For the last three years I have lived within a twenty minute walk of the Supreme Court of the United States. I can’t say it’s quite as banal as a city trash can, but it’s hardly something special at this point, when one lives this close. I’ve walked, run, or biked (and sometimes driven) past the building well over a hundred times. And while it’s not as vibrant of a place for open demonstrations as the north frontage of the White House and Lafayette Square, I’d say the judiciary’s republican nature (characterized by the appointment rather than the election of justices) makes it second behind the executive branch in encouraging civic activism. The legislative, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to muster as many heated passions, so the nearby US Capitol’s vast and diffuse grounds don’t welcome protests and rallies in quite the same fashion.
My commitment to a certain political neutrality is just as great as my love of the mundane. Therefore, as I commence what may appear to be one of my most politically heated articles, I must reassert (as in the title) that this is a montage—a photo-centric article with little to no analysis. I’m simply capitalizing on the ease of visiting the Supreme Court Building to depict three events that took place during this politically fractious season: a) the passing of SCOTUS Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, b) the appointment of successor Justice Amy Coney Barrett, c) the terminus of the Million MAGA March, which questions the viability of a presidential election tainted by irregularities. I was there for all three, and while I wasn’t present at the peak of these events, it’s almost better because, instead of crowds, it’s easier to scrutinize individuals and their displays of political protest and activism. And, since I live so close to the Supreme Court Building—much closer than the White House—it’s no great effort for me to make my way there whenever something spicy is going on. So, during this unusually polarized time in American civic life, I decided to throw my hat in the ring. As an observer, not an interpreter.
Without further ado, I offer my photos and videos, with minimal explanation, in chronological order, to the intrigue of the many who don’t enjoy this convenience of proximity. The first series of pics comes from the 19th of September, barely 24 hours after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, when the appointment of a replacement SCOTUS justice remained in doubt.
It’s not yet late at night, but it’s hardly evening either; I’d estimate most of these photos come slightly after 9:00 PM. Various speakers are convening on the plaza before the steps of the building. The general atmosphere is tensely quiet.
For those who didn’t know, the rear of the US Capitol is directly across the street from the Supreme Court Building, so it forms a dramatic backdrop for the fringe of the crowd. As the first few photos manifest, the crowd is thick enough to block the street completely, which the Metropolitan and US Capitol Police seemed to have permitted in this instance. After normal office hours, unless Congress or the Supreme Court are in session, the road dividing the Supreme Court Building and the US Capitol (First Street NE) does not receive a great deal of traffic.
The entire perimeter landscaped ledge featured candles, flowers, and additional commemorative signage.
I returned to the site the early afternoon the next day (September 20). Crowds were thinner and traffic was in free flow on First Street NE.
Approximately six weeks later, the situation that instigated this mass gathering before the Supreme Court building reached a contentious resolution, when Congress confirmed the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the ninth Supreme Court Justice, all under a narrow 52-48 victory, almost completely along partisan lines. On the 26th of October, again in the evening (but hardly late night), I witnessed the final vestiges of partisan rallies both for and against Barrett’s appointment, just a few hours after the announcement the she would take the bench. The majority of the people remaining on site were supporters of Barrett’s appointment, but the “banter” (an understatement) continued between the factions.
It’s easy to find signage at these events that intends to enflame as many people as possible, sometimes crossing both parties.
A little over two weeks later, the election had already taken place and immediately fell under intense scrutiny for potential widespread fraud. This investigation, primarily targeting six states where vote collecting and tallying continued 24 or even 48 hours after the polls closed, prompted a rally on the 14th of November, known as the Million MAGA March and unified under the hashtag #StopTheSteal. As usual, I avoided the thickest crowds—as well as the violence that occurred close to the White House later that evening—but captured photos walking up the hill behind the US Capitol and approaching the Supreme Court Building. The rally had ended almost two hours earlier, and most supporters were either returning to their cars are patronizing various bars and restaurants in the Capitol Hill and Navy Yard neighborhoods. A number of vehicles mounted sandwich-board style paraphernalia onto their car rooftops.
Outside the Supreme Court Building, the tone and tenor of the remaining supporters was as pro-Trump as the Ginsburg meeting a month earlier had been anti-Trump.
The foreskin-obsessed gentleman from the Barrett hearings is still there:
Even with most people already gone, the ones who remain are clearly a spectacle for the passers-by.
I asked a few people if they were willing to stand for my photos. No problem, they said.
These three episodes chronicle approximately seven weeks of the most heated events that have or are likely to fall within the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of the United States. I have no doubt I missed other critical events within that interval that prompted rallies at the steps of the Supreme Court Building. But the death of RGB and the Barrett hearings (obviously the big ones) lasted multiple days, and they offer an adequate simulacrum of the sort of civic activism that routinely takes place in front of the federal judiciary. What these demonstrations represent in terms of American civics is a subject I’ll leave to those with more political skin in the game.
7 thoughts on “The Supreme Court Building as a public forum: three recent vignettes place political fractiousness on full display. (MONTAGE)”
Nice work. I think this is a cool photo montage. Your nighttime images make me wonder if there are a lot of LED lamps in the public areas. Is that true?
Good question. I wouldn’t say the presence of LEDs is obvious here the way it was where I used to live (might have been attributable to the way the LED bulbs looked so different from tungsten filament). Since there’s no sharp contrast in lighting that I can tell empirically, I’d wager that either all (most) bulbs around here are LED, or none (few) are. Does that make sense?
I guess that’s right. I saw no color cast but good detail, so assumed white/daylight lighting.
You pics and comments clearly document our country’s unique quality of freedom of speech and expression. Long live the First Amendment!
Indeed, but it takes a major event to elicit this sort of gathering at the steps of the SCOTUS building. Over on the northern plaza at the White House (near Lafayette Square, at least when it isn’t barricaded off), the kooky characters with their zany signs were par for the course!
It is refreshing to see orderly groups demonstrating their support for a cause after the firecrackers, fire and and screaming that was commonplace on summer television. The crowds seemed youthful—not unexpected. Wondering if there were any needling signs or shouting of raucous slogans???
I’d say the most youthful looking of the three gatherings were the supporters of the Amy Coney Barrett appointment. Obviously I was just there for a brief moment, only seeing a tiny subset of all people gathered, so appearing at other times may have indicated a much different array of people.
The one video that I attached (only about 15 seconds long) from the ACB decision did reveal the “shouting of raucous slogans”…