I enjoyed talking with The Takeaway and Amy Walter about contemporary protest politics. Of course, they’ve offered a broader approach.
You can listen here:
I enjoyed talking with The Takeaway and Amy Walter about contemporary protest politics. Of course, they’ve offered a broader approach.
You can listen here:
Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila celebrated when Senator Jeff Flake (Arizona) forced his Republican colleagues to delay final consideration of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, pending completion of a very brief FBI investigation. Their elation is understandable and contagious: protesters rarely get such a quick and visible reaction to their efforts.
Ms. Gallagher and Ms. Archila were among many protesters filling the halls of the Senate, hoping to be heard. They followed Sen. Flake after he announced his intent to vote for the confirmation, and demanded that he listen–and look.
“Don’t look away from me,” Ms. Gallagher inveighed, “Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me, that you will let people like that go into the highest court of the land and tell everyone what they can do to their bodies.”
Flake looked up before the elevator doors closed.
Not long afterward, he announced that he would be uncomfortable supporting Kavanaugh’s nomination on the Senate floor until charges of sexual assault lodged by Christine Blasey Ford and others had been investigated.
The Republican leadership wanted to avoid the one week delay between the committee vote and consideration on the Senate floor, but realized that without some investigation the nomination would be doomed. It may still be: one week is plenty of time for new revelations, for other to tell their stories, and for senators to consult public opinion polls. The moment is open for a little longer.
Yelling at elected officials is hardly a surefire tactic. It makes people uncomfortable or angry. Successful politicians are adept at seeming to ignore protesters (People yell at Ted Cruz all the time–with no discernible effect!), and experienced activists are accustomed to neglect. The dramatic confrontation or brave individual act “works” only when it’s part of a much larger movement, in the context of many other events that are too easy to neglect.
Somehow, Flake broke from his colleagues, who were determined to make sure Blasey Ford had the opportunity to be heard and ignored. Flake listened. Explaining his decision later, he said that he had heard from many people, in personal testimony, on email, and on the phone, even walking around the Capitol. He also heard from friends, he said, who told their own stories of assault–stories they had never before shared.
Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, in the context of a much broader #MeToo movement, inspired many people to tell others their stories of surviving assault. Gallagher and Archila themselves, committed to political action on other causes, first told their assault stories in response to this moment.
They are not alone. Social media are filled with people, mostly women, coming forward with their survivor stories, and at least some people are listening. In my gym locker room (off-campus, Orange County), where political conversation is infrequent and divided and, unlike Donald Trump, I’ve never heard stories about sex. But last week men were talking about the experiences they’ve heard from women they know. “Every woman our age has a story like this,” one man told me as he packed his bag. This is how the world changes.
In this context, Maria Gallagher and Ana Maria Archila, are brave and effective, but it’s not just them. They knew they were testifying in front of a choir of many others. As Archila tweets “So much love to all the 1000s of people who are changing the course of history with their protests, stories, & courage.”
Jeff Flake has been emphatic that he supports Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy, and that he expects to vote to confirm his appointment. He has, however, said he’s open to learning more. It’s impossible to credit just one event as the critical moment that influenced him.
And it is clear that Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher
and Archila held open more than an elevator door.
It’s almost never good news when the word, “penis,” appears in a job interview.
But consideration of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for a seat on the Supreme Court is about much more than this judge, his late adolescence, whether he dissembled about his conduct toward young women, or his efforts to get other conservative judges on the bench.
Social movements work to bring greater engagement to events they don’t always choose, much less create. When successful, they increase attention to the issues they care about. #MeToo didn’t pick the Kavanaugh confirmation as a battlefront, but its supporters couldn’t ignore it. And they weren’t alone: Christian conservatives now also see salvaging Kavanaugh’s candidacy as key to their larger efforts.
#MeToo made it a little less awful and scary for Christine Blasey Ford to go public with her story, and she’s paid a price for it already. But Professor Blasey Ford’s story–and particularly the attacks on her it generated–encouraged others to tell their own chilling tales of sexual assault–on Twitter, television, and around kitchen tables. #MeToo encouraged dogged reporters like Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow to pursue whiffs of appalling behavior gleaned from odd emails, eventually convincing Deborah Ramirez to tell her story as well, even as she feared the personal costs.
