Ubiñas: Toomey's lack of town hall leads to Operation Sit-in

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Eleven protesters were to be cited with disorderly conduct Tuesday after staging a sit-in outside Sen. Pat Toomey’s office Tuesday in Center City.

The lunchtime crowd at the Corner Bakery on 17th and JFK had no idea that on the menu for the group huddled around the back table were sandwiches with a side of civil disobedience.

In an hour or so, a group of activists would be outside Sen. Pat Toomey’s Center City office, just as they have been every week since the election. 

But this Tuesday would be different. 

In addition to the large crowd that police officers already stationed outside had routinely come to expect, a smaller group was at the restaurant plotting a sit-in to demand that the Republican senator schedule a public town meeting.

In real life. Not a last-minute telephone town hall announced on Facebook about 90 minutes before its start last month. Not closed-door meetings with a select few.

“What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked,” said Sarah Roberts, 31.

When the group couldn’t get through to Toomey on the phone, they flooded his lines with faxes. When they were locked out of the building, they flooded the sidewalk outside the building and went statewide. When none of that moved Toomey to hold a public town hall, it was time to change course.

Toomey would be moving his office to the Customs House, a federal government building, on Wednesday. It was now or never.

They had met that weekend to run through possible scenarios. What if the back entrance to the building was locked? What if security got wise to their plan? What if emotions complicated things inside? 

"What if I get antsy just sitting there?" worried Adrienne Standley, 28.

Standley fluctuated between excitement and anxiety, stressing about little things. Did she have enough lemon-lime Gatorade? Enough snacks? Enough courage?

And then, it was go time.

Best to go around the corner, they decided, and enter 8 Penn Center through a back door inside the Suburban Station concourse. There, the 11 fanned out so that they wouldn’t draw too much attention to themselves.

Roberts, who was leading the group, disappeared behind one of the pillars.

I sat with Standley and Kayte Terry, 40,  and Nancy Chacko, 38. Chacko talked about one of those closed-door meetings she was part of:

“He is a relatively nice person, or as nice as someone can seem in 45 minutes. He’s just not listening to his constituents, and he’s not standing up for what we want or what we believe in.”

Around 12:20 p.m., Roberts started for the glass doors by the shoeshine stand, and everyone followed up the stairs, past a startled-looking security guard and a few police officers, and sat in a circle inside the lobby.

As the group communicated its demands, officers attempted to get in touch with Toomey’s office. The group chanted and sang and read aloud constituents' letters about health care and the environment and their overall dissatisfaction with the veteran senator's trumping his constituents for Trump. Outside, the larger group cheered them on. From the inside, one sign was clear: "Come on out Toomey, meet your people."

At one point, there was reason for optimism. One of the officers was able to get a staffer on the line who agreed to talk to Roberts. As they talked, a woman who worked at the building looked over at the group and nearly spat, “This is ridiculous!” Someone else wondered aloud if they had jobs.

For the record, they do. Some are students, but others are software engineers and graphic designers and nannies and teachers and yoga instructors -- you name the job, you can probably find one in the growing group. What you won’t find are people being paid to do this. They come on their one day off. They take the day off. They spend their Tuesday lunch breaks calling for Toomey.

They take bigger and bigger leaps into activism because, as they all have told me, there is too much at stake for them to stand on the sidelines, to not hold their elected officials accountable. Because, as the common refrain goes at protests these days, "This is what democracy looks like." 

Word came: The staffer wouldn't commit to a town hall.

Police said they would get three warnings before they would be taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct, a civil offense. Chacko told the protesters that if anyone wanted to leave, they could. No judgment.

No one moved. After the final warning, officers moved in with plastic zip ties.

After a few hours in custody, around 4 p.m., the Tuesday With Toomey 11 were released.

They sent a message: “We still expect a town hall. In person. In Philadelphia.”