Postcards from DC

We are instructed to cheer those opposing Kavanaugh and to confront the people on his side as well as those in the weasel category, “undecided,” as if Flake, Collins, Manchin et al have been scripted by a Magic 8-Ball to say, “Answer hazy, ask again later.” I will see Cruz, who has the painted-on hair of a ventriloquist’s dummy, surrounded by what look like armed guards. I will not see Flake, who is in hiding, as is Collins.

Bird-dogging against Kavanaugh

Photograph by Michael Nigro.

I am standing beside a small male cop. It’s four days before the Kavanaugh vote, and we still have a kind of hope or momentum from the encounter with Flake, the one that went viral. I look into the small cop’s eyes and say, “You like that we’re here. Admit it.” I am part of a pack of bird-dogs, putting politicians on the spot. We wear purple stickers that say Believe Survivors, so you know who we are, except you would know anyway from the fact we are standing around instead of rushing along blindly. You would know from our hectic hair and fired-up faces. The cop bursts into a smile and says he misses New Hampshire, where he’s from. He’s working extra shifts because we are swarming the Senate office buildings. To our left is a tramway only Senate employees can use. Suits and uniforms disappear past the automated doors or shoot out from them on their way somewhere or nowhere. We are waiting for a senator to emerge from an elevator, flanked by guards and an entourage of hangers-on. We are waiting to rain down words on this person and pierce the insulating bubble that allows him or her to sleep at night. It’s exciting to disrupt. It’s tedious waiting for a mark to swim by. I take a selfie with the cop. I would show it to you, but the skin on my cleavage looks crepey.

A woman appears with red hair that waves down her cheeks. She says, “Dick Durbin is upstairs. I’m going to ask him to use the word fascist to describe the government.” She whips around a corner, and I call out, “I’m coming with you.” Her mouth is red. Her breasts swell over the neckline of her party dress. In the elevator, she knows which buttons to press to get from point A to point B. This is my first day. Earlier I trotted beside Orrin Hatch, who glided along a hall under an inch of mortuary concealer, his eyes dead, looking at no one. By tomorrow I will know which buttons to press in elevators, too. I will have studied the faces of the senators, and it will not help much. Close up, regardless of party, most of them look like gray-thatched lumps of Play-Doh. There are female versions, too, who wear a ruffle of terror on the edge of their blankness.

The woman with red hair leads me to the balcony of the rotunda, her kitten heels clip-clopping on the marble floors. She has been bird-dogging for three months, sleeping on couches and eating meals contributed by donors and sent to the atrium, where we congregate. “There’s no place else I belong in this life,” she says. The balcony is surrounded by news crews, adjusting lights and lounging in the practiced rhythm of hurry-up and wait. The woman with red hair has made friends with a cameraman, who texts her whenever a senator is scheduled to appear. We lean against a marble column, and there is time to take in the beauty of the space with its giant windows and the gently-sloping, leafy vistas beyond them. This is a public building, and part of the pleasure of the moment is occupying it as if it belongs to us, flowing into the sight lines of those who govern and those who protect the people who govern. In contact zones, everything gets rubbed.

Durbin is a Democrat from Illinois. He looks like he’s melting under the lights. When he finishes speaking, we corner him. The panic that washes over him has more the look of Why the fuck are women bothering me than of a man on the wrong side of the vote. The woman with red hair says, “We are living under fascism. Will you use this word in your statements?” His eyes shift down as he says, “I like to be exact in my words.” I look at him, and he meets my eyes. I say, “I think everyone believes what the women are saying. They just don’t care. Is that about right?” He gives me a nervous nod and says, “That’s a possibility.”

This is the spiel I will deliver for two days to senators on both sides. We are instructed to cheer those opposing Kavanaugh and to confront the people on his side as well as those in the weasel category, “undecided,” as if Flake, Collins, Manchin et al have been scripted by a Magic 8-Ball to say, “Answer hazy, ask again later.” I will see Cruz, who has the painted-on hair of a ventriloquist’s dummy, surrounded by what look like armed guards. I will not see Flake, who is in hiding, as is Collins. I will go to Flake’s office with a posse, and we will write personal notes to him. I will catch sightings of Amy Klobuchar and Mazie Hirono and shout cheers. I will waylay Corey Booker long enough to say, “I so fucking appreciate what you’re doing,” and he will flash one of his neon smiles and say, “That means a lot to know.”

