WASHINGTON — America's unemployed workers brought their message of frustration and despair directly to the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday as they filled the congressional offices of dozens of lawmakers and refused to leave until they met with their elected representatives.
The sit-in style confrontations were the opening salvo of a three-day protest event dubbed "Take Back the Capitol," which is sponsored by a coalition of progressive organizations.
The groups want Congress to pass President Barack Obama's jobs bill, extend the federal payroll-tax break for working Americans and extend the federal emergency unemployment-insurance benefits that are slated to expire Dec. 31.
While the protests overwhelmingly targeted Republican lawmakers who oppose the Obama jobs plan, the groups also visited with leading congressional Democrats such as Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina and House of Representatives Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
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Undaunted by a steady morning drizzle, hundreds of protesters emerged from their "tent city" on the National Mall and trekked to the Capitol, where they made good on their promise to "swarm the halls" and track down members of Congress to demand commitments on their pet issues.
"If they don't pass the jobs bill, we will get rid of them," said Oliver Hendricks, an unemployed ironworker from Boston who was among 250 Massachusetts residents who came to protest.
As the Massachusetts group made its way through the Mall chanting, "We are the 99 percent," Hendricks said he was anxious to challenge Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown's opposition to the president's jobs bill and Brown's previous vote against extending jobless benefits.
"He has voted against every bill that would help us," said Hendricks, who hasn't found work since he lost his job in March 2010.
Hendricks, 56, said he'd lost his home of 16 years to foreclosure recently when the bank backed out of a loan modification plan without notice and then tried to auction off his property. He remains in the home while he challenges the action in court, but he must pay monthly rent to the bank until his appeal is resolved.
The crisis is testing his mettle. "I'm a Christian and I'm living only by the grace of God," Hendricks said. "I'm fighting for everything right now. I'm fighting for my life."
In many of the office meetings with GOP lawmakers, staffers were polite but dismissive, telling protesters that the congressional representatives or senators they sought were out of the office or too busy to meet with them. At that point, most protesters decided to occupy the offices or camp out until the lawmakers showed up.
Capitol Police arrested at least one protester for unlawful entry at the office of Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.
About 40 protesters faced "strong opposition" from staff at California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa's office before security escorted them away, said protester Rikki Bradley, a California state employee with the Department of Housing and Community Development.
The staff for Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., was much more hospitable, Bradley said. Lungren emerged from his office after several hours and shook hands with the remaining four or five protesters who'd decided to wait for him.
When pressed on his voting record, Lungren said he'd voted for numerous bills to create jobs in California, Bradley said.
"Then we asked, 'What about the extension of unemployment benefits?' to which he turned around and walked out. He made a left out of the office and kept going," Bradley said. "We were surprised he even talked to us, but we felt like he just heard us. He didn't listen."
When 40 people showed up at Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's office, they declined offers to meet with the senator's senior staff members.
"The staff has always promised us that they'll get back to us and the senator will eventually meet with us. This has gone on for months. We want to meet with the senator now," said Jose Suarez, a spokesman for 1Miami, a coalition of progressive grass-roots organizations.
"One hundred fifty people got on buses, took time out of their lives, left their families back in Miami for 18 hours to come and do this today, so we're not going to meet with anyone but the senator," Suarez said. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, the group was still waiting. Suarez said they'd return Wednesday.
John Reat, 62, from Worthington, Ohio, was among the 40 or so who were camped out outside the office of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, just off the Capitol Rotunda. Since he lost his information technology job in December 2009, Reat has received unemployment insurance benefits. But they'll expire next month unless Congress agrees to extend the federal emergency benefits.
Because his wife still works, Reat's family isn't in dire financial straits. But as one of the faceless "99 percenters," Reat said it was important to come to Washington to make his voice heard.
"I just got up off my couch and said, 'I've got to say something,' " Reat said. "I'm part of the 99 percent who play by the rules. We pay taxes. We save for retirement. But the 1 percent is playing fast and loose with the mortgages, fast and loose with the retirement plans, and fast and loose with the jobs. And this just simply has to stop. It can't continue this way."
The protest activities continue Wednesday, when the group walks to K Street to protest the political influence of corporate lobbyists. On Thursday, it'll host a national prayer vigil for the unemployed on Capitol Hill.
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