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To Hell With Civility

Rep. Maxine Waters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP)

A restaurant owner in Virginia engaged in a very thoughtful, considered act of protest against the Trump administration in refusing to serve dinner to Sarah Huckabee Sanders last Friday. The actions of Red Hen owner Stephanie Wilkinson were instantly construed as uncivil even as Sanders has proved herself to be one of President Donald Trump’s most unwavering defenders in her role as White House press secretary.

Wilkinson did not base her decision to boot Sanders on the press secretary’s gender, race, sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. Unlike the Colorado baker who became a cause célèbre among right-wing Trump supporters for discriminating against gay couples, Wilkinson and her staff concluded they could not serve Sanders in good conscience because of her immoral actions, not her identity.

Amid the horrific news reports emerging each day of thousands of immigrant children remaining in government custody separated from their parents, the Supreme Court’s appalling decision to preserve Trump’s Muslim ban, the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, etc., it might seem a trivial matter to focus on the ability of Sanders to eat dinner where she chooses. But it is in fact a critical test of how we as a nation set basic standards for what we will tolerate.

Protesters have righteously dogged the ardent defenders of Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policies in recent days, including White House adviser Stephen Miller, Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

By its very definition, “protest” is an act of disapproval. It cannot be made with kind words, fake smiles, handshakes or quiet dinners. Protest is often an act of rage against a perceived injustice, and at this moment Americans are outraged and have every right to nonviolently confront Trump’s defenders in the streets, in restaurants and outside their homes.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., gets it. The intrepid progressive urged her supporters to act, saying that if they “see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”

A careful reading of her words makes it imminently clear that Waters believes in raucous and peaceful protest. Contrast that with Trump, who has literally called for violence against individuals and whole communities repeatedly. Worse than Trump threatening Waters for her statement has been the response of Waters’ fellow Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement showing immense cowardice, saying, “If you disagree with a politician, organize your fellow citizens to action and vote them out of office. But no one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right. That’s not American.”

Actually it is very American to engage in protest, whether or not Schumer interprets that as “harassment.” What is “not right” are Trump’s policies and Schumer’s unwillingness to confront them more harshly. Other Democrats echoed Schumer in denouncing Waters. Waters rightly refused to capitulate to the weak-willed establishment wing of her party and demanded a refocusing of efforts on what matters, saying, “I decided I’m just talking about the children. I want the children released, I want a plan. I want a plan for what this administration is going to do to connect these children.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan had the audacity to call on Waters to apologize, saying, “There is no place for this,” even though the Republican leader has, for well over a year, silently acquiesced to the ugliest and most violent of discourses from the president he continues to back. Perhaps Ryan is truly worried he too may no longer be able to eat out in peace or enter and exit his home without facing protesters in the streets outside. If so, Waters and the activists she spoke to in her statements are the real winners in the war for the nation’s moral conscience.

There is nothing civil about a president and Supreme Court deciding to ban people from whole nations vis-à-vis the Muslim ban ruling by the Supreme Court this week. There is nothing civil about more than 2,000 children being held hostage by the Trump administration. There is nothing civil about the massive numbers of undercounted deaths in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria for which Trump has yet to be held accountable. There is nothing civil about Trump’s undoing of the Iran nuclear deal. There is nothing civil about the GOP’s offensive on Obamacare, its tax giveaway to the rich, its attacks on voting rights or the undermining of unions. In the face of such relentless daily assaults on our Constitution, our social safety net, our human rights and dignity, Schumer and his ilk want us to remain civil?

It is quite likely that proponents of slavery, Jim Crow racism, Japanese-American internment, etc., called for calm over fury. Nothing helps the status quo quite like civil discourse in the face of daily destruction.

The right is hardly worried about civility, and it is winning every single day. Take the horrific mocking sounds that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski made on Fox News in response to the story of a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome being separated from her family. Lewandowski expressed no regret despite the rightful outcry, defiantly retorting, “An apology? I owe an apology to the children whose parents are putting them in a position that is forcing them to be separated.”

The right is taking its cues from Trump, who campaigned and won on incivility. Examples abound, like the recent incident in Los Angeles in which a racist white woman confronted a Mexican neighbor and her Mexican-American son, invoking Trump’s dehumanizing words against undocumented immigrants such as “rapist,” “animals” and “drug dealers.”

This is nothing new. Our nation’s past is filled with violent, hate-filled rhetoric and actions from conservative and racist forces, and militant rage from the defenders of equality and freedom. The architects and defenders of racist, inhumane policies that are ripping apart lives and shredding dreams do not deserve to dine in peace. They forsake that right when they choose to upend basic moral and ethical standards of governing to a degree most of us have not seen in our lifetimes. It is imperative for Americans to not quietly accept the destruction Trump and his supporters have wrought. Civility in the face of such madness wrongly normalizes the slide toward fascism. There is nothing normal about the times we live in.

Sonali Kolhatkar
Columnist
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…
Sonali Kolhatkar

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