When British colonists dumped 342 cases of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773, the British authorities – that is, the “powers that were” in the New World at the time – regarded the act not only as a destruction of private property but a violent insurrection. The colonists were protesting against the crown, but to the British press they were “incendiaries” whose actions constituted a “riot.”
Americans now look back on this moment as a key spark for the American Revolution and view those protesters not as incendiaries but heroes. Perspectives change; historic truth depends on who’s writing the history. Mind you, the colonists then were simply protesting a tax increase.
Protestors at the United States Capitol and in Maine and Alaska and West Virginia and Arizona this week are protesting the idea that our government, in a rushed and hushed process, may give a lifetime Supreme Court seat to a man who is not only a dangerous right-wing ideologue but one whose off-the-rails, under-oath testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week may have included lies – and who is credibly accused of sexual assault.
People protesting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court are mainly just showing up and speaking up, as is their First Amendment right under the Constitution – the law of the land that those first Tea Party protesters paved the way for. But to hear conservatives twist it, the Kavanaugh protesters are not only physically threatening but dangerous to democracy.
Of course that’s ludicrous. Protest is not only ingrained in the American story but essential to it. Protest isn’t a threat to our democracy but a means of its preservation.
This, my fellow Americans, is what democracy looks like.
But on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the protestors who oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court: “I want to make it clear to these people who are chasing my members around the hall here, or harassing them at the airports, or going to their homes. We will not be intimidated by these people.”
McConnell called the demonstrations of free speech by the American people an “organized effort to delay, obstruct and intimidate those of us who will be voting this week.” Apparently, Republicans think the only ones who should be doing the intimidating is them. We’ll pause here to recall the wave of angry and in-your-face protests by a different sort of “Tea Party” that swept American politics in 2010, propelling Republicans to Congressional victory.
Apparently when American voters chant in the streets at Republicans, that’s wrong, but GOP senators like Lindsey Graham shouting at Democrats during hearings, that’s just fine. Or Brett Kavanaugh – a nominee for Supreme court, remember – shouting at his questioners in the decorous chamber of the Senate office building during his testimony, and threatening Democrats? Apparently that’s fine, too. But Republicans want the American people to hush up.
Look, as someone who used to organize these sorts of “birddogging” protests, I know the tactic of citizens confronting elected representatives can feel uncomfortable. But consider this: protesters have been staging quiet sit-ins for over a week and meeting with senators to share their stories and concerns – and those protests don’t get covered by the media. It’s only when there’s shouting or confrontation that the press perks up (again, just like the Tea Party “revolt” of the last decade).
It is similar to the way that the media ignored weeks of peaceful protests in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. When a few people set a CVS on fire, however, the press descended – and then tsk tsk’d about violent protests, even though it was only covering the protest because a small part of it had turned violent.
Mitch McConnell and his supporters should think about it: If confronting senators in elevators or airports seems outrageous, perhaps he should focus more on the outrage that people are feeling – and the mounting sense of frustration that Republicans have so hamstrung this process, and the progress of our nation in general, that protest is the only avenue left.
What’s more, Republicans are cramming through a nominee who only made 7% of his record even available for the Senate Judiciary Committee to see, had several inconsistencies and misstatements in his initial testimony, and now has been accused of sexual assault by three women, accusations Republicans have avoided thoroughly investigating at every step. Even worse: Republican Senators have derided his accusers’ statements, and, of course, the President added his appalling signature strategy: mockery.
It is outrageous.
This just so happens to be the week of Mahatma Gandhi’s 149th birthday. Gandhi may now be widely celebrated as one of the pioneers of civil disobedience, but once upon a time Gandhi was labeled a “parasite” and British forces opened fire on his peaceful protests.
Again, history depends on who writes it. But core values should be constants. About civil disobedience, Gandhi said he protested “not for want of respect for lawful authority, but in obedience to the higher law of our being, the voice of conscience.” Those protesters on the streets and in the halls of Congress trying to stop Kavanaugh’s nomination? They’re our nation’s conscience.