Perils on the journey from activist to elected official (Akin edition)

Rightwing Watch is promoting a video of Representative Todd Akin, Republican candidate for Missouri’s US Senate seat, acknowledging an arrest long ago for his ongoing efforts against abortion.  Here’s the video that’s everywhere at the moment:

I doubt that many observers will be surprised that Rep. Akin’s opposition to abortion is deeply felt, nor that he has employed various methods to try to stop legal access to abortion.  He has yet to provide the details of the particular protest, more than twenty years ago, that apparently put him, very briefly, in jail.  He has said, however, that his actions were peaceful.

There was a great deal of anti-abortion activism in the early 1990s.  Two decades takes us just about back to the Summer of Mercy, in which anti-abortion activists staged mass demonstrations and clinic blockades at selected sites across the country.  At right is a picture from Wichita, Kansas, posted by anti-abortion activist, Jill Stanek.

Is Rep. Akin’s willingness to engage in civil disobedience on behalf of his beliefs important information to Missouri voters?  I can’t imagine that this new bit of information changes the way Akin’s opponents feel about him.  Surely his record over more than twenty years in the Missouri and US legislatures offers ample evidence of his political vision and commitments.  And unlike other Republicans, say Governor Mitt Romney, Akin is unlikely to have had difficulty convincing voters of the depth and strength of his opposition to abortion.

Is it the fact that Rep. Akin was willing to risk arrest?  Liberal activists, even members of Congress, have risked arrest for causes they saw as important.  At left, see Representative Ron Dellums, a Democrat from California, who was arrested for non-violently blockading the South African embassy.  Rep. Dellums worked inside and outside Congress to end US support of the apartheid regime.  He wasn’t alone;  Republican Lowell Weicker, Senator from Connecticut, was one of many members of Congress who went to jail after protesting outside the South African embassy in 1985.  Much more recently, Democratic Representatives Jim McGovern (Mass.) and Jim Moran (Virginia) joined George Clooney and his father in protesting for human rights in Sudan.

Obviously, these aren’t the same issues, and most readers are unlikely to react the same way to each struggle.  But the Akin story underscores the extent to which non-violent civil disobedience has become a staple social movement tactic in American social movement politics.  People protest when they think it might matter, often after finding frustration with working exclusively through conventional political channels.  Rep. Akin now has the opportunity to own that tradition.  His opponents would be wise to focus on his motivations and beliefs, rather than his willingness to go to jail for them.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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