crying out on behalf of the people to stop some of the most egregious legislation that we have seen in a long time.”
Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; @MurphinDC