To be sure, a much larger number of women with far more extensive corroboration told stories about candidate Donald Trump–and he was elected anyway. But senators must cast their votes in public, and then face the voters, and people are watching.
Long before any of the allegations about young Kavanaugh were public, many Democrats were determined to oppose his nomination because of his political past, his judicial decisions, and the importance of this swing seat on the court. They didn’t need sexual charges to motivate their attack, but once the charges were public, they were determined to use them. Allegations of sexual assault invite public attention in a way that evasive answers about stare decisis won’t. Blasey Ford’s story, along with Ramirez’s–and who knows who and what else’s tale–reopen Judge Kavanaugh’s candidacy, and expand the scope of the questions he will have to face.
Given what’s now in public, a senator who takes “advise and consent” seriously should ask not only about the specific events detailed, but also young Brett Kavanaugh’s history with alcohol and with women. Those who look at Kavanaugh’s professional history investigating officials charged with sexual misconduct will find his memo to Kenneth Starr, outlining questions for President Bill Clinton, unavoidable. Truth: the language and detail is so explicit and detailed that I clutch when considering a copy and paste. (You can look for yourself here.)
Activists are doing far more to make it hard for senators to ignore them and their issues. Some are calling their senators–or someone else’s. Others are giving money–or promising to give money–to candidates who support their positions. Reporters are looking at how Yale law professors think they can help star women students get prestigious clerkships with an appellate judge. (Note: It includes reviewing photos of potential interview outfits.)
And people are protesting!
The protests started before almost any of us knew about claims of sexual assault, and those who turned out were well-prepared to believe them, even as Kavanaugh’s supporters were rushing to dismiss any claims that might slow confirmation. The search for truth and the seating of a new justice should take more work.
Protest polarizes, and most of us–and certainly most of the senators–have already committed to their side. Thus far, more information feeds the intensity of concern, and senators are digging in on their positions. Judge Kavanaugh’s fate will be determined by a few senators able to raise their heads and look at new information and changing politics. Some may have be able to reconsider their concerns about his jurisprudence on reproductive rights or tribal self-determination. Still others may see a chance to get a candidate for the seat they preferred in the first place (say, Amy Coney Barrett, who excelled academically outside the Ivy League, and is younger and more overtly religious). When two or three senators falter, Senator McConnell and others will orchestrate a way for Kavanaugh to self-righteously withdraw from consideration.
But however this vacancy is filled, the larger struggle is represents will continue. At minimum, presidential vetting of judges will include questions about sexual assault–and youthful drinking–that, I bet, never came up before. But more is possible: if young men worried about how their behavior at parties might compromise their ambitions decades later….well, would that be a bad thing?
Teenagers do stupid things, particularly under the influence of alcohol; for boys, sometimes those stupid things are criminal or violent. Often, offenses are unreported, unprosecuted, or otherwise concealed, and teens get second, third, and sixth chances to grow up. Affluent white kids from “good” families (Brett Kavanaugh’s mom was a judge!) are far more likely to get those extra chances than less advantaged children. I suspect most go on to live better lives, regretting or forgetting youthful mistakes–no matter how awful.
#MeToo has changed the rules about what can be forgotten.
Christine Blasey Ford’s story about being assaulted by drunken teenage boys at a house party is disturbingly believable. In short order, 200 alumnae of her high school signed a letter attesting to the familiarity of a distorted social milieu in which such sexual assaults are part of the atmosphere. Yuck.
#MeToo made it a little bit easier for women to tell their stories, sometimes publicly, but also to each other. It also made many men rifle through their own memories, hoping not to find such stories, and seeking absolution. The world IS changing.
