Protesters hold 24-hour vigil outside Sen. Toomey’s office

“Rain or shine, day or night. Health care is a human right.”

Protesters chanted in front of Sen. Pat Toomey’s Philadelphia office despite the early-morning rain June 23. The activists camped out overnight as part of a 24-hour vigil to protest Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s new health-care bill. The legislation would repeal the Affordable Care Act, cutting funding to Medicaid and other programs.

Jose DeMarco, a member of HIV/AIDS-activism group ACT UP Philadelphia, said he was “exhausted” after camping out overnight and only took a two-hour nap. However, he noted that this form of proetest will bring attention to the issue.

“I stayed out all night mainly for people with HIV and AIDS that probably couldn’t attend themselves and to send a point to the rest of the world that these Medicaid cuts are going to be the death of many people,” DeMarco told PGN. “There needs to be a lot of attention brought to this issue. People need to be getting angry. I don’t think just staying out all night may change anything but hopefully this will bring a lot of attention to the issue and let people know that people are willing to stay out in the street all night to stop this bill.”

DeMarco spoke at the first of two rallies during the June 22 portion of the vigil. The queer HIV-positive activist told more than 150 protesters he has been using HIV treatments for more than 20 years to stay alive. He said he had a bottle of medication in his pocket that costs $2,300 and that many people would not have access to such medications if the Republican health-care bill moves forward.

“I’m a person of color and in this country, I have no other choice but to see everything through these lenses,” DeMarco added. “When America has a cold, black America gets pneumonia. I’m just really angry that we’ve come this far fighting this disease and these people are going to set us back.”

The Rev. Dr. William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP and the leader of the Moral Mondays movement, delivered a 28-minute speech during the first day’s rally. Barber noted parallels in history throughout his speech and compared the current situation to how former slave-owners attempted to roll back the Freedmen’s Hospital.

“This is the worst, most expensive attack on the poor since the days that slaves gave free labor to America,” Barber said, attributing the quote to his daughter.

Barber instructed 50 protesters to lay down on the sidewalk in front of Toomey’s office, requesting people of different skin colors, sexual orientations, ages, faiths and other communities to collaborate. He referred to this as a “dry run” to show protesters how to symbolize those who will die as a result of the potential bill.

“I’m telling you if you get in his office and do this, they may arrest you but it will begin to shift in that every one of you represents somebody that’s going to die, that’s literally going to die if they pass this bill,” Barber said.

After 50 participants laid down, and participated in a chant led by Barber.

“We will put our bodies on the line for all people because we believe health care is a moral issue. We will not retreat, Sen. Toomey,” Barber chanted. “We will not retreat, Donald Trump. We will not retreat Speaker [Paul] Ryan. America needs a healing. We will fight until universal health care is a reality for all.”

Councilwoman Helen Gym spoke at the rally the next morning.

“When they go low, we go local,” Gym said, to which protesters chanted back.

Gym noted “the fight is not in [Washington] D.C. and added that senators like Toomey will not have a town hall, pick up phones or respond to messages from the community.

“That means the fight can’t be there [in Washington],” Gym added. “The fight comes home to us, back to our communities, back to the places where we both build and expand our baits of power.”

Gym noted that Ryan “admitted that Obamacare was the law of the land” after people flooded phone lines and protested.

“This is an obscene bill that gives a monstrous tax cut to the wealthiest Americans, to the largest insurance companies and to a corporate America that [would rather] see people die than do the right thing,” Gym said.

The councilwoman encouraged the protesters to keep the fight going.

“No matter what comes out at the end of it, we’re going to look around and know who we stood with and who we stood for,” Gym said. “I’ll be with you all the way. City Council is going to be with you all the way in Philadelphia. Let’s take this fight to where it matters: Back to our communities. Let’s go out there and win.”

In addition to Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Health Access Network also hosted vigils in front of Toomey’s offices in Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre.

Individuals opposed to the Republican health-care bill can call Toomey’s office at 215-241-1090.