In defense of protesting outside judges’ houses | Will Bunch Newsletter
Plus, a new report lays out what it would really take for action on climate
On Monday, top honors in journalism and the arts — the Pulitzer Prizes — were doled out. These remarkable stories are a window to our world, as you’ll see in several spots here. For starters, I’m worried about what our government doesn’t want us to know, including what our armed drones are really doing in Syria and other hot spots. The New York Times found out. That’s one more reminder why we need the First Amendment more than ever.
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U.S. leaders have walled themselves off from accountability. Their sidewalks are fair game
It’s starting to become a Washington, D.C., tradition. One day, a once-revered and now tarnished institution does the unthinkable. In this case, the unprecedented leak of a draft Supreme Court decision that would roll back 49 years of women’s reproductive rights. The next day, the giant fence goes up.
If the the 8-foot-high, ”non-scalable” fence that workers scrambled to erect at the main, southside entrance to the nation’s highest court looks familiar, it’s because the exact same barrier was hastily thrown up around the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 after loyalists to the then-president of the United States violently attempted a coup to keep him in office. Apparently if the world’s former greatest democracy is going to crumble, it would like a little privacy, please.
When I was coming of age in the early 1970s, in the final weeks of Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted an embattled White House surrounded by barbed concertina wire and eventually hidden behind a concrete wall. It was supposed to be a metaphor. Today, life imitates art — and yet the real-world Grand Prix-style barriers protecting our government are also symbolic of a ruling elite desperate to evade accountability.
You see it everywhere. In the 2020s, the First Amendment — that bold cornerstone of the American Experiment meant to give citizens the right to assemble, to air their grievances against the government, and to speak freely — is dying a death of 1,000 cuts, along with the occasional samurai whack.
Reporters are barred from covering routine political events and informing voters on what major candidates are doing. One political party has all but killed debates for the 2024 presidential election while it looks to avoid tough questions here in Pennsylvania. Freedom of information laws — one of those Watergate-era reforms meant to tear down the metaphorical walls — are increasingly a joke, with Democratic and Republican administrations vying to see who can turn down more requests. And, yes, I do think President Biden should have more news conferences. But let’s never forget that he’s following The Former Guy who lied to the American people more than 30,000 times in office, and got away with it.
Everyday people are mad, and now that the Supreme Court seems on the brink of shattering the illusion that the moral arc of civil rights in America bends toward justice, they are even angrier. Outrage, like water, seeks an outlet — so it’s hardly surprising that some protesters found one on the public thoroughfares outside the leafy homes of some of the justices, including those of Brett Kavanaugh, Chief Justice John Roberts, and the writer of the leaked draft opinion, Samuel Alito.
At Kavanaugh’s residence in upscale Chevy Chase, Md., the protests have been organized not by outside agitators but by a nearby neighbor, Lacie Wooten-Holway, a 39-year-old teaching assistant and mother of two who says she has had an abortion and is a survivor of sexual assault. She says the stakes are too high to remain silent. “I organize peaceful candlelit vigils in front of his house,” she told a neighbor who questioned her tactics, recorded by the Washington Post. “We’re about to get doomsday, so I’m not going to be civil to that man at all.”
“The world is watching,” dozens of protesters chanted in a chilly May rain on Sunday as they marched from Kavanaugh’s house to Roberts’ home and back again. One carried a sign that read: “If you stay silent in the face of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” They kept moving on the public roads and sidewalks, and no one was arrested, because no laws were being broken. In fact, it looked just like the freedom of assembly and airing of grievances that James Madison designed.
Go back to colonial times or early America and one reason that villages didn’t have police departments is because codes and morals were enforced by fear of shame from the community — but times have changed, with an elite ruling class that floats above the general public. When the elites in question are conservatives like Kavanaugh or Roberts, they have a friend in Fox News and other right-wing outlets, which have barely covered the looming threat to the rights of 51% of Americans but have devoted non-stop, end-of-the-world coverage to these small protests. Elite pundits, even supposedly liberal ones, have circled the wagons around the right to total privacy for these jurists who are about to take down women’s rights to privacy.
Indeed, the ability of Fox and friends to whip up mass outrage over predictable left-wing protests around this expected majority decision makes me suspicious that this cynical ploy is the main reason Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision was leaked in the first place. To make this the story — and not the reversal of Roe v. Wade by judges who testified under oath that the case was settled law. This was done with the knowledge that the cowardly deer-in-the-headlights Democratic Party leadership would play right into their hands.
Sure enough, on cue, President Biden’s press secretary — and soon-to-be-wealthy MSNBC pundit — Jen Psaki took the bait with a statement from her boss that he supports a right to protest that should “never include violence, threats, or vandalism” and then invokes the judges’ safety. This badly conflates two issues, since there’s been no violence, threats, or vandalism at or near the judges’ homes — but the president amplified a Fox News talking point. Meanwhile, tens of millions of American women are still waiting to hear much more forcefully from Biden on how he is going to fight for their rights.
On Capitol Hill, bipartisan legislation led by Biden’s close Delaware ally Sen. Chris Coons to beef up security for Supreme Court justices’ families won Senate approval in just one day — even though the Democrats who ostensibly control both houses of Congress haven’t raced to vote to enshrine women’s reproductive rights. I’m fine with the added security but there’s something creepy about the same people who watched 3.7 million American children slip back into food insecurity while doing nothing to extend the Child Tax Credit now tripping over each other in about 10 hours to do something nice for nine of their fellow steak connoisseurs at the Capitol Grille.