Professor Ford’s willingness to tell her story, first to her family and her therapist, and then to a larger public, reflects the changes in progress. She found immediate amplification and support from an awakened movement against sexual violence. The Senate’s response is also telling, particularly in contrast with the body’s response to allegations against Clarence Thomas in 1991:
When Anita Hill offered testimony of repeated sexual harassment from an uninebriated adult supervisor, the Senate Judiciary Committee looked for ways to contain it. Committee Chair Joe Biden refused to allow corroborating witnesses to testify.* Republican senators Arlen Specter and Alan Simpson ridiculed Ms. Hill, subjecting her to the same sorts of prosecutorial attacks that women who reported sexual assaults typically faced—but in front of a national television audience. Judge Thomas grandstanded in response, comparing the accusations to lynching–and the Senators sat and listened to him.
Justice Thomas has sat on the Supreme Court for more than a quarter-century.
Should she testify before the committee, it’s hard to imagine that Prof. Ford will endure a similar cross-examination. No senator with any thought of ever facing voters again would be willing to do a full Specter.
I don’t expect Judge Kavanaugh to acknowledge that even he was a stupid, drunken, teen boy who did things he now regrets, and that he has, in fact, repented and tried to do better–although this is probably the truth.
I predict a well-prepared Judge Kavanaugh will decry the assault Ford recounts, even as he denies any part of it. He will announce his respect for women, remind the audience that he is the father of daughters, the coach of a girls’ basketball team, and the employer of many women as law clerks. This is, by the way, far more than Clarence Thomas did.
#MeToo has won this rhetorical battle already.
Academic note: people who study social movements have a hard time making sense of this kind of social movement impact. There is no change in law that can be directly traced to the influence of this newest iteration of a movement against sexual violence. Civility in Senate hearings is hard to code, and Kavanaugh may still end up on the Supreme Court. And it’s hard to think of any way to track how many boys will be a little more restrained at parties because they fear some punishment or accountability somewhere in the future.
* Much, much later, former Vice President Biden revisited and regretted the way the Thomas hearings that he managed turned out, although he didn’t contact Hill directly, nor did he come close to apologizing.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, probably made the right call in leaving the Red Hen restaurant during the appetizer course. When the owner of a restaurant tells you that the staff doesn’t want to feed you–regardless of their reasons–you probably don’t want to sample their offerings.
The chef called owner Stephanie Wilkinson at home when the Sanders party entered the restaurant. Upon arriving, she asked the staff how they felt about serving these guests. The staff said they were offended by Sanders’s vigorous defense of the Trump administration’s policies on gays and on immigrants. Wilkinson asked Sanders to leave and comped the cheese plate on the table.
Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was deeper into her dinner at a Mexican restaurant in DC when demonstrators showed up to chant “Shame, Shame.”
At least some in the #Resistance are adopting a zero tolerance approach to high level officials: people who defend the separation of families don’t get to dine in peace publicly; violations of basic morality are not the same as differences on matters of policy.
We know why activists who disrupt the private lives of public figures take a lot of flack. Democracies are supposed to tolerate differences of opinion, and Sanders and Nielsen, for example, were just doing their jobs. We understand why supporters of Trump’s policies attacked the disruption of civility, and aren’t really surprised that even Trump critics have joined in condemning this kind of dinner theater (See Rep. Elijah Cummings, e.g.). There are better ways, they say, to make your political points–although critics rarely suggest alternatives beyond voting.
The dinner disruptions reflect activists’ search for ways to confront the moral horrors they see visibly, and it’s not pretty. In general, we don’t want businesses to deny service to people because of their political views–or, for that matter, their race, religion, or sexual orientation. And we hope that diners at the next table can enjoy their burritos with polite conversation. At the same time, it’s hard to see these petty offenses as remotely comparable to seizing the children of migrants who seek sanctuary.
Effective protest polarizes. It’s usually unpopular.
Critics pull out sanitized versions of Gandhi or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, demanding that activists find ways to express themselves that are easier to ignore. We forget that the canonized activist heroes of the past were all far less popular than, say, the philanthropist football player Colin Kaepernick is today. The Freedom Riders who traveled on interstate buses were far more disruptive than last week’s restaurant protesters. The same is true of the anti-abortion protesters who scream at women walking into Planned Parenthood clinics. The hero is willing to risk being a pariah.
