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Democrats participating in civil disobedience for abortion rights is a good thing

Democratic lawmakers getting arrested for abortion rights could help inspire the base.
Image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrested outside the Supreme Court.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, arrested outside the Supreme Court during a protest of the court overturning Roe v. Wade in Washington D.C., on Tuesday, July 19.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Seventeen House Democrats were arrested Tuesday for obstructing a street outside the Supreme Court while protesting the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It was a commendable protest — and the kind of boldness we need to see more of from Democrats as they try to come to terms with the political crises engulfing the republic.

The Democratic lawmakers, wearing green bandannas bearing the words "Won't Back Down," joined an abortion rights protest and marched from the Capitol to the Supreme Court. They were among the 35 arrested by U.S. Capitol police during the protest.

All I can say is: More of this, please.

The democratic socialist bloc of the Democrats was out in full force, with lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Cori Bush of Missouri and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan getting arrested, along with other less anti-establishment Dems including Reps. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Alma Adams of North Carolina.

All I can say is: More of this, please.

This kind of enthusiasm can be infectious. One Democrat who was arrested, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, said in a statement that she had “never been arrested before, but I can hear the late, great Congressman John Lewis imploring me to ‘make some noise and get in good trouble.’”

Another arrested Democrat, Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan, tweeted, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes to protect abortion rights — even if it means getting arrested.” (He was also arrested the next day at another protest with Senate cafeteria workers pushing for a union contract.)

President Joe Biden and many top Democrats have been flat-footed in their response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, failing both oratorically and in terms of timely policy response to contain the disaster. While weeks after the Supreme Court decision Biden did sign an executive order that helps safeguard access to reproductive health care services, it was only a first step, and it won’t stop the bleeding. In about half of America’s states, women have lost or are expected to lose some or all access to abortion. And Democrats lack the numbers in Congress to pass a federal law protecting abortion rights.

There is no probable short-term solution to the problem, given the difficulty of beating Republicans in midterm elections while Biden oversees an inflation-rocked economy. But over the medium-term, the Democratic Party needs to start thinking creatively about how to galvanize mass mobilization. Encouraging citizens to think about getting in the streets and risking or seeking arrest in order to defend women’s freedom is not a bad idea: If lawmakers feel it is their duty to break the law in order to do what’s right, then it should prompt citizens to reconsider what it might take to win back abortion rights — and many other freedoms that are being encroached upon in this political moment.

There are, however, limitations to how much Democratic lawmakers can get away with civil disobedience without running into the problem of delegitimizing their own role in society. Mass civil disobedience is where movement politics, not party politics, shines. But the spirit of the action is right. Ultimately one hopes Democrats will channel this attitude of challenging institutions through the way they approach governance and institutional reform. It's abundantly clear that the Senate and Supreme Court need to be reformed to protect the country from intensifying extremist, minoritarian rule — will Democrats do what it takes to lead us toward real democracy?