Civil rights leaders arrested at Sinema’s office after protesting her filibuster support

By: - July 27, 2021 9:07 am

Rev. Jesse Jackson stands in the parking lot outside of the office of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and holds an American flag while Rev. William J Barber II (left) of the Poor People’s Campaign speaks on a megaphone on July 26, 2021. The two leaders rallied a crowd of hundreds of Arizona residents to march to Sinema’s office to push her to end the filibuster and take meaningful steps to pass the For The People’s Act. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson, social justice leader Rev. William J. Barber II and a state senator were among the 39 people arrested at U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s Phoenix office on Monday during a demonstration calling on her to end the Senate filibuster to pass sweeping voting rights legislation.

But Sinema, who has defended the Senate rule that forces most legislation to have the support of 60 of the 100 senators because she says it promotes bipartisanship, remained unmoved. 

“Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the Senate minority?” Sinema spokesman John LaBombard said in a statement. “That is one example of how the filibuster helps protect the country from wild swings between opposing policy poles.”

Jackson, Barber, other faith leaders from Arizona and activists from local and national organizations gathered in a park on 42nd Street and Campbell Avenue before marching to Sinema’s office. At the park, Rev. Stephen A. Green, of Faith for Black Lives, began the morning rally by signing: “I woke up this morning with my mind. My mind, it was stayed on freedom.” 

Jesse Jackson Kyrsten Sinema filibuster
Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks to a crowd of hundreds of people in a central Phoenix park where he and other faith, civil rights and social justice leaders called on a march on July 26, 2021, to the offices of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to push her to end the filibuster. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Jackson said it is a critical time to enact federal protections in voting and he called for marches on every capital city in the country to take to the streets “to protect the right to vote.” Barber, who leads the Poor People’s Campaign, animated the crowd to take part in the historical tradition of Black leaders who march and stage civil disobedience actions to advance equity, rights and freedom. 

Barber explained why he and other Black leaders are pushing Sinema to end the filibuster and pass the For the People Act. The proposal, which has cleared the House of Representatives, would implement wide-ranging election reforms like automatic voter registration and increase campaign finance transparency at a time when mostly Republican-led state legislatures, including Arizona’s, are passing laws to restrict access to voting.

“Why must we end the filibuster? It’s not constitutional. You should not be using a non-constitutional thing to block constitutional rights,” Barber told the Phoenix crowd. “It’s never been used to bring people together.”

Provisions in the For The People Act, including restoring the right to vote for those formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting, and allowing Native American tribes to designate buildings as ballot pickup and collection locations, are critical, Barber said.

“This is serious,” he said, adding that this moment is not about party, partisanship, or bipartisanship, but about whether the people allow Republicans to “undermine the democracy in America.”

As more than 200 people left the park and marched west on Campbell Avenue, Elizabeth Cantú stood near the driveway of her home pointing her phone to the demonstration.

“We have lived here for 12 years, and I’ve never seen a political presence like this,” Cantú said. 

As she read the signs calling for an end to the filibuster, to protect the voting rights, to stand up for immigrants, Cantú realized she would have loved for her two kids to be there. She said it would have shown them that the books she read with them about civic responsibility aren’t just a concept, but something that can take place in the same park with pink and purple slides where they play.

“Seeing this happen in our neighborhood, in a park where our kids play, they would’ve seen the connections,” Cantú said. “The importance of standing up for your rights, leading a cause for the betterment of communities.”

For 20-year-old Madeline Valiquette, showing that young people care about politics is important. 

“Voting rights is a really important part of our democracy,” Valiquette said as she marched on the 1.5-mile route on Camelback Road. “Phoenix has such a wonderful opportunity to march with such influential people.”

Valiquette spent last summer protesting with groups like Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro to demand systemic reforms to the policing and criminal justice systems. The issue of the filibuster is no different, she said. 

“This filibuster affects Black and Brown people,” she said. “Voting rights is an important part of our democracy.”

Watching icons like Jackson and Barber take action in Phoenix was a privilege, said Camilla Westenberg. 

“I grew up in the South in a segregated environment, in segregated schools. My parents had to pay a poll tax so that they could vote, many of whom didn’t have the money to pay,” Westenberg said. “I look at Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Barber, we are privileged to have such icons in our community who are still foot soldiers for the cause to make sure this country that we are building, that we (still have) the right to vote that we fought for.”

Along the march route, a mother pushed a stroller with her baby boy, while others pushed their walkers as they moved west on Camelback Road. Phoenix police shut down part of the traffic lanes as the demonstrators walked. Some of those marching said they felt tricked, betrayed and disappointed by Sinema’s lack of meaningful action to pass the For the People Act and other laws like a new federal minimum wage. 

“She betrayed us, and I don’t know what for,” said Jamie Senese, a Tucson resident who traveled to Phoenix for Monday’s march. “I hope she pays attention to this. If we don’t wrestle this back from the powerful, we’re going to turn into a tin-pot democracy.”

Kyrsten Sinema filibuster protest
Tucson residents Jamie Senese (left) and Margarita Cuaron (right) march to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office in central Phoenix on July 26, 2021 to demand the congresswoman end the filibuster and take meaningful steps to pass the For The People’s Act. The march was led by civil rights leaders Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. William J Barber II and organized by a coalition of groups including the African American Christian Clergy Coalition, the Arizona NAACP and the Arizona Coalition to End the Filibuster. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Senese marched on the street under the shade cast by Margarita Cuaron’s umbrella. 

