#MeToo, Brett Kavanaugh, and the influence of social movements

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. CommitteeFILE - University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill is sworn in, in the Caucus Room before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this Oct. 11, 1991 file photo. Virginia Thomas said in a statement Tuesday Oct. 19, 2010 that she was "extending an olive branch" to Hill, now a Brandeis University professor, in a voicemail message left over the weekend asking Anita Hill to apologize for accusing the justice of sexually harassing her. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson, File) 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.

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Civility and its discontents

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.

636654372411132914-red-hen1.jpgThe 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.

Image result for anti-abortion protest planned parenthoodCritics 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.

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#MeToo and the (2nd) Cosby trial

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 Image result for #metoo protestconviction 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 Image result for Cosby courthousethinking 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 Image result for Courtroom protest, sexual assaultnumber 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.

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Cesar Chavez Day, 2018

(recycled, augmented, and reedited)

Less tImage result for edna chavez speech, stephon clarkhan 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.

Dolores Huerta, 2009

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.

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#BlackLivesMatter & #NeverAgain

Edna Chavez, a student leader from South Los Angeles, spoke powerfully at Saturday’s rally, and stood up for Stephon Clark. (I missed it the first time through, overwhelmed by the crowd chanting the name of her murdered brother, “Ricardo.”)

In addition to sharing their spotlight, the Parkland kids are working to link campaigns against gun violence, including police violence.


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#MarchforOurLives and #BlackLivesMatter: more to come…

I didn’t hear Stephon Clark’s name at the spectacular Washington, DC March for Our Lives.

Days before, Sacramento police shot and killed Clark in his grandmother’s backyard. They thought they saw Clark holding a gun, and fired 20 times to protect themselves and the neighborhood. No gun was recovered, only a cell phone near Clark’s body.

The next day, demonstrators closed off the interstate protesting a tragic instance of gun violence, which didn’t quite fit into the gun control agenda at the demonstration. But the young organizers are working hard to deal with the complicated dynamics of race.

The savvy Parkland kids know that they are riding a (mostly) positive wave of mainstream attention. [They’ve bravely taken a beating from trolls on social and partisan media–another part of contemporary movement politics.] They also know how different the reception they’ve gotten is from the BlackLivesMatter activists just a few years ago. Race and class are part of the story.

These new organizers, determined to control their demonstration, kept grown-up and professional speakers off the stage. In a striking reversal of the typical large demonstration, the oldest people with access to a mic were the performers, all in their 20s and 30s.

The Parkland kids were determined to share their moment and their spotlight with black and brown kids who had also lost friends and family to gun violence, and not just in schools.

The seventeen speakers included the key organizers from Stoneman Douglas, who threw attention to powerful speakers from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.

Junior class president Jaclyn Corin acknowledged their spotlight in her speech:

We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence, But we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.”

She then introduced Yolanda Renee King, Martin Luther Student Gun ProtestsKing’s 9 year old grandaughter, who claimed the moment in talking about her dream.

Both the podium and the attendees were a far more colorful crowd than a typical national demonstration. The speakers were all very clear that gun violence was a bigger problem than school safety, and they were determined to take it on. They want safer stores, streets, and communities.

The Parkland kids displayed a sophistication about politics that people who don’t know high school students will find surprising.

Delaney Tarr, who anchored Stoneman DouglasMandatory Credit: Photo by JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock (9475179ae) Delaney Tarr March For Our Lives in Washington, USA - 24 Mar 2018 Delaney Tarr, a survivor of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, speaks at during the March For Our Lives in Washington, DC, USA, 24 March 2018. March For Our Lives was organized in response to the 14 February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The student activists demand that their lives and safety become a priority, and an end to gun violence and mass shootings in schools.‘s daily newscast, was clear about the need to constantly demand more from government:

There are so very many things, so many steps to take. Like right now, sign our petition. It takes two seconds and it matters. We will take the big and we will take the small, but we will keep fighting. When they give us that inch, that bump stock ban, we will take a mile.

