For most of my adult life, I have been aware that Republicans have sought to regulate my body through criminal punishment.
But until Tuesday, when I was ejected under threat of arrest from House Republican Jason Chaffetz's hearing room for absolutely no reason, I did not realize that they had it mind to criminally regulate my gaze as well.
When the House GOP works to undermine my rights, I evidently do not even have the right to watch.
My eviction came as Chaffetz's House Government Oversight Committee entertained a mark-up of a disapproval resolution to overturn a local DC law protecting a woman from discrimination in the workplace regardless of her reproductive health choices, during which a group of DC residents seated next to me stood up in an organized protest to chant "DC Votes No." They were then escorted out of the room without incident.
Both Adam Eidinger of the DC Cannabis Campaign and I were then summarily convicted of what can only be called "criminal seating." Neither of us participated in the protest -- I wanted to listen to the entire hearing, and Adam had a pressing family commitment and could not risk the possibility of detention that comes with almost any form of direct action on Capitol Hill. Even before the hearing had started, Adam and I had entered the hearing room together, while the DC residents who arrived to protest stayed outside and planned the timing and nature of their move. I am not surprised that the protestors chose to sit next to us when they entered, but there is no conspiracy to be divined in collegiality.
Despite having done nothing to disrupt the hearing, the staff director approached Adam and me after the others left. He told us to leave, and threatened us with arrest. A Capitol Hill police officer stood over me as I gestured to the Committee and pleaded with the director to ask the congressional members right in front of us for verification; we had done nothing but listen, and I was certain they could attest to that fact.
Soon an additional deployment of police arrived; one officer grabbed my arm and told me to leave. Outside the committee room, still in the grasp of this officer, while I discussed the possibility of wrongful arrest out loud, Kimberly Perry of DC Vote secured my release from custody by insisting that I had not participated in any direct action. As the officer let go of my arm, I saw Adam being carried from the room by several officers (he obviously had refused to leave, on the sound the premise that he done nothing and should not be asked to). He was subsequently arrested and charged with "unlawful entry."
Our expulsion from the room was incidental to the proceedings, yet also indicative of them. The disapproval resolution, a mechanism that allows Congress to overturn any piece of DC City Council legislation within 30 days, advanced not because DC lawmakers had thwarted some cherished tenet of the GOP backlash against feminism; the city had simply not been obsequious enough in deferring to it. DC's Reproductive Health Discrimination Act added personal, reproductive decisions to a list of reasons for which employees could not be fired or otherwise punished; it said nothing about a requiring an employer to provide health insurance to cover such decisions (the point that was under contention in the Hobby Lobby case). When Republicans raised the prospect that the law left the health care question open to interpretation anyway, the DC Council actually passed a subsequent clarification positively stating their purpose was to allow the ability of employers to claim a religious exemption from reproductive coverage intact.
For unfathomable reasons, this was simply not enough in the eyes of the Heritage Foundation political action group. Republicans in the House, and Ted Cruz in the Senate, introduced the disapproval resolution even after these placating gestures from the City Council. Republicans do not wish simply to bury safe access to reproductive health choices, they want to dance on the grave.
As was the case with the recent congressional challenge to DC's marijuana legalization initiative passed during the "cromnibus," the move to overturn the will of a majority of District voters and their duly elected representative was once accompanied by procedural irregularities. Yesterday, when GOP Chair Chaffetz convened his Oversight Committee to discuss the measure, the first such disapproval resolution in 23 years, he did so using "mark-up" procedures that allowed for no amendment and at the unusual of 5:00 p.m., a tactic I'll call a media "happy hour" deterrent.
District leaders, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, did not even get a seat at the witness table.
Nor will Washington DC get a vote on the floor. DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton railed against the disapproval resolution from her seat on the Oversight Committee -- to my mind, the most qualified person to speak on the law, since she was the only person in the room whose name I've seen on a DC ballot -- but, as in all other instances, she will be barred from casting a vote if and when the disapproval resolution is called up by the full House. While the resolution is unlikely to come to the floor before the May 2 deadline, it is in fact extremely likely the GOP will revert to placing its contents into a federal budget rider, just as they did with marijuana legalization, forcing District and privacy advocates to choose between defending their beliefs and shutting down the government.
This pattern is truly distressing, and deserves much more discussion: in a kind of modified "shock doctrine," the GOP has quietly reordered the governing question from "does this measure merit approval?" to "does disapproval of this measure warrant a crisis?" No more do our congressional majorities tally assent, and neither do they reflect deliberation; they measure the power of potentates with no regard for democratic principles.
Finally, let me offer a word to my friends. As I made my way home last night and shared my story of expulsion, I met with quiet disapproval and even questions about whether this unsavory dispute would dim prospects or serve to cast doubt on my reasonableness. I struggled to find words to explain to people who had my best interests at heart that I had done nothing, but, even among progressives, there is a reflexive assumption that such extraordinary measures must have been prompted by something; "maybe you have the wrong friends?" a close ally ventured.
I don't have the wrong friends, I have gravely empowered enemies and, to my chagrin, weak defenders. Just as Republicans credential their politics by asserting power over my disenfranchised body, Democrats gather to implore them not to. But not a single Democrat on that Committee stirred over my forcible removal, or worse, Adam Eidinger's arrest, and not a single one has issued a word of disapproval since, reluctant to disrupt the comity of committee relations.
Many women express frustration over the acceptability of backlash politics. My own view is that while historical and present-day sins of racism remain the most serious, the backlash against women, particularly women of color, has been the most successful. If others happen to agree then I'd like to share how yesterday's experience has recalibrated whom I regard as a "defender": I don't count words, I count risks. Unless we begin to hold the Democratic Party accountable to progress, we will be complicit in a deteriorating status quo.
And we will be helping to redefine the mere act of witnessing as a form of activism, and further stigmatizing activism as a form of troublemaking. These are all conducive to, and suggestive of, an authoritarian view. Those punished for more democratic inclinations need a respectable redoubt; we need a Democratic Party that fights more than it fundraises.
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