Cuaron is a retired nurse who demonstrated in front of Sinema’s office in June and was arrested during a sit-in. That was Cuaron’s second time being arrested, more than five decades after her 1968 in Los Angeles when she participated in a sit-in at her high school principal’s office as part of the East Los Angeles walkouts, where Chicano students protested for better funded and more equitable education for schools in Mexican American neighborhoods. Cuaron was 14 then, now she’s 69. 

“We are here because our democracy, because our lives, because our country is at stake,” she said. Cuaron said the filibuster is a “bully tactic” that will not only stop legislation expanding voting protections, but also worker’s rights proposals, like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. That proposal, which passed the House of Representatives in March, would protect worker’s rights to organize into unions. 

“We are going backwards,” Cuaron said. 

Both Cuaron and Senese are members of Jobs with Justice, a workers’ rights nonprofit. That group is part of more than 30 local community organizations that have joined forces as the Arizona Coalition to End the Filibuster, which came together in February to push Sinema to change her position keeping the procedural rule in place. 

Sinema is one of the two Senate Democrats who have publicly voiced their opposition to eliminating the filibuster, a Senate procedural requirement that a bill meet a 60-vote threshold to advance rather than a simple majority.  

Judy Greene can’t understand why Sinema, who grew up homeless and was a progressive firebrand in her early political career, isn’t supporting increasing the federal minimum wage, 

“She misrepresented herself. She’s been a real disappointment,” Greene said. “How does someone go from being homeless to voting against the minimum wage?”

After months of calling her to act, Sinema has not budged. She claims the filibuster is a “guardrail” of democracy and preserves bipartisanship. 

Kyrsten Sinema filibuster protest
Chris Fleischman holds a sign at a protest in front of U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office in central Phoenix. Civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson and other leaders rallied hundreds of people to march to Sinema’s office to demand her end the filibuster and take meaningful action to pass the For The People’s Act. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

But organizers said Sinema’s focus on bipartisanship means she is standing in the way of expanding voting rights. 

“You have an obligation to the people of this state and to the people of this nation,” said Barbara R. Arnwine, president and founder of Transformative Justice Coalition. “The world needs to know the spotlight is on you. It’s your action that’s needed.”

Arnwine, who was among those arrested during the sit-in, thanked the hundreds of people who showed up to push for voting rights like other Black historical figures have done. 

“Thank you for walking in John Lewis’s good trouble, good trouble, good trouble steps,” Arnwine said. “We will never stop until we free the vote! Free the vote! Free the vote!”

When the crowd arrived at the buildings where Sinema’s office is located, a man who declined to identify himself to the Arizona Mirror told protestors over a megaphone that they were on private property and “if you keep proceeding, you are subject to arrest.” 

They walked past him anyway and moved to the second floor office entrance. There, more than 30 people who had planned to get arrested began to sit down. Jackson and Barber were among those who did. So was state Sen. Martin Quezada, a Phoenix Democrat. They bowed their heads to listen to a prayer led by Rev. Warren Stewart of the First Institutional Baptist Church. They sang, “What side are you on?”

Barber reminded those gathered they were taking part in a tradition of civil disobedience, and that they are not just advocating for voting rights, but for federal policies on a minimum wage, lifting Americans out of poverty and immigration reform. 

William Barber Kyrsten Sinema
Rev. William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign (center) and Rev. Jesse Jackson (left) stand in front of a hallway near U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office in Phoenix on July 26, 2021. They were among 39 people who staged a sit-in to call on Sinema to end the filibuster and pass the For the People Act and were arrested by Phoenix police. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Phoenix police arrested 39 people outside Sinema’s office. They were cited with trespassing and released at a nearby location, said Phoenix Police Department spokeswoman Mercedes Fortune. She said they were not booked into jail. 

Isabel O’Neil was one of those arrested, and said she was inspired by Barber and Jackson.

“I call senators that we fought to elect to listen to us, pass this bill that is so important for our country and for our democracy,” she said.

Jesse Jackson Kyrsten Sinema
Civil rights icon Rev. Jesse Jackson inside a Phoenix Police Department vehicle outside of the business complex where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s office is located in central Phoenix. Jackson and other leaders rallied hundreds of people to march to Sinema’s office to demand her end the filibuster and take meaningful action to pass the For The People’s Act. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

As police arrested the demonstrators away from the view of the press and the public, Irma Pacheco and Angela Caballero, both with the Unite Here union that represents local hospitality workers, sat on a ledge at the entrance of the office complex, their feet dangling above the gravel. They said Sinema has “deaf ears” and is “turning her back on people who elected her.”

Pachecho mentioned the new Arizona law that will remove people for the Permanent Early Voting List.

“More than anything, democracy is very important for me. Kyrsten Sinema when she was running made a lot of promises,” Pacheco said. “She is turning her back on us.”

For Caballero, “This is about protecting our right to vote. It is part of our civil rights.” 

***CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Irma Pacheco and Angela Caballero as members of Unite Here. They are not members of the union, but are affiliated with the group.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Reporter Laura Gómez Rodriguez covers state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror. She was named Best Investigative Reporter by Phoenix Magazine in its 2018 newspaper category and has been honored by the Arizona Press Club for education, immigration, political, and public safety reporting and Spanish-language news and feature reporting. Laura worked for The Arizona Republic and La Voz Arizona for four years, covering city government, economic development, immigration, politics and trade. In 2017, Laura traveled the length of the U.S.-Mexico border for “The Wall,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning project produced by The Arizona Republic and USA Today Network. She is a native of Bogotá, Colombia and lived in Puerto Rico and Boston before moving to Phoenix in 2014. Catch her researching travel deals, feasting on mariscos or playing soccer.

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