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Explain This

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These Activists Are Showing Us What Democracy Looks Like


The Dems might not be able to stop Kavanaugh's SCOTUS appointment, but these women have risked arrest as if our lives depend on it. Because they do.



Not that long ago, Supreme Court nomination hearings were somewhat sleepy affairs, with the putative justices generally getting confirmed by outsize margins: The first woman appointed to the court, Sandra Day O’Connor, was confirmed 99-0 back in 1981. Justice Antonin Scalia sailed through with a 98-0 vote in 1986. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed 96-3 back in 1993. Then things took a turn for the more combative: John Roberts, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor didn’t pull those kinds of numbers. But even when the votes were closer, the confirmation hearings themselves were not marked by actual protests. People organized, called their senators, gave money at PACs, but they didn’t tend to show up to the Senate and try to get themselves arrested. In fact, with the very notable exception of the Clarence Thomas hearings, it’s difficult to find any mention of an organized protest for judicial nomination hearings. (And of course, we can’t forget Robert Bork, whose rightly-tanked confirmation made Supreme Court hearings the obsession of conservatives forevermore.)

But all of that was before Sen. Mitch McConnell stole a Supreme Court seat from President Obama and before we were disgraced with the presence of Donald Trump. Now all the rules are out the window, as they should be.

When Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he was stepping down, everyone knew this was the death knell for Roe v. Wade. Kennedy had long been a fragile and fickle fifth vote, often ending up on the right, occasionally ending up on the left, always centering himself. But his replacement, to be sure, would be a hard-line conservative in the model of Scalia or Justice Sam Alito, who is basically a younger, crueler Scalia. Judge Brett Kavanaugh, however, is worse than we could have possibly imagined. And that’s why hundreds of people—most of them women—showed up to Kavanaugh’s Judiciary Committee hearing to make their voices heard.

Some of them were longtime organizers and reproductive-health advocates like Alison Dreith, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. Dreith made her way to Washington D.C. with NARAL Missouri’s Communications Director, Allison Klinghammer, Missouri State Representative Cora Faith Walker, and St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, all staunch defenders of reproductive-health rights.

When she’d arrived in D.C. on Monday, Dreith told herself she wasn’t going to get arrested. But as Tuesday came around, she changed her mind. Why? “To show Missouri and [NARAL] members that I was going to put my body and my freedom on the line for this, because we’re really at that point” where Roe would be rendered essentially meaningless. She points out that the right to an abortion is “already meaningless for huge portions of our country, especially people living in Missouri,” which just this week enforced some of the nation’s strictest abortion laws. Dreith also personally understands what’s at stake: She herself has had to cross state lines to get an abortion.

So, last Tuesday, Dreith stood outside with hundreds of people who were waiting for their opportunity to get into the hearing. Many of those people were protesters, but some were just there to watch the proceedings. Only 20 people are allowed in at a time, so she waited in line for five hours in 100-degree heat.

Dreith’s 20-minute slot was nearly up before she stood up and spoke out for reproductive-health rights and triggering her arrest. Many other protesters also shouted at the top of their lungs (because that is the only way we can be heard), to protest the fact that the nomination of Kavanaugh is, at root, illegitimate. Even the president’s personal lawyer has named the president as an unindicted co-conspirator, and Brett Kavanaugh refuses to recuse himself from any matter dealing with the president’s misdeeds.

In a twist that was just a little too on the nose, most of the arrested activists were women. As an ostensibly “civil” debate raged on the dais between Democrats and Republicans over the right of women to control their own bodies, a far less civil action was occurring simultaneously in the gallery as women were aggressively removed from the room by men. Dreith says that when she and others were removed from the room, all of the police and security were white men. They were then put in a holding facility that was actually a garage where extra police cars were stored. There, said Dreith, they were treated with much more kindness by female officers who processed their arrests. Four hours later, she was out.

She left Washington, D.C., with no regrets about her arrest, although she felt emotionally and physically drained. She speaks a deep and incontrovertible truth when she says that the Kavanaugh nomination is “the tipping point that can roll back all of our lives.” The fact that Kavanaugh called birth control an abortifacient, the fact that he couldn’t provide any answer as to how the law regulates men’s bodies—all of this led Dreith to realize that there is so much more at stake for generations to come. Dreith got arrested, she says, for her friend, for her young nephew with a pre-existing condition, for her husband with a pre-existing condition, for all of us.

Another protester, a mid-career professional in Washington, D.C., who asked that her name not be used, worked with people from the Women’s March and CPD Action. She made a decision to be arrested about a week before the actual day. It wasn’t a stress-free decision. She was nervous, but the closer she got to Tuesday, the more committed she was: “Previously, I didn’t think this would be something I’d do unless things got really dire. Well, guess what? Things are really dire. I see a Kavanaugh Supreme Court as such a grave threat to democracy, the rule of law, reproductive rights, and other issues I care about that the time came for me.”

She was arrested in a hallway outside the hearing room. In a classic example of unified direct action, her group sat down, locked arms, and chanted loudly. At one point, she was even close enough to Republican Senator John Cornyn to yell, “We’re watching you!”

She also points out that it is time for all of us who are able to use our privilege. Arrests at the capitol, she says, take around three hours of your time, cost you a $50 fine, and then your record is expunged. “To me, that’s barely a sacrifice, especially compared to what others have sacrificed in the past. And if you’re worried about an arrest on your record, I’d say that 10, 20, 50 years from now (if we get through this era), history will judge those who resisted as moral actors, and judge those who didn’t poorly.”

Finally, she’s very cognizant, and hopeful, about the impact of the demonstrations: “I think we’ve successfully raised awareness among Americans, hopefully prompting more phone calls to senators. I also believe that Judiciary Committee Democrats would not have taken the strong stands against Kavanaugh they did if there hadn’t been a constant stream of protests.”

Seventy people were arrested that first day, and more than 200 were arrested throughout the week. Yes, the consequences of arrest were relatively modest—a disorderly conduct charge, a small fine—but that’s beside the point. What matters is mobilization, is people coming together to say that this injustice, this complete abdication of norms, shall not pass unnoticed.

It’s easy to say that protest is futile. Indeed, the Republicans have the vote, the will, and the complete lack of integrity to do anything they want and ram Kavanaugh through the Senate and all the way into the Supreme Court. But protest, sometimes, isn’t for us. It’s for future generations. It’s Serena Williams saying, after being the target of racism and sexism at the U.S. Open, that she serves as “an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and want to be a strong woman. They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.” It’s Anita Hill, over 25 years before #MeToo, standing tall and strong while enduring vicious blowback for coming forward with accusations of sexual harassment against another Republican Supreme Court nominee.

Sadly, we aren’t ready yet, as a society, to overcome Kavanaugh’s nomination. But someday we will be, and the people who got arrested during the hearings will have lit the path and paved the way.

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