Watch CBSN Live

#NoBillNoBreak: The revolution will be live streamed

Politically, the House Democrats' sit-in for gun control, which ended this afternoon, was a turning point. It was notable on several fronts: it was a shift in the Democrats' strategy for tightening gun laws, from coloring within the lines of Congressional procedure to blowing up the coloring book altogether; it was a test of embattled Speaker Paul Ryan's leadership; and it was a boiling point between Democrats and Republicans in Congress during an already explosive election year.

But the Democrats' sit-in is a turning point in the story of social media in U.S. politics, as well.

Here's the context.

At around 11:30 a.m. yesterday, House Democrats launched a highly unusual protest on the floor of their own chamber to try to force their Republican colleagues to vote on gun control legislation. Caught by surprise, House Republicans presiding over the floor tried to cut it off early: they gaveled Congress on a break days ahead of schedule. With the House officially moved into recess, Republicans then turned C-SPAN's cameras off. Pulling the plug was technically within the rules that govern C-SPAN's access to the House, which only applies when the House is in session, but it was politically loaded nonetheless.

That's when things got really interesting -- politically and technologically. In an unprecedented move, the cable network decided to go around House rules and pick up live video feeds from lawmakers who were streaming the sit-in on their own phones using apps like Facebook and Periscope.

Thus, for more than 24 hours, the cable channel known for steady and unchanging overhead shots of Congress was taken over by unfiltered, raw footage of the sit-in streamed straight from the belly of the beast.

The footage -- which millions watched on Periscope, Facebook and C-SPAN -- was deeply compelling, and shows the House floor as Americans have never seen it before.

A supporter watches the proceedings being streamed live from the House floor by Democrats taking part in a sit-in over gun control on June 23, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Pete Marovich, Getty Images

Among the most memorable moments, during the tenth hour of the sit-in last night, live video captured House Democrats shouting down Speaker Ryan as he attempted to restore order to the chamber.

Watch: House Democrats shout down Speaker Paul Ryan

Shouting "No bill, no break," they waved pieces of paper with the names of recent gun violence victims at the Speaker. Ryan pounded his gavel to try to stop the noise, while Democrats yelled "Shame! Shame! Shame!" Eventually, Ryan left the lectern and Democrats sang "We Shall Overcome," still holding up the names of gun victims.

Over the past five years, legislators have introduced more than 100 gun control measures in Congress. Despite a string of mass shootings since 2011 -- from school children in Newtown to church members in Charleston to nightclub-goers in Orlando -- none of those measures have passed into law, and few have even made it to the House or Senate floor for a vote.

Since no devices are allowed on the House floor, members of Congress technically broke the rules by live-streaming the sit-in. But after being in the minority for six years, House Democrats seemed to be enjoying the chance to deviate from business as usual, using the hashtag #goodtrouble in many of their social media posts.

Apps in the spotlight

The sit-in reflected a major, validating moment for video streaming, highlighting the civic potential of live video in times of political chaos when traditional feeds are pulled from the public.

Launched by Twitter in March 2015, Periscope was greeted with a fair amount of skepticism when it first arrived on the scene. Critics dismissed the live streaming app as an amateur tool for shaky, frivolous content (remember all those viral Periscope users obsessed with showing off the contents of their fridges?).

Now -- a little over a year and more than 200 million video feeds later -- Periscope found itself the platform of choice during a noteworthy moment in U.S. political history. It was a big moment as well for Facebook Live, Facebook's new live video streaming feature, which lawmakers also used to spotlight all the action on the House floor.

As the sit-in went on, lawmakers slowly seemed to realize the power of the platforms they had in their pockets. Yesterday afternoon, live video showed California Rep. Scott Peters asking his fellow members of Congress to download Periscope and stream the action with him so that his stream, which had gone viral, would stop crashing.

Last night, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told CBS News that, without live streaming, the sit-in would not have had nearly the same impact on the public consciousness.

"Ten years ago, if we did this on the floor, it would be like a tree falling in the wilderness. Nobody would even know," she said. "But because of technology and Periscope, the entire discussion is being streamed... It's a debate heard round the world."

Paul Ryan: Democrat sit-in "a fundraising scheme"

In a press availability today, Speaker Paul Ryan trashed the sit-in as "a fundraising scheme" and "a publicity stunt." The latter characterization is not wrong. Like the iconic sit-ins of the civil rights era, the Democrats' House sit-in was by nature designed to attract the highest possible levels of publicity and indignation, both from members of the media and voters. In this context, lawmakers used streaming apps as their bullhorns to reach supporters across the country.

At the heart of the House Democrats' sit-in was Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who knows the ins and outs of non-violent protest all too well.

"We're going to win this struggle," Lewis said after he and colleagues wrapped up their protest today. "We must never, ever give up or give in. We must keep the faith."

Lewis -- who was a major figure in the civil rights movement alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters back when he was a college student. In the course of the civil rights protests, he endured more than 40 arrests and beatings; most notably, he was one of hundreds of protesters brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers in Selma, Alabama, an incident that shocked the nation and accelerated the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yesterday, Congressman Lewis posted a rare Instagram photo from the floor of the House:

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue