Protests: Futile or Necessary?
Terry H. Schwadron
July 21, 2022
As a society, do we salute futile protest for its call to attention or trash it over its ineffectiveness?
More than a dozen Democratic members of Congress — including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jackie Spier and Ilhan Omar — were among those arrested by Capitol Police on Tuesday as part of an abortion rights protest in front of the Supreme Court.
They marched from the Capitol to the Court, which has been fenced off for weeks, since shortly after the leak of the draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Within two minutes of arrival, police ordered a halt; instead, they sat on the street and were led off by officers amid chants, though some kerfuffle followed over whether some were handcuffed when they were photographed.
It was classic Civil Rights nonviolent protest, and not even particularly objectionable in the way that taking the protests to justices’ homes or interrupting the dinner of Justice Bret Kavanaugh has played. (By contrast, there was no holding back of protest and hectoring aimed at women trying to enter abortion clinics.)
Of course, the effort to persuade Supreme Court justice that they made the wrong decision in tossing out 50 years of perceived rights to abortion and privacy will prove futile, and it will have little influence in persuading a split Senate to endorse legislation to encode the rights. These are the same lawmakers who want Joe Biden to Do Something Assertive to get around the ruling, like allowing abortions on federal lands.
Political futility aside, it seems important to find ways to reflect the idea that well more than half the country finds the Supreme Court ruling and the resulting Republican campaign to squash rights to privacy, abortion, contraception and sexual choice to be outrageous.
Part of the Process
Many of us have been marching our whole lives over for causes identified as Left or Right. My crowd has been part of marches for fairness, equality, racism and gun control that have the other half of the country calling marchers less than patriotic. There have been just as vociferous marches to support police, military efforts or oil drilling.
In this country, it’s a necessary part of the process to press the case before the public over and over, however bleak the prospects of that issues look at the time. Of course, countering the protest is just as much part of the process.
Even as the House prepared to pass legislation to protect same-sex and interracial marriages, here was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) calling it all a “political charade” meant to “intimidate” the Supreme Court.
“We are here for a political charade, we are here for political messaging,” said Jordan in an effort that clearly was to prove futile against a Democratic House majority. Indeed, 47 Republicans joined with Democrats in enshrining current public law.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.), who often takes positions she acknowledges are futile, specifically argued that the vote against bills to save same-sex marriage and contraception rights were a “protest,” since neither is actually under review by the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s reasoning in the abortion decision threw out the legal underpinnings that had allowed abortion based on personal privacy protections. With that gone, the argument goes, other basic rights are at risk, and, in fact, are being targeted by Republican state legislatures around the country.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) joined in the effort to block a Respect for Marriage Act, arguing that the court doctrine points specifically to state adjudication of such issues. The effort to block the bill is less futile in the politicly split Senate, where the outcome is not clear-cut.
Actually, the opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito specified that the court was acting only because there had never been a congressional authorization for abortion. It was a concurrent opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas that outwardly invited challenges on contraception and same-sex marriage.
Stolen Election Protests
Clearly Donald Trump’s entire Big Lie about a stolen election that defeated him has been the ultimate futile expression, resulting in a web of plots, legal and not, to relitigate the outcome of the vote. Just as clearly, Joe Biden has been sitting in the Oval Office while Trump has continued to fume.
For the sizeable MAGA minority and a whole lot of other Republicans, the continuing desire has been to hold onto that stolen election fable as a north star. It’s why we have needed these House Select Committee hearings on the events leading to the violent Capitol riot in Trump’s name.
What we keep hearing is that while the effort on Jan. 6 was immediately futile, the plot came dangerously close to working.
We should keep that thought in mind when looking at the streets.
However futile at the start, the Vietnam war protests eventually brought about the decision of Lyndon Johnson to skip a reelection campaign, and the war eventually ground to a halt. The Civil Rights movement looked futile for decades before passage of a Voting Rights bill in 1965 and other liberalizing legislation that followed.
It was true of LBGTQ laws and finally a Supreme Court decision that allowed for same-sex marriage, recognizing change long since a reality in America.
There are still protests in the streets for more balanced community policing, over immigration policies, raising questions about climate and environment and in search of health policies that work.
Fighting high prices and getting corporations to pay a fair income tax are proving to be perennial futile efforts. The efforts to limit guns and ammunition for assault-style rifles seems another, despite continuing mass shootings with high-volume weaponry.
The anti-abortion campaign that had been futile for years before the votes to overturn the right finally came about through the machinations of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican allies.
So, don’t be so quick to see marching in the street only as futile effort.
But do cast your ballot, because it turns out it is the only way to turn the passion into something more than slogans.