Just after 4 p.m. on March 7, something shifted in the Missouri Senate.
Members of the minority party spoke for more than 39 hours (a state record) to filibuster a bill that would enshrine discrimination in the Missouri Constitution. They knew they had just about no chance of winning.
What does it mean that they fought anyway? It means everything.
Democrats are outnumbered in the Senate. The eight Democrats can’t fully field a baseball team, let alone win passage of legislation to raise wages, end predatory lending or pass Medicaid expansion.
Gerrymandered districts have bred a cartoonish brand of partisan extremism, while campaign contributions — coupled with a lack of ethical oversight and standards — have overwhelmed Jefferson City. The legislators who resigned post-sex scandal — and there have been quite a few of them — have been outnumbered only by the legislators who have resigned to become lobbyists.
Never mind that most folks don’t think their vote matters anymore. If Missouri Republicans have their way with pending photo identification proposals, many might not have the opportunity to vote in the first place.
So when a 24-strong GOP majority pushed to pass a so-called “religious freedom” bill in Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 39, most folks advocating for equality in the Capitol expected another loss.
SJR39 is vile. It would allow businesses to refuse service to anyone on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and it stokes a religious liberty hysteria. That’s why it mattered so much when Senate Democrats left their seats, cracked their knuckles and stopped politics as usual.
Filibustering is harder than it looks. Try it sometime. Practice standing up for three hours, the average stretch for a filibustering senator. Just practice talking for three hours straight. Try it at 2 a.m. Try it when you’ve had a sleepless night. You probably can’t do it. Most people can’t. That’s why it was so jarring, so fantastically hopeful that those eight public servants did.
I listened to the filibuster while I brewed my morning coffee. I kept it on throughout a day of memo writing and conference calls, and as I chopped vegetables for dinner. For 39 hours, the senators kept talking. They discussed the business effects of discriminatory legislation and the intersectionality of oppression. They traded jokes, praised supportive tweets from national figures and affirmed the courage of their colleagues standing with them in that chamber.
Something else happened during the two-day filibuster. As thousands took to social media to tweet #NotInMyState and cheer them on, the senators’ voices got louder. Their backs got straighter. A sneaky kind of hope crept in, even as the chances of winning grew more hopeless.
Even after 21 Republican senators bludgeoned chamber decorum, cut off debate and passed the bill with an extremely rare procedural maneuver, the sneaky hope persisted. As SJR39 looks likely to barrel through the House and land on our ballots, equality activists are organizing to defeat the proposed amendment on Election Day.
In losing, the filibustering senators have grown stronger than ever before. Hope is sneaky. We spend whole lifetimes waiting for a heavy dose of it, but it’s in the moments when we have nothing left to lose that it creeps up and settles deep in our bones.
It’s hard to stand up and do what is right, especially when losing seems so certain. The easiest thing to do is give up. The lesson of the filibuster is this: Let’s not do the easiest thing. Here’s to hope.
Molly Fleming of Kansas City has been a community organizer for nearly six years. She leads the PICO National Network's campaign to end predatory payday lending in America. She also coordinates Missouri's grass-roots community organizations in their work to put ordinary people at the center of democracy. Reach her at email@example.com.