Although civility could be a consistent value, it’s more frequently an excuse to castigate and dismiss political opponents, and it’s easy to catch more than a whiff of hypocrisy; politicians often defend the principled disruption of those they agree with.
Disrupting a dinner is then less a question of ethics than of efficacy, and it’s a tough question. Those who protested Sarah Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen want to focus on the horror and inhumanity of the Trump administration’s policies on immigration, not table manners. Their decidedly uncivil protests succeeded to the extent they drew attention to those policies. If, however, Trump supporters can avoid defending holding children hostage by attacking the manners of their opponents, it’s time to try something else.
From the moment Montgomery County prosecutors decided to take another crack at Bill Cosby after a mistrial less than a year ago, critics have speculated about how the growing #MeToo movement would affect what went on in the courtroom. In the wake of Cosby’s conviction yesterday, on three counts of aggravated assault, pundits rushed to the airwaves and their keyboards declaring that the movement mattered.
It’s worthwhile to think about how.
The raft of studies on social movement outcomes mostly ignores court cases, focusing instead on policy, politics, and personal lives. All provide somewhat easier settings in which to assess influence. Courts aren’t supposed to be swayed by the world outside. The notion that a movement might influence the outcomes of legal proceedings absent a change in law invokes a kind of examination that is necessarily more speculative than what usually passes in social science journals–but more rigorous and analytical than found in the best journalism.
Courts are supposed to decide cases, not causes. Judges work to wall off the influence of politics and personal biases in shaping the scope of evidence presented in a trial. They instruct jurors to ignore outside influence and focus on presented evidence and the law.
But, because trials take place on Earth–and in specific places and times–some degree of outside influence is unavoidable, and certainly not always good. Egregious decisions, say convicting John Scopes or acquitting racists who murdered civil rights workers, are larded in the nation’s history. Right now, jurors are notoriously reluctant to convict police officers of killing unarmed Black men–if they can be convinced that the police were doing their best. Such things aren’t absolute or inevitable.
Movements can affect the world in which trials take place and the many decisions attorneys, judges and jurors make–all within the letter of the law.
In this Cosby case, Montgomery County prosecutors chose to pursue charges against a famous and well-heeled offender for criminal acts committed in 2004. The trial would be expensive and time-consuming, and it’s hard to think they would have taken it on without thinking they could win. They charged Cosby with assaults committed against one person, but could not help but know that scores of other women had reported similar stories of assaults over the previous thirty years.
The movement publicized those stories, suggesting support for those who would go public with their own experiences. Activism made it slightly less difficult and risky for women to come forward, and more likely that their stories would be heard and believed, and that they could find and afford lawyers. This is one way coming out works to build a movement.
When the jury hung in the first trial, prosecutors again calculated the prospect of another trial. It’s understandable that an elected District Attorney would be attentive to public opinion on Cosby and on sexual assault. (See Jia Tolentino’s sharp recounting of the tale of the Cosby trials.)
The judge in the second trial ruled that the prosecution could present five witnesses to establish Cosby’s pattern of conduct with young women, while only one such witness testified in the first case. Of course, this testimony made it easier to believe Andrea Constand. Surely, the judge knew there were more than 50 other women who had been testifying outside the courtroom.
It’s hard to think that the jurors, even ones who hadn’t heard about Cosby’s previous offenses, would have been able to avoid all discussion of sexual assault in the entertainment industry since #MeToo. The flood of stories of exploitation and assault in the industry made the charges against Cosby more credible–and no less horrifying.
The guilty verdict provided a kind of moral vindication, not only for Constand, but for 59 other women who had told their stories about Cosby, and possibly the much larger number abused by wealthy and powerful men (see this take by Judy Huch). But the criminal court provided no restitution. The victims are still left to find their own ways to move on with their lives. We hope that solidarity with others who came forward provides some help.
The promising story here is that the Cosby verdict reflects larger changes in the world, that today’s television stars won’t be able to accumulate decades-long histories of abuse and assault, and that it will be harder to stay silent about sexual assault. A jury ruled in only one case, but just giving that jury the chance to consider the facts in that case was a movement victory.
