by Nic Rowan

Word travels fast on Capitol Hill. Just minutes after a local news outlet published the draft of a majority opinion by Justice Samuel Alito that overturns Roe v. Wade, security guards were already forming a police line at the plaza in front of the Supreme Court in anticipation of a protest. About half an hour later, a group of sad-eyed college students from Georgetown University and other nearby schools, many seemingly already dressed for bed, showed up with homemade signs and tea-light candles. But they didn’t shout or rattle the fence. Instead, they sat down and stared at the court in a stunned silence. 

It was a strange scene, eerily reminiscent of the one after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. That was a sober affair, and in a way, it presaged this evening. Everyone knew Ginsburg would die, just as everyone knows that Roe will fall eventually. Many have predicted that it will fall this year. But no one on either side of the issue is emotionally prepared to meet that outcome. The court after all has protected abortion for nearly half a century. It is a savage convenience that people my age take for granted, whether they like it or not. To question its permanence, which is all this draft opinion does anyway, is to question a fixed way of life.

Hence the silence. There was no way to comprehend what had happened. (Or what might still happen?) And there was no immediately discernible reason to come to the Supreme Court so late in the evening. The justices were not there, and if they had been, they would not have condescended even to hear the crowd’s wishes. That’s not the way this thing works. But people kept pouring in from all over the city well past midnight. After news like this, there is nothing else but to go to the place of its origin and wait, perhaps, for a sign. 

But no sign appeared, and the crowd soon grew restless. First there was weeping and then open sobbing. Some people began chanting. It was the usual slogans: Pack the Court; Stand Up Fight Back; No Justice No Peace. These quickly wore out and the chants focused on specific justices. Kavanaugh got the worst of it, until someone pulled out his phone and learned who actually wrote the opinion. But even then it was difficult to come up with convincing epithets: no one, it seemed, knew very much about Samuel Alito.

A young woman cut into the chanting with a request. “Sometimes I just need to scream,” she said. “If you’re a desperate woman, scream with me.”

She let out a shriek, and a few women joined her. Elsewhere, others manifested their desperation in different ways. Two women offered me a match for my tea-light as they lit their own votive candles: one for the intercession of Saint Stacey Abrams, the other for Saint Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the middle of the crowd, a former staffer from Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign led anyone who would listen in the mantra: “Democrats, do something! Democrats, do something! Democrats, do something!”  

It was a carnival of despair, heightened by the presence of the usual coterie of freaks who come to every protest in Washington, D.C., no matter the day or hour. These flitted throughout the crowd, sowing chaos wherever they went. Of course, there were several people on the other side of the abortion divide as well. They mostly kept to themselves. At least with this issue, they are used to disappointment and were not about to declare a preemptive victory. My mother leaned against a lamppost and prayed the rosary as all sorts of people streamed past her.

After about three hours, the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter showed up, an all-male crew impressively dressed in blue oxfords and khakis. I took their arrival as my cue to leave, even though the crowd was still growing. And when I returned the following morning, many of the same people were still in the plaza, some chanting, some just staring at the court’s facade. There was no comfort in it. Many of these people will likely camp out there until the justices actually release their opinions.   

It was only when I walked back to my car that I remembered that, for me, the news was no reason to despair at all. I really don’t know what to think, actually. It’s a leaked draft opinion, and I’m not one to get excited about that sort of thing. But who knows? Already the rumor mills are up and running throughout the city. Abortion is on everyone’s minds and I expect that to be the case for the foreseeable future.

As I drove home down Constitution Avenue, something triggered a fire alarm in a building adjacent to the Supreme Court. I am told that it sounded for hours, and no one was able to shut it off.

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