We are not here for bread crumbs. We are here for real change.

We are here to lead.

The Parkland kids are heroes, smart, brave, and committed. They’re confronting a difficult politics that, so far, is stacked against them. And they’re trying to do more.

But something was missing. Black Lives Matter focuses on gun violence perpetrated by police, something that escaped attention from the speaker’s rostrum. The politics of recognizing this threat is tougher, and it threatens the mainstream support the Parkland kids have won.

But it’s connected.

As a matter of policy, police who know that they might encounter well-armed miscreants in any situation are more likely to mistake a wallet or phone for something more dangerous. Fewer guns in our streets will make a difficult and dangerous job a little less so.

As a matter of politics, the Parkland kids saw police coming to their aid, a view that’s far less common in other communities. Building an effective and sustainable youth movement means incorporating the diversity of America.

March for Our Lives Emma GonzalezIt’s hard work. The Parkland kids are off to a great start; under tremendous pressure, they’ve worked very hard to build coalitions beyond their suburban enclave.

Now maybe the rest of us have to work harder at seeing connections.

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Small victories for the Parkland kids matter–even if you don’t notice

Five of the brave and savvy Parkland kids are on the cover of Time magazine, a cover unlikely to appear in a frame on Donald Trump’s wall.

On the eve of this weekend’s March for Our Lives, a national demonstration supporting modest gun control measures, the kids are already making an impact.

In Florida, which has been an extremely congenial setting for gun rights advocates over the past two decades, government responded to the school shooting and the kids’ efforts by changing the laws….a little.

On March 9, 2018, Governor Rick Scott signed into law a bill that makes it a bit more difficult to buy a gun. The new law raises the age for legal purchase of a rifle from 18 to 21 and institutes a 3 day waiting period for most gun buyers. It also prohibits the sale of “bump stocks,” which allow a semi-automatic weapon to function more like an automatic weapon and fire multiple rounds more quickly.

Florida didn’t ban assault weapons like the semi-automatic rifle the school shooter used, nor did it ban the specific weapon, the AR-15. The state didn’t institute regulations on high capacity magazines, nor did it tighten background checks of potential buyers.  The legislative response was a compromise that, for the first time, recruited dozens of state legislators endorsed by the NRA to defy their sponsors…a little. [Sixty-seven state legislators risked their “A” ratings from the NRA.]

Far less than what the Parkland kids wanted, it was also a greater concession than gun rights supporters imagined they would have to make.

And it’s not just Florida:

The US Congress is about to pass an omnibus spending bill that deals the NRA a double-barreled defeat on small issues that are likely to escape much national attention.

First, the new spending bill deletes a provision passed by the House that allows a concealed carry permit issued by any state to be valid in every state. This would have meant that a permit issued in a state with few restrictions or checks, like Arizona, would be valid in more restrictive states, like California. The NRA supported the bill, and House conservatives are outraged that they’ve lost on it…for now.

Stopping the other side from making gains is also a victory, even if it doesn’t always feel like one.

Also important, the spending bill clarifies that a restriction on gun violence research implemented two decades ago does not restrict public health research on gun violence. In 1996, a Republican Congress passed a spending bill that prohibited the Centers for Disease Control  from promoting restrictions on guns and cut $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget. All concerned viewed the Dickey amendment as the death knell for Image result for Parkland kids protestfederal funding on gun violence.

You see, just a few years before someone had published a research report that showed a gun in the home was more likely to result in injury than protection for those who lived there. The NRA pushed the amendment to end research that might diminish the appeal of guns for some buyers. [Rep. Jay Dickey (Arkansas, Republican), now out of office, says he regrets the impact of the amendment he championed.]

Small victories matter in a long political battle, moving the policy debate in inches over time. The challenge, for gun rights advocates, is to get their supporters outraged over any encroachment.

The trick, for the Parkland kids and their allies, is to find and claim such victories, gracelessly, and demand more.

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