It was close to 9 p.m. on a Saturday in early December of 2020. My son, then age 4, and I were putting the finishing touches on our Christmas …
It was close to 9 p.m. on a Saturday in early December of 2020. My son, then age 4, and I were putting the finishing touches on our Christmas tree as “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” played in the background.
That’s when the sound of voices amplified by bullhorns first penetrated our living room. The peace, serenity and holiday spirit of the evening broke as a group of about 20 protesters, some of whom I later learned from the Michigan State Police were armed, gathered outside my home. The protesters — who believed the lie that the November 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump — woke our neighbors with a string of threats, vitriol and provocations. They screamed for me to “come outside” and show myself so that they could confront me about doing my duty as secretary of state and chief election officer and refusing to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in Michigan — which President Biden won by more than 154,000 votes. “No audit, no peace,” they yelled.
I carried my son upstairs and ran bath water loudly to drown out the noise. I worked to stay calm, but I was acutely aware that only one unarmed neighborhood security guard on my front porch stood between my family and the growing crowd. Would the protesters attempt to enter my home? Would a stray bullet enter or ricochet into my son’s bedroom? How long until law enforcement arrived? What would happen when it did?
I thought back to that evening when I saw the recent images of people gathering for candlelight vigils outside the homes of U.S. Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and John Roberts to express their opposition to the leaked draft opinion suggesting an end to the right to abortion in America. By all accounts, these abortion rights demonstrations have been peaceful, and no one was armed or posed an imminent threat. Still, I found the images alarming.
Protest is a kind of theater, as abortion rights activists who dressed as characters from “The Handmaid’s Tale” outside the home of Justice Amy Coney Barrett know. The performance is not just for the target of the protests but also for anyone who sees it via news images or video or social media. The fact is, a group of people targeting just one person, at home, particularly at night, appears menacing. That’s true even if that person is one of the nine most powerful judges in the country or is Michigan’s secretary of state.
The location of the protests, outside the homes of public officials, is the point critics have seized on to denounce them. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia has criticized the protests and asked the federal government to take action against those who engage in them. Florida’s lawmakers went so far as to ban “picketing and protesting” at any person’s private residence; when signing the bill, Gov. Ron DeSantis used fiery language about banning “unruly mobs” and “angry crowds.”
I believe such bans to be unconstitutional. The right of all Americans to peacefully assemble must be protected. But that doesn’t mean that protesting at the homes of public officials is effective.
Protest is not always polite, and there are times when impolite or even uncivil protests help to raise awareness of continuing injustices that otherwise go unseen or unaddressed. One example I look to is that of Representative John Lewis, who suffered a skull fracture when he faced off with state troopers while marching nonviolently for civil rights in Selma, Ala., in 1965. Mr. Lewis left us with the mandate to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”
Since working in Alabama in the late 1990s, investigating hate groups and hate crimes, I have been inspired by Mr. Lewis and those other brave foot soldiers in Selma who stood at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 to demand the American promise of democracy be fulfilled for every citizen. That powerful protest dramatized and made visible the injustices that African Americans were forced to endure in the South and elsewhere. The image of white state troopers and deputized bystanders beating the protesters sparked outrage across the nation. It inspired broad support for the civil rights movement and led the U.S. Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in August 1965.
Banning or restricting protest silences necessary dissent and closes off an avenue to shine a light on injustices, to get the attention of government officials and the public. The role of any public servant is to listen and respond to the concerns of all the citizens we serve, particularly those whose voices and perspectives are marginalized. In cases where people are dismissed, silenced or blocked from seeking change at the ballot box or through a breakdown of other democratic norms and institutions, protest may be the only means to effect change. In those cases, peaceful acts of dissent or civil disobedience can be enormously powerful.
It’s also important to recognize, however, that not all protests are successful at prompting change. I expect that those who gathered outside my home also felt shut out from power when they screamed at me that night. But showing up at my home to shout falsehoods about an election because they didn’t like the results did not help their cause. Many were there because they’d been lied to, told by people with immense power — including the departing president — that the 2020 election was “stolen,” though it was not.
Days later, a colleague told me of hearing that Mr. Trump had suggested in a White House meeting that I should be arrested, charged with treason and executed. (After I discussed this on NBC News recently, a spokesman for Mr. Trump accused me of lying.) These protesters attempted to bully me into abdicating my duty to protect the will of the people of Michigan. But the people who made me fear for my family that night also emboldened me to do my job with integrity.
In national coverage of the incident, people saw an angry group, some of them armed, outside the home of a woman and her young son. A month before the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, it was an early and alarming demonstration of how far some were willing to go to try to undermine a fair election.
A protest’s success is partly a matter of its effect. The march in Selma made a huge difference to the country. The bullying outside my home failed miserably.
The success or failure of the abortion rights protests outside the justices’ homes isn’t clear. They were cheered on and defended as peaceful by many who were similarly upset by the Supreme Court’s likely new position on Roe v. Wade. But still, the targeting of individual officials at home opened the protests up to criticism, which distracted from their important cause.
I will always advocate the power, and critical importance, of peaceful protest, which is a right that must be protected, even if it means protesters can sit peacefully or shout menacingly outside the homes of elected and appointed officials like the Supreme Court justices — or me and my family.
But if the goal is to change minds, history and my own experience underscore that protesting outside an official’s home is rarely if ever effective at achieving the goals of those gathering — and oftentimes, it backfires.
Jocelyn Benson (@JocelynBenson) is Michigan’s secretary of state. She is the author of “State Secretaries of State: Guardians of the Democratic Process” and a 2022 recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award.
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