Philadelphians gather in vigil on anniversary of insurrection to push for expanded voting rights

About 40 people gathered in Philadelphia’s Thomas Paine Plaza at a candlelight vigil remembering the attacks on the U.S. Capital a year later, on January 6, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

About 40 people gathered in Philadelphia’s Thomas Paine Plaza at a candlelight vigil remembering the attacks on the U.S. Capital a year later, on January 6, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At a vigil in Center City commemorating one year since rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in hopes of overturning the 2020 election results, demonstrators traced the insurrection to other dark moments in U.S. history.

State Sen. Sharif Street (D-Philadelphia) said there’s a direct line from the oppression of the Jim Crow era to the Jan. 6, 2021 riot.

He noted that in 2020, Black people, including many thousands of Philadelphians, turned out overwhelmingly to vote for Joe Biden. The groups that stormed the Capitol, meanwhile, were overwhelmingly white. To him, that’s not surprising.

Back in the ‘60s and earlier, said Street, “segregationists … wanted to nullify elections because people of color were voting in them.”

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Pa. State Senator Sharif Street called on the U.S. Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act at a candlelight vigil in Center City, Philadelphia, one year after the insurrection at the U.S. Capital, January 6, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“We’ve come all this way,” he said, “and we have people storming the Capitol, not because a Black person was going to sit in the White House, but because the votes of some of the people who put him there were Black and brown, and they didn’t want those votes to be counted.”

Street spoke outside Philly’s municipal services building, in front of a statue entitled “Government of the People.” Ralliers held candles and interspersed speeches with spirituals popular during the Civil Rights era: “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

The rally in Philadelphia was one of about 150 around the country, organized by a coalition of national groups.

The goal is, in part, remembrance.

Norristown Councilman Hakim Jones, who has roots in the city, said he thinks it’s “extremely important” not to let events like Jan. 6 “fade away into dust.”

“I’ve seen news articles that school districts are telling their teachers that they can’t speak about January 6,” he said. “I’m seeing other people just acting as if it never happened. So I’m here, particularly tonight, because we can’t let it. We can’t let it fade away.”

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Philadelphians held up votives as they sang “This Little Light of Mine” and rallied for the U.S. Congress to pass voting rights bills, one year after the insurrection at the U.S. Capital, January 6, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

There’s also a policy component to these rallies.

Demonstrators around the country are urging federal lawmakers to pass several pieces of legislation: the Freedom to Vote Act, which is intended to protect against voter suppression and make it easier to cast ballots; the Protecting Our Democracy Act, designed to strengthen guardrails against executive overreach; and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would give the government more options for addressing voting discrimination.

The fate of all three bills likely hang on whether Democrats in Washington abolish the filibuster — a step key moderates have so far refused to support. Without the abolition, Republicans will almost certainly halt the legislation in the closely-divided chamber.

The insurrection had strong ties to Pennsylvania.

The commonwealth had among the most people arrested in the wake of Jan. 6 of any state: 63 to date. Only Florida had more; Texas had the same number.

High-profile Pennsylvania politicians fed into the big lie touted by former President Donald Trump after his decisive loss in the commonwealth. Just ahead of the 2020 election certification, top GOP leaders in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate sent letters urging Congress to delay certification due to “inconsistencies” related to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Department of State’s decisions to extend voting deadlines and adjust ballot submission rules, due largely to mail delays and the pandemic.

Virtually all the lawmakers who signed those letters are still in power in Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature. Three of the senators who signed — Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre), Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster), and Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) — are now running or about to launch a run for governor.

Joanne Neufeld joined about 40 people in Philadelphia’s Thomas Paine Plaza at a candlelight vigil remembering the attacks on the U.S. Capital a year later on January 6, 2022. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Mastriano also used his campaign account to fund bus trips to Trump’s rally in D. C. on the morning of Jan 6, from which many of the insurrectionists came. He was later recorded nearby violent clashes with police, but claims he followed all police directives and left the scene before the breach.

Thinking back to the violent images of crowds storming the Capitol, Desiree Whitfield, a local organizer who spearheaded the event, said it all felt like a direct affront to the Constitution.

“That was signed down the street,” Whitfield said. “We cannot let anyone dim our lights, because we have the right to vote.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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