On paper at least, Emily Strulson might seem a welcoming host to the weekly protests outside Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s home.
But two months after the demonstrators arrived — often loud and vulgar — Strulson has come to see their methods as so disturbing that come Wednesday evenings, she and her family head out to a restaurant for a long dinner.
“I understand where their passion comes from,” she said, “but I’ve had enough.”
The mood seems to be shared up and down their narrow street of towering trees, tightly spaced homes and families with young children.
“The vast majority of people here are pro-choice,” said Lyric Winik, speaking on her front porch, several homes down from the conservative justice. “And the very vast majority of people here think that these protesters have gotten out of control.”
Law enforcement officers from Montgomery County and the U.S. Marshals Service have been a constant presence during the protests. In recent weeks, Montgomery officials say they have received more complaints about noise from residents as police appear to be stepping up enforcement — complete with enlisting decibel-detection meters to document sound levels. Last Wednesday, officers indicated protesters were edging closer to being arrested.
Demonstrators take strong exception to the reactions, saying that to whatever extent they disrupt tranquility, it is part of a much more important message — bringing attention to how a number of justices altered the lives of millions — and a message could be even stronger with the residents’ participation. As they chanted recently: “Out of your houses and into the streets!”
“We already have our rights being taken away,” said Sadie Kuhns, 28, who has been a liaison for the abortion rights advocates in conversations with police each week. “We’re having our voices, literally the volume of our voices, policed, on top of everything else that we’ve already been stripped of.”
She and others noted that over the last two months, protesters have cooperated with police by following directives to keep moving rather than stopping in front of specific homes, and they’ve stopped using noise amplification devices like bullhorns or speakers.
The Washington Post attempted to speak with 18 neighbors of Kavanaugh’s. Three spoke on the record, voicing frustrations with protesters — not their presence so much as their volume and their often jarring language. Four, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing concerns over their privacy, shared those frustrations. One resident, also speaking anonymously, said she had no problems with protesters. Residents at the remaining houses either declined to speak in person or did not respond to letters left at their doors seeking interviews.
The sample of those who did speak, though, along with police statements and video recordings of the demonstrations, paint a picture of rising tensions. Some residents have walked up to directly challenge the protesters’ methods, while protesters have responded by assigning the term “Karen” in their chants to ridicule residents as uptight and privileged. Their shouted exhortations that previously linked “Kavanaugh” to an obscene action now include a variant that has “Karen” as the subject.
Requests to the protesters to reduce volume, Winik said, are quickly rebuffed.
“They just call us fascists,” she said. “Nothing about this is healthy. We’ve got kids on this street scared to leave their homes.”
She worries their efforts — highlighted as they are by antiabortion advocates — are counterproductive. “I do think they’re hurting their own cause,” she said.
Those outside of the Washington area who see footage of protests outside Kavanaugh’s home might assume, given his choice to live there, that Chevy Chase is at least as conservative politically as he is. Those closer know better. In the last election for president, the voting precinct nearest Kavanaugh’s house — filled with million dollar homes — voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden over Donald Trump.
Strulson grew up several blocks from her current home. One clear memory as a child: Her mom waking her up on a weekend morning in the late 1980s to take the Metro to an abortion rights rally at the National Mall. “Come on, we’re going to this march,” she remembers her saying.
The protest made an impression, as did learning a few years later that an acquaintance had an abortion. Strulson struggled with conception, going through in-vitro fertilization, and learned of two more women she knew who had abortions. It all added up to a strong conviction that decisions about reproduction and abortion were for a woman to make.
Last fall, as it became clear the Supreme Court might take up abortion in a fundamental way, Strulson learned of a march through Chevy Chase to Kavanaugh’s home. She decided to participate — feeling good about the cause and while on the move, but not at the destination, where language turned from issue-based to personal — directed toward a neighbor.
After one minute, Strulson said, she slipped home.
Then came the May leak of the draft opinion, the clear signal Roe was in trouble, and more protests to her street. Strulson says she stayed inside, but could hear them getting generally louder as the weeks passed. They reached the point where on July 1, her husband emailed Evan Glass (D-At Large), a member the Montgomery County Council, warning him of significant disruptions caused by the demonstrators.
He said protesters had become “more belligerent, using lots of foul language in their chants” and “have left signs with offensive language” on his street. He continued, “I am expressly concerned for the safety of children on our street, including my own. Kids have stopped playing outside due to fear and the consistent presence of protesters.”
The Wednesday protests follow a similar route. Demonstrators gather at a parking lot along Brookville Road, head to Kavanaugh’s home, walk back-and-forth in front of it, head about a half mile to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s house, protest there, and walk back to Kavanaugh’s block for more demonstrations.
Kuhns, one of the activists, says it amounts to a relatively short stint on Kavanaugh’s block.
“We’re there for about 30 minutes between 7 and 8 p.m. and then we leave,” they said. “It’s a minor inconvenience once a week for a matter of minutes, whereas people are inconvenienced now and threatened now, their lives are threatened for the foreseeable future.”
Chants range from the creative to the crude. One standby: “Keep your religion! Off my vagina!”
During the school year, police heard from parents that their children couldn’t focus on homework during the protests because of the noise, according to Shiera Goff, a police spokeswoman. There were specific noise complaints, she said, on May 18, June 29 and July 6 as the volume has steadily increased.
Last week, police commanders who work the weekly protests met with protesters at their parking lot starting point, and relayed those concerns, according to videos of the conversation posted by an abortion rights activist on social media.
“There has been an overwhelming amount of community complaints pouring in about the noise, okay,” Capt. Jason Cokinos told the group, adding the department had just tweeted out applicable state and county laws, which he also had printed out if anyone needed a copy.
One the laws forbid “picketing” a private residence, a rule avoided up and down the sidewalk in front of a specific home.
“Those that have been here before know that you just walk, you keep continuously moving, no problem,” Cokinos said. “We’ll help you with that.”
Cokinos came back to the noise complaints, saying if they got them during the protest, they’d issue a warning to individuals that, if not heeded, could lead to arrests. “If you want to do this, and be fine, just keep it at a normal volume like we’re talking here and you should be okay.”
The protests led to six complaints from five people, according to Goff. Police officers appeared to issue warnings, but ultimately did not make any arrests.
“What happened [on July 13] and moving forward is not at the behest of anyone else,” Goff said. “It is only based on the concerns of our residents. We’re trying to find a balance between them being able to exercise their First Amendment right, but also the right for the people who live in the neighborhood to be able to have peace and tranquility in their neighborhood.”
Demonstrations are generally meant to be disruptive, said Ashley Howard, an assistant professor in the history and African American Studies program at the University of Iowa, whose research includes the intersection of social movements and racial violence.
“Protests are strategic. You want to go someplace where they will have an impact, where it will put pressure on the target of your protest,” Howard said.
Looking back on the civil rights movement, she said, not all protests tactics were widely approved.
“In those moments, it was also deemed inappropriate,” she said. “It was not lauded, it was not accepted.”