(recycled, augmented, and reedited)
Less than a week after Edna Chavez, the charismatic seventeen year old high schooler from South Los Angeles, electrified a national crowd with a demand to end gun violence, Californians celebrate the legacy of another Chavez.
On my campus, we commemorated Cesar Chavez Day today, rather than March 31 (his birthday), by closing. The state established the holiday in 2000, and six other states have followed suit. In California, the legislature calls upon public schools to develop appropriate curricula to teach about the farm labor movement in the United States, and particularly Chavez’s role in it.
A campaign to establish a national holiday has stalled so far (The Cesar Chavez National holiday websiteseems to have last been updated in 2008), but last year President Obama issued a proclamation announcing a day of commemoration, and calling upon all Americans “to observe this day with appropriate service, community, and education programs to honor Cesar Chavez’s enduring legacy.”
Political figures have many reasons for creating holidays, including remembering the past; identifying heroic models for the future; recognizing and cultivating a political constituency; and providing an occasion to appreciate a set of values. Regardless of the original meaning, the holidays take on new meanings over time. Columbus Day, for example, is celebrated as an occasion for pride in Italian Americans (e.g.), and commemorated and mourned as a symbol of genocide and empire (e.g.).
Cesar Chavez’s life and work is well worth remembering and considering, particularly now. His career as a crusader was far longer than that of Martin Luther King discussed (here and here) and he was far more of an organizer than Fred Korematsu (discussed here). Chavez’s Medal of Freedom was awarded shortly after his death in 1993, by President Clinton, but many of his accomplishments were apparent well before then.
As a young man, Chavez was an agricultural worker; by his mid-twenties, he became a civil rights organizer, working for the Community Service Organization in California. With Dolores Huerta, in 1962 Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers. Focusing on poor, mostly Mexican-American workers, Chavez’s vision for activism was right at the cornerstone of racial and economic justice. Establishing an organization, however, is a long way from winning recognition and bargaining rights as a union.
Chavez was a tactician, a public figure, a charismatic, and something of a mystic. Modeling his efforts after Gandhi’s successful campaigns, Chavez was an emphatic practitioner of active nonviolence. He employed boycotts, strikes, long fasts, demonstrations, long marches, and religious rhetoric in the service of his cause. He also registered voters, lobbied, and worked in political campaigns. He was a tireless and very effective organizer for most of his life.
But holidays are best celebrated with an eye to the future, rather than the past.
On Cesar Chavez Day this year, we can think about the large and growing Latino community in the United States. The 2010 Census reports that Latinos now comprise roughly 1/6 of the American population, and more than 1/3 of the population in California. This is the youngest and fastest-growing population in America today, and they are severely underrepresented in the top levels of politics, education, and the economy. The civil rights map is at least as complicated as at any time in American history, but not less important or urgent. (The struggle about the DREAM Act is reminiscent of the debate about Voting Rights 45 years ago.) The future of American Latinos is very much the future of America.
And Chavez saw the civil rights struggle as a labor campaign. When Chavez and Huerta started their campaign, nearly one third of Americans were represented by unions. The percentage now is now just about 10 percent, and less in the private sector.
And public sector workers, even if represented by unions aren’t doing so well. The ongoing conflict in Wisconsin is all about weakening unions that are already making very large concessions on wages and pensions. The campaign in Wisconsin is part of a larger national effort, which is playing out in Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere. Even in states where anti-union forces are weaker, state employees face lay-offs, wage cuts, and increased health and pension costs.
This year, the Supreme Court will rule in Janus vs. AFSCME, and court watchers expect the Wisconsin model to be immediately exported across the country. [The wildcat teachers strikes in West Virginia, and now Kentucky, with credible threats in Oklahoma and Arizona, offer the hint of a new resurgent labor… more later.]
But, we need to remember that you can’t attack teachers, nurses, police officers, and firefighters without hurting the people they serve: us.
Or should I say, US?
We commemorate the past to help guide the future. Edna Chavez, working in an urban setting far from Cesar Chavez’s organizing, carries the legacy forward, and adds more.