At the corner of East Capitol and 1st Street NW

March 26, 2012

So I walked over to the Supreme Court this morning, around 11:50am, after day 1 of oral argument ended in HHS vs. Florida, aka Is Obamacare Constitutional?

Every time I see or go near a public political protest, I’m reminded of something my dad — who was no stranger to a good Vietnam anti-war demonstration — used to always say: the only rational reason to go to a street protest is to meet girls. Period.

But, then again, he brought some of his liberal elitist’s narrow mindset to the term rational. Street protest certainly seems not only appropriate, but almost necessary for those shut out of the normal democratic process (i.e. African-Americans denied the right to vote; people under 21 who were being drafted pre-26th amendment; etc.). Not that any of that applies in this case. But as a libertarian, I’m willing to let a thousand flowers bloom; neither the means nor ends of others’ peaceful political activities need be rational in our own eyes. And the very practice of political activity, no matter how irrational or wacky, probably has some significant civil society benefits.

Anyway, here are some photos I took. I have a few thoughts — none addressing the constitutionality or soundness of Obamacare, you have ten thousand better source options than me for that today— below the pictures.

An anti-ACA protester, with Court in background. Hmmm... I do prefer declared wars to undeclared ones.

A news conference and a protest, with the Capitol in the background

This picture shows the crowd. I took it from the steps of the Court plaza

Here are three things I was thinking about as I walked down 1st Street NE:

1. The scene in front of the Court was not particularly memorable. Pretty weak showing by the demonstrators today. Maybe that was because no one cares about the Anti-Injunction Act and everyone is saving their big guns for tomorrow. Maybe it was because this is just another stop on a multi-year protesting circuit around this issue. It certainly wasn’t the weather: a windy but otherwise beautiful March day in Washington, with flowers in bloom and barely a cloud in the sky. By the time I got there, the grassroots protesters were easily outnumbered by the suits and media and, well, people like me, down there to take it all in and gawk. There was very little animosity; I saw a handful of cross-ideological chats going on. No slogans being shouted. Pretty serene, actually. Nothing compared to the major right-to-life protests, which are easily 100 or 500  times as large.

Now, this is not to say that I was disappointed. I think everyone should take a walk by the Supreme Court at least once in their life as a major case is being decided. It’s a very small-r republican feeling. And an instructive one too. The Court building itself is an iconic backdrop; you are directly across the street from the Capitol. The attorneys and interest groups hold dueling news conferences, like trial-lawyers from the movies. Reporters and photographers have massive setups, which serve to remind you that so much of this is staged, and so much of the television coverage scripted. And, most importantly, there’s a sense when you stand among the protesters that you are at the very interface of citizen and government in a republic. Also, markets in everything:  if you went there today, you got to see the people being paid to wait in line for entry into tomorrow’s oral arguments.

2. There’s no way around the fact that protesting at the Court is logically awkward. Despite what my father says, I understand the motivations of grassroots demonstrators and protest lobbyist. As I’ve written about before in the congressional context, they believe (probably correctly) that they are influencing policy in some way. But standing outside Capitol South Metro trying to influence staffers is quite different than standing outside the Court, because, well, the Court simply isn’t beholden to public opinion the way legislators are. Now, that’s not to say the Court isn’t influenced by public opinion, just that it’s exceedingly unlikely Anthony Kennedy is looking out his chambers’ window and being shaped by protesters standing on the plaza. If anyone in the government is insulated from public pressure, it’s the Court.

But I think everyone kind of knows this. Even the protesters. And that’s why it’s so odd to go to a protest at the Court plaza: no one there is really trying to influence the Court, at least not directly. The whole game, as with most protests, is to try to influence the national media, who can then file stories that influence public opinion or legislative opinion, or both. Every time I go to a protest at the Court, I always think the protesters are facing the wrong direction: standing there on 1st street, they all have their eyes up on the columns of the courthouse (odd to call it that, isn’t it?), and their backs facing the United States Senate. But try to explain to some intelligent alien what is going on, and his eventual question would almost have to be: why aren’t they standing on the steps of the Senate, or at least looking that direction?

Now, people will claim this is the case with street protests over congressional policy. That the whole point is to influence the media, either to distort public opinion as it is seen by legislators or to change actual public opinion on an issue. That’s true in many cases, but it’s not always true in Washington. The protests and demonstrations at Capitol South metro are there specifically to try to directly influence Congress, without the media middle man. Which sort of reinforces the underlying point: protests at the Court are inherently media events; there’s no other reason to be standing in that particular spot. You aren’t trying for direct influence, and you don’t need to be in Washington. So it strikes me as mostly a coordination game among the protesters or, perhaps more likely, a convenience factor for the press, since they have to be there anyway. I’m not saying it’s not the logical place to conduct the protest. It is.

But even a cursory logical inquiry into it makes you realize the protests are more about the 2012 election that about the court case at hand.

3. The Court protests can’t take advantage of the space. The Supreme Court plaza is really one of the great physical structures for holding a protest. Just a massive flat area at the base of the steps to the Court, all raised up about 10 steps from the street. It’s almost as if they built it with protests in mind. Of course, you can’t really hold your protests on the plaza, because 40 U.S.C. 6135 allows the Court police to keep people off of the plaza. Consequently, all of the protest really takes place on the sidewalk in front of the plaza on 1st Street NE, and the no-man’s land between the 1st street sidewalk and the steps up to the plaza.   Functionally, this is understandable. But it really takes what could be an awesome venue and reduces it to squarely mediocre.

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One Response to At the corner of East Capitol and 1st Street NW

  1. [...] companion on Monday, and he wrote a quick, yet extremely insightful, blog about our visit. His main points being that 1) the scene in front of the Court was not [...]

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