“I don’t care how many members they chase, how many people they harass here in the halls,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech Wednesday. “We will not be intimidated by these people.”
The “they” McConnell referenced are those who have descended on Capitol Hill over the past month to protest the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. Progressive groups have organized rallies and vigils in Washington, DC, and around the United States opposing the nomination. But two groups, Women’s March and the Center for Popular Democracy Action (CPD), have used more aggressive tactics, culminating with Ana Maria Archila confronting Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) in an elevator on live TV.
That moment, which helped prompt Flake to pause the nomination process to allow a one-week FBI investigation, was the result of months of work. According to Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour, the two groups started working closely together to plan a protest of President Trumps’ so-called zero-tolerance immigration policy in June, bringing several thousand women to the Hart Senate office building in Washington, DC. “The intention around that first action was: We wanted to take white women from this idea of marching to more high-impact direct action,” Sarsour said in an interview with Rewire.News.
Plans to protest Kavanaugh began in early July, according to CPD national field organizer Darius Gordon. They began running actions immediately after Kavanaugh was announced as the nominee. “We knew that Kavanaugh was coming in to meet with senators around his confirmation, so our first action was actually bird-dogging, and we got about 70 folks to participate in civil disobedience that day and got his meetings pushed back and canceled that day.”
Bird-dogging is a term used by activists to describe a planned confrontation with an elected or government official, such as Archila’s elevator confrontation with Flake — who will vote to confirm Kavanaugh to the Court.
There’s a process to successful bird-dogging, Gordon says. “It’s having someone who you can find their schedule — of like an elected official that you’re trying to reach — then getting your friends or colleagues together, understanding their different tasks. So who’s asking the questions, who’s going to tell their stories, who’s filming also. Just have a plan [for] when this person’s spotted, and that’s when you snap into action and just go for it.”
The groups’ first major salvo came on September 4, the day the Kavanaugh hearings began. Women in the gallery began speaking against the nomination while being dragged out of the hearing room by Capitol Police. “At the time I don’t think the American people really understood the dire situation we were in with Kavanaugh,” said Sarsour. “Next thing you know, you watched women stand up sharing messages and getting dragged out by Capitol Police. So then people all of a sudden were like, ‘What’s going on here?’ The media immediately reframed. It wasn’t just about Brett Kavanaugh, it was about the women who were opposed to Brett Kavanaugh.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) called the disruptions “hysteria,” a term with misogynistic roots. “The right likes politicizing our movements. We are not politicizing our movements, we are politicized,” said Sarsour. “I think women are inherently political and that’s the problem. When they see women protesting, just the idea of protesting for them becomes, ‘Well you have a political agenda.’ Because our bodies are inherently political.”
Thousands of hours of planning and preparation went into pulling off the protests against the man who could cast the deciding vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Organizers slept on the sidewalk the night before the first hearing, just to ensure they would be able to attend. “What I would love for people to know is that this has required a lot of human resources, a lot of financial resources, and a lot of commitment from people who are exhausted,” said Sarsour. “It’s been really challenging, there’s been a lot of tears, a lot of crying.”
The protests on the Hill took a turn when Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation came to light. “What changed [when Dr. Ford came forward] is that it became a lot more personal. First you’re like organizing as an activist and an organizer and you have this tunnel vision, like there’s [a] campaign that you have to win. But I think when Dr. Ford came out, it opened the floodgates for people to now take this as a personal fight,” said Sarsour, who added that every time a survivor told their story this week, the crowd would respond with, “We believe you.”
For Sarsour, Ford’s allegations became a chance to conduct a conversation about sexual assault. “We saw that this was an opportunity to not only stop the nomination of someone who is conservative and anti-women, but it was actually an opportunity, once and for all, for us to have a high level conversation about believing survivors. Christine Ford gave us that opportunity,” she said.
The crowds in Hart suddenly got bigger and more passionate, with large, seemingly spontaneous actions breaking out in the hallways and offices of key senators. Senators eventually called in Capitol Police escorts to avoid face time with protestors.
That has been inspiring for Gordon, who has done organizing work since 2013. “I think we’ve had some great days where I think our tactics have gotten through to folks … these last two actions in terms of the bird-dogging have gotten days of traction,” he said, referring to Archila confronting Flake and a couple videos from this week showing CPD activists questioning senators at the airport. “Another victory is honestly the folks who are coming out. Every day there are new faces; there are new folks showing up feeling emboldened to tell their story.”
Growing those numbers will only help, since the organizations keep detailed records for future use, Sarsour said. The information they gathered helped them decide to charter a bus of protestors to DC from Philadelphia and helped manage resources to fly in people from Maine or Alaska, two key states in the confirmation fight.
Both Women’s March and CPD have faced intense criticism along the way. The conservative National Review wrote about them, casting suspicion on the groups for their ties to billionaire Democratic donor George Soros, the ever-present bogeyman for the right.
It’s a charge Gordon takes with a grain of salt. “We are civil people. We do not want to block hallways but will if we have to. But to get arrested over and over again for just wanting to talk and hear our voices is something that I think is just a little bit ludicrous,” he said. “The fact is that we’re not being heard and so we have to escalate this tactic, but the result is that we are getting through. To those critics and those folks who are just voicing their opinion, you can go ahead and voice it but we’re going to keep continuing to do these tactics, because we’re getting through.”