Look, you can certainly debate whether it’s smart political strategy to protest in front of a Supreme Court justice’s home, but let’s get one thing straight. The people marching peacefully on public streets airing their grievances outside the homes of Supreme Court justices have every constitutional right to do so. Period, full stop. And as long as the keepers of American autocracy keep erecting those 8-foot barriers to keep you away, the louder you need to get. They are the ones who declared war on your established rights. When silence is not an option, they need to hear from you.
Yo, do this
Monday’s Pulitzers were also a reminder of how we don’t talk enough about what a thriving, diverse arts and journalism scene exists right here in America’s founding city of Philadelphia. The award for drama went to Philly’s James Ijames — assistant theater professor at Villanova University and a lead artistic director at the Wilma Theater — for Fat Ham, his reimagination of Hamlet at a Black family’s barbecue in the South. No longer hampered by the pandemic, you can see it at New York’s Public Theater. Meanwhile, a podcast with deep Philly roots — Suave, from Futuro Media and PRX — won a Pulitzer for audio reporting. It follows the challenges of a North Philadelphia man freed in 2017 after a life sentence for murder. You can listen to it here.
The likely overturn of Roe vs. Wade by the Supreme Court has a lot of people asking how America got to this point on abortion rights, and where do we go next? A new video from the team at NowThis News narrated by the actor and activist Alyssa Milano is a quick overview of the patriarchy’s long war on women’s choice. It also points to a possible solution: the revival of the Equal Rights Amendment, which faded just short of approval in the late 1970s and is currently the subject of a constitutional debate over how or whether it can be approved today. The ERA is definitely long overdue.
Ask me anything
Question: Why does the GOP think that criminalizing abortion is a good thing and a winning election issue? — Via leon peters (@LPeterP) on Twitter
Answer: Leon, your question hits hard on the changing (yet often misunderstood) nature of today’s Republican Party, which seems to have abandoned traditional coalition building as it moves toward a straight-up authoritarian movement. That means the GOP starts with an overarching goal — how to sustain “a traditional way of life,” which embraces strains of patriarchy and white supremacy and rejects modern multiculturalism — and then works backward on how to achieve it. A mid-20th-century regime that controls women’s ability to make choices — which starts with reproductive rights, but doesn’t stop there — is central to this worldview. What’s happening at the Supreme Court and in red-state legislatures is an offensive to enshrine this approach, even though it’s opposed by nearly 2/3 of the American people. No wonder that Republicans have relished both the existing tools of minority rule — the filibuster, gerrymandering, the Electoral College, etc. — but also looked to expand it through voter suppression and now an even scarier embrace of the Big Lie. This is the only way to impose their unpopular policies.
Backstory on what it would take to get serious on climate
Ukraine, the Supreme Court, the midterm elections ... we’ve all been distracted lately. Many American news viewers probably haven’t heard about the catastrophic long-term heat wave in Pakistan and India, where days of temperatures above 120°F have killed crops, set landfills ablaze, and closed schools. What would cause people to take climate change seriously enough to support radical steps to stop it? Well, it sort of happened once for a few weeks, in the spring of 2020 when Americans in particular stopped driving and burning fossil fuels — not to make a statement about global warming but to cope with the more immediate crisis: COVID-19. Dana Fisher, the University of Maryland sociologist who studies protest movements, including climate action, published a paper this week looking at what could trigger changes in the way that people live — changes so dramatic that experts call this concept an “AnthroShift.”
The extreme changes to work and social habits that came with the 2020 coronavirus lockdown was a chance to see such an AnthroShift in action. Two years later, the UN’s main climate panel is predicting planetary catastrophe if the world’s carbon output doesn’t start falling as soon as 2025, but white papers don’t make the threat feel real, apparently. Fisher told me on Monday that the COVID example shows what “is only possible when there is a huge shock. Such a shock could be driven by ecological disaster, war, pandemic, or another unforeseen risk, but only that will lead to the type of transformational social change that is needed to address the climate crisis head on.” That’s unfortunate, but based on what we’ve seen so far in the 2020s, it’s getting hard to imagine any other way.
Recommended Inquirer reading
In an era of political earthquakes, this spring’s looming reversal of the 49-year era of reproductive rights rooted in the Roe vs. Wade case, and a likely assault on other civil rights, is about 9.1 on the Richter scale. In my Sunday column, I visited an abortion rights rally in Delaware County and spoke to women there about losing the America that we once knew. Over the weekend, I voiced my growing alarm over what’s happening politically in Pennsylvania as the Christian nationalist Doug Mastriano looks poised to grab the GOP gubernatorial nomination — and I questioned whether Democrat Josh Shapiro really wants to boost him as a November opponent.
This is the spot in the newsletter where I share and promote the work — both entertaining and vitally important — carried out by my amazing colleagues at The Inquirer. This week I have some help from the Pulitzer Prize board, which on Monday cited a team of Inquirer reporters as one of three national finalists for Explanatory Journalism, for the series about gun violence in Philadelphia called “Under Fire.” These vital pieces have both sought to show where shootings are mostly taking place in our city, but — more importantly — to answer the more difficult question of why. It’s great to see the journalists who did this — Chris Palmer, Dylan Purcell, Jessica Griffin, Mensah M. Dean, Anna Orso, Mike Newall, James Neff, Nancy Phillips, and Dan Rubin — get the recognition they deserve. You can also celebrate their work and ensure its future by subscribing to The Inquirer today.