The cops make friends with us, even if they don’t want to. The news crews too. They’re cued to what’s happening before we are, and we hop on their stakeouts like African oxpickers, feeding on the backs of zebras. It reminds me of the month I spent in Alaska in 1989, covering the Exxon oil spill, and the way disasters create their own cultures with surprising affinities. One day a man I will call a disaster entrepreneur—he had a contract from Alyeska to clean up a stretch of oiled beach—took me out with him. We drove dune buggies with giant rubber tires along the rocky coast, and the wind took us, and afterward we went for drinks and spoke of the natural world we both cared about. Kavanaugh is a disaster everyone feels here. You can see pain in people’s faces, and little threat is directed our way by the cops. Most people in disasters are kinder, weirder, freer—except for those responsible for the disaster and sometimes me.

I speak with a woman a generation younger than me who has a stunning, asymmetrical haircut and glowing lips. She has been organizing in South Carolina and has swerved her car to come to DC for the same reason we all have, because we could not do otherwise. This work is what she does all the time. She uses the terms social justice and intersectional but does not once say feminist, feminism, or women’s movement. When I use these words, her mouth turns down, as if her orgasms might be at risk in proximity to such unsexy language and as if white privilege and unconscious racism have wafted in on the backs of these terms.

In other conversations, I try (and fail) to keep my mouth shut about the word survivor, stamped on t-shirts and signs. It’s meant to signal virtue, which to me is reason enough to kill it. I don’t think we survive anything. I think trauma and sadness have natural histories inside everyone. Then suddenly I shut up about trauma. I’ve gone to a rally outside the Supreme Court. Kirsten Gillibrand has eloquently emphasized Kavanaugh’s positions on abortion rights and executive privilege, as well as his emotional unfitness for the bench, instead of focusing on his sexual loathsomeness. Her clarity alternates with a churchy vibe. People say sacred and holy to cheers. A female rabbi speaks, and then another woman says a prayer in Hebrew, and I’m up to here with the way piety and goodgirl-itis attach themselves to women’s causes. In Alaska, oiled beached and dead animals notwithstanding, at least no one prayed.

I step out of the mass of people and take a seat on a curb beside a row of plantings, where I talk to a trans person I’ve met while bird-dogging. The person is tall and dressed in women’s clothes. I never catch the person’s pronouns, so I will use “they.” They say they have slipped away from the rally because they have been “triggered” by a story of sexual abuse someone has told. The word trigger, so overused, has become associated with cordoning off excitement, and when I hear it I feel like a rat getting shocked while reaching for food pellets. The trans person explains they were tied to a chair and left in a shack, believing they would die, and as I listen I tell myself to shut up and dial down my own signal reactions.

The second day at the Senate offices, dozens more people arrive, including many men. A contingent has flown in from Seattle. We are every color, age, and apparent gender. A man who looks South Asian is so well dressed I approach him and say, “Are you a ringer?” He laughs and tells me about his day job as a longtime activist, working for progressive causes in and out of government. I bird-dog with a crew that includes a male reporter for The Nation, who has come from Oakland, California, a woman from Boston who was arrested twice the week before in civil disobedience actions, and several other women who live near the Capitol and bird-dog often. We run into the same cops, who by now are telling us stories about their lives. A slender female cop teasingly blames us for being here so much she can’t adopt a dog. We patrol the halls like delinquents cutting class and run into the woman with red hair. She needs to figure out where she will sleep that night. It turns out we live close to each other in New York. She says, “I will stalk you.” I say, “I bet you say that to all the girls.”

Wednesday night I head back to New York by train. I am writing this Saturday. Kavanaugh has been confirmed. I feel less something, having gone. What’s the word? Passive? Done to? A little while ago I told a friend I thought we should bird-dog until this government is unseated. Two thousand of us there every day, taking turns, everyone in the country taking a shift, subsidized for those who need it. She said, “What good will it do?” I said, “They don’t expect us to be there. They are used to privacy, and there we were.” I thought about those giant white buildings, humming with power like an engine turning over. You have to put your belongings on a scanner to get in, but you can get in. All the people in those buildings moving along, their faces aloof, trying to ignore us, unable to ignore us. All those people believing the buildings are theirs as they look down, making deals about our lives, and there we were, rushing the walls of the panopticon, moment after moment, in tunnels and elevators and hallways. We reversed the gaze, and it felt like the opposite of despair.

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