Reflections from Washington, DC on the Occasion of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Passing

It’s strange how you can get caught up in historic events on an otherwise normal evening. Last night, my wife an I just happened to go down to Washington, DC for dinner and a tour. We ate at Hawk ‘n’ Dove pub on Pennsylvania Ave SE, then we walked down to Starbucks where we waited for the tour guide to show up. Signs of the times were everywhere: people wearing face masks and sitting outside bars on hastily erected tables on the sidewalks. Black Lives Matter signs and professions of support hung in the Starbucks’ window.

We were still waiting around 8pm; Kayla was on the phone with her cousin when I saw an article from NPR on Facebook reporting Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) had died. I didn’t believe it at first because every year there are fake articles about Ginsburg’s death or impending death. It fit too well–the kind of fake news story designed to sew outrage and divide people in an already contentious election year. But it was true.

U.S. Capitol Building the Night of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Death in Washington, DC
Flag flies at half-staff outside the U.S. Supreme Court building, with a view toward the capitol.

When the tour guide showed up, he mentioned the news. He was visibly upset, more so by the political implications of Ginsburg’s death. The tour took us past the Supreme Court building, where a crowd was quickly gathering as news spread. Flags were already half-staff at the Supreme Court and capitol building. The vigil was quiet at first, with people paying their respects by laying flowers and lighting candles.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Vigil in Washington, DC

When we walked away to continue the tour, we heard clapping and someone shouting into a bull horn. At some point, everyone started chanting “RBG! RBG! RBG!” Our final tour stop was across the street outside the Capitol Building. From our vantage point on the eerily deserted plaza, it sounded like another riot was taking place. We heard sirens, shouting, and saw a fire truck coming down the road.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Vigil in Washington, DC

When the tour ended and we walked past the Supreme Court to return to our car, however, nothing had changed except the size of the crowd. We saw someone blowing into what looked like an actual ram’s horn, and of course a line of reporters had set up shop. Kayla was nervous about being around such a large crowd (there’s still a pandemic going on, after all) so we only stayed for a few minutes.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Vigil in Washington, DC

I detected a mix of emotions. Many were upset at Ginsburg’s death, obviously, and had come there to pay their respects. I never understood the cult of personality surrounding the “Notorious RBG”, but even those with ideological differences had nice things to say about her. “She led an amazing life,” President Donald Trump told reporters. “What else can you say? She was an amazing woman, whether you agree or not. She was an amazing woman who led an amazing life. I’m actually sad to hear that.”

“Justice’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing is a immense loss,” Melania Trump said. “Her tenacity & strength were matched by her intellect & compassion, & her spirit will live on in all she has inspired.”

Others, however, were only clearly distraught by the political implications of her passing. Even NPR spent a large portion of their article about her death talking about the impending fight over her replacement. According to Ginsburg’s granddaughter Clara Spera, just a few days ago Ginsburg told her: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Why would she tell this to NPR the night her grandmother died?

This situation is the reverse of 2016, another election year in which Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) died. At that time, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not call for a vote on President Obama’s pick for his replacement, arguing it was too close to the election. This time, McConnell said the search for a replacement would start right away. He posted a statement on Twitter pledging that at 8:55pm, only 90 minutes after she passed away.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Vigil in Washington, DC

It’s sad that we can’t just put politics aside for one night to mourn the death of a fellow human being, a mother and grandmother who was respected by her colleagues and millions of Americans. But at this hyper-partisan, hyper-polarized time, we can’t even come together over the death of a Supreme Court justice and major public figure. Ginsburg’s passing and the brutal fight over her replacement will become yet another fault line that further divides us. When we look back on 2020, it will be seen as a pivotal year in American history. What direction it ultimately takes us is anyone’s guess.

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