George Clooney was arrested this morning in Washington, DC, protesting outside Sudan’s embassy. They trespassed to call attention to President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir’s military blockade preventing food and humanitarian aid from getting to people on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. (See reports here, here, here, and here.)
Clooney wasn’t alone. The police also slapped plastic handcuffs on his father, Nick Clooney, as well as activists John Prendergast (Enough Project), Benjamin Jealous (NAACP), and Martin Luther King III. The arrested also included Democratic members of the House of Representatives James Moran (Virginia), Jim McGovern (MA), John Olver (MA), and Al Green (TX).
There are a couple of obvious and interesting questions here:
Why is George Clooney, who’s made his reputation and his money in the entertainment industry, becoming the most visible person calling for new policies toward Africa? Should we pay attention to celebrities on difficult and complicated issues? And why do people who have access to mainstream politics institutions resort to civil disobedience to make their claims?
Celebrities in American political life, of course, is nothing new. Making a good living as an actor, athlete, or singer doesn’t mandate the sacrifice of one’s responsibilities and liberties as a citizen. And people with disproportionate access to money and
publicity can do more than most citizens to bring attention to an issue, alternative, or organization. (ABC’s Dana Hughes uses the Clooney story to discuss the larger issues of celebrities in politics, which includes some comments from me, misidentified as “David Meyers.”) A star like George Clooney brings a spotlight with him, and here Clooney has decided to use it to turn attention to Sudan.
George Clooney has never been elected to anything. He can’t demand to testify before a Senate committee, nor can he compel the Senate to pay attention. But Foreign Relations Chair Senator John Kerry (D-MA) knows that his ideas will get more attention coming out of the famous actor’s mouth than his own–and Clooney cooperated. This is smart politics for everyone concerned. They didn’t stop there.
Why the arrest? Clooney was heard in Congress. Presumably, even members of the minority in the House can be heard as well.
There’s a battle for public attention that is every bit as important as the battles within Congress, and it’s even more difficult than campaigns about health insurance or birth control to get public attention. By taking politics outdoors, to the steps of Sudan’s embassy, George Clooney and his allies brought attention to their concerns not only to network news and large newspapers, but also People magazine. Americans who can’t locate Sudan on a map will learn the name of Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, creating possibilities and pressures for further campaigns and political action.
The windows of possibility don’t open very wide or very often on policy toward Africa, but a campaign like this creates a moment. George Clooney’s presence means it will reach a little more broadly into American life and list a little bit longer than it would without him.