It sounds like a dramatic scene: Seventeen Democratic members of Congress arrested for protesting the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Police officers warning them over a loudspeaker to “cease and desist.” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, amid a crowd of demonstrators, yelling, “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”
But the reality of Tuesday’s demonstration outside of the Supreme Court was a bit more subdued. According to Capitol Police tweets, the whole thing lasted less than half an hour.
A little after 1 p.m., a bunch of members of Congress showed up and blocked a street. Around 1:20 p.m., they were corralled into a shady area, where they were ticketed and issued $50 fines. Videos of the event show several members—including Reps. Ilhan Omar, Carolyn Maloney, and Jackie Speier—simply walking away from the protest; they didn’t force officers to escort them from their site of civil disobedience.
So, if the gathering was quickly dispersed, forced no action, and didn’t appear to inconvenience anyone other than a few Capitol Police officers, what exactly was the point?
Some commentators, including many on the right, mocked the stagecraft of the event, disparaging Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for holding their hands behind their backs—perhaps in imitation of being handcuffed?—as police led them away. Adding to the sense that the whole event was a publicity stunt with no material impact, Rep. Pramila Jayapal told a reporter, “I was running to be arrested but I missed it.”
The fact that Jayapal and others knew they’d be ticketed for obstructing the street should not be counted against them. It’s not uncommon in activist organizing to plan a protest with the express intent of getting arrested. In fact, it’s a time-honored tactic, less a cheap bid for attention than a strategic, surefire way to keep an issue in the news and stress an urgent need for action. When a mass of protesters gets cuffed—or, er, gently herded onto the grass—the media pays attention. As Omar put it in a tweet, it was a way to “raise the alarm” about the GOP’s escalating attack on reproductive health care.
That part of the plan worked. National news outlets covered the fracas, sure, but local outlets, which often reach a broader and less politics-obsessed audience, also reported on the demonstration. In Missouri, they covered the arrest of Rep. Cori Bush. In the Bay Area, there were spots on Reps. Barbara Lee and Jackie Speier. In New Jersey media, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman got her message across. Massachusetts watched a TV news segment on Pressley and Rep. Katherine Clark.
There are surely constituents in each of these states, and elsewhere who have been boiling over with rage in the weeks since the Dobbs opinion came down. They may feel powerless in the face of the naked barbarism of conservatives gleefully sentencing pregnant girls to torture; numbed by the swelling stream of anecdotes of patients suffering needless injury, pain, and infection; or disillusioned and cynical in the wake of Democratic inaction. (Count me among them!)
For millions of people, watching members of Congress exhibit a level of anger and moral outrage that other Democrats have failed to evince might be exactly the motivation they need to stay in the fight—now, as nascent networks of abortion care are forming, and on Election Day, when Democrats need a near-miraculous massive turnout to keep control of the House and Senate. In other words, the efficacy of a protest lies just as much in its capacity to energize supporters as it does in its ability to force immediate change.
And yet, there is something unseemly about the way the representatives are hyping up their arrests.
In a statement, Maloney said, “I have the privilege of representing a state where reproductive rights are respected and protected—the least I can do is put my body on the line for the 33 million women at risk of losing their rights.”
Omar told a reporter, “It was really important for us to be out there to put our bodies on the line. So many people who came before us put their bodies on the line for us to have the freedoms that we have today in this country.”
Pressley tweeted, “Today, we put our bodies on the line to defend abortion rights because the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
The phrase they all used, bodies on the line, is a familiar one in direct-action activism. Usually, it refers to putting oneself in danger to achieve a righteous goal, sometimes quite literally, using one’s body as a shield or blockade. When demonstrators at Donald Trump’s inauguration chained themselves to fences at security checkpoints to prevent attendees from entering the event, they were putting their bodies on the line. So were the protesters who formed a buffer zone around that blockade, forcing Trump supporters to to pry through an extra layer of bodies before they could try to shove past the chain.
Incidentally, Bodies on the Line is also the title of a recent book by Lauren Rankin, who chronicles the history of abortion clinic defenders and escorts in the U.S. For decades, these volunteers have put their bodies in between aggressive anti-abortion protesters and patients who are trying to get in and out of clinics. Before federal law made it a crime to block the entrance to an abortion clinic, defenders used their bodies as human shields, creating safe passageways from the sidewalk to the clinic door, often thanklessly and without fanfare, at considerable risk to themselves.
In this context, the claim that members of Congress put their “bodies on the line” to protect abortion care appears kind of weak. These representatives are acting like they have taken a real risk. The reality is they have gotten fined for “crowding, obstructing, or incommoding,” a surprisingly non-bathroom-related word that means disrupting the public use of space. It doesn’t feel like solidarity with the health care providers and pregnant patients who could face lengthy prison sentences for pursuing abortions so much as a reminder that, as long as the country is held hostage by extremist conservatives on the Supreme Court and filibuster-enamored moderates in the Senate, even the progressives with actual power in this country—who, to be fair, did pass an actual bill that would enshrine abortion rights in U.S. law—believe the best they can do right now is stage a protest photo shoot.
It’s not that I think Maloney and Speier should have ferried a busload of abortion medication to Houston on a press trip. And I’m not suggesting that progressive members of Congress would be of better use to the country if they were in prison for providing illegal abortion services.
But if these legislators want to put their bodies on the line somewhere, they might consider positioning those bodies such that they serve an actual purpose. The next time Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton visits D.C., his itinerary should be littered with congressional blockades. It won’t change the Dobbs decision or convince Sen. Kyrsten Sinema to support a filibuster carveout for abortion legislation, but it will make one cruel politician’s day a little more annoying. That’s a bigger win than the Dems got on Tuesday.