No room for intimidation in politics

These are troubling times in the United States, with Americans viciously going after one another simply because they have a different political view. Personal attacks — from name-calling, online and in-person harassment, stalking, even physical violence — seem to becoming the regular way of debating.

President Trump has been blamed for the sudden loss of common decency and respect, for the rise of racism and bitter division we see.

He does shoulder some of the blame. The hatred, the racist attitudes, didn’t suddenly spring up because of his presidency; we suspect it’s been there, in our society, simmering — those harboring such beliefs waiting for the right time to come out into the light.

As president, Trump has a unique platform from which to set the tone for much of the nation, and he’s used that platform to inspire such displays while being careful enough to say he hasn’t overtly condoned them.

But our president is far from the only offender, and perhaps not even the worst offender.

On Friday, a group of supporters backing Rep. Maxine Waters, from California’s 43rd Congressional District, accosted people driving a pick-up truck, forcibly opened the door of the vehicle, and yanked an American flag from the back of the truck before the driver could speed away.

Then the group threw the flag on the ground, some making a point of stepping on it, before burning it. A few, according to AP reports, were heard yelling “This is not the American flag, this is their flag.”

The impetus behind this disgraceful display?

Earlier in the week, a group of people calling themselves The Oath Keepers announced plans to protest outside Waters’ office against some of the things she’s said of late.

Waters promptly labeled the group an “anti-government militia” and an “armed protest” group, inflammatory language no doubt meant to stir the passions of her supporters.

This is not the first time Waters has used her position as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to call for harassment and intimidation of those with whom she disagrees.

During a recent interview with MSNBC News she called on members of the president’s cabinet to resign, with the implied threat that failure to do so would not be good for them. Here’s some of what she said: “I want to tell you, these members of his cabinet who remain and try to defend him, they won’t be able to go to a restaurant, they won’t be able to stop at a gas station, they’re not going to be able to shop at a department store. The people are going to turn on them.”

That’s dangerous.

She wasn’t overtly calling for violence, but she’s smart enough to know, just like the president does, that delivering certain words or phrases, or vague statements of encouragement to those more radical supporters she might have, can lead to harassment, intimidation, or worse. Waters has been given a seemingly free pass for her statements by the national media for far too long, and Friday we saw the results of her words and the lack of accountability for what she’s saying.

Thursday night, a local resident spoke to the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners in opposition to the Barter Theatre proposal.

In addition to mentioning the reasons he was against the project, he also suggested those of a like mind should perhaps make a point of expressing their views in a more personal way with the three commissioners who have consistently favored the Barter plan.

“If you see Commissioner Yokeley, Brinkley and Brown anywhere, tell them what you think,” he said.

We suspect what he was communicating was that a personal, face-to-face contact would have more meaning than a phone call or email, and he’s most likely correct.

In today’s climate, however, those words could easily be misconstrued.

Part of the charm of small-town life is that voters really do know the people they are electing to lead them. City residents see their commissioners at church, at the grocery store, while they’re talking a stroll down the street, and they’re not shy about interjecting themselves into whatever the commissioner might be doing at the moment.

That’s part of what board members sign up for when they run for office.

But at no time should a commissioner feel harassed, threatened, or intimidated over their stand on any given issue.

We, for instance, have vehemently opposed the city purchase of the Spencer property and the subsequent Barter project since the beginning. It’s a bad project on virtually every level, certainly destined to failure while costing city taxpayers millions.

But that’s a political and philosophical discussion. We still respect the three commissioners who consistently vote in favor of the proposal, we admire the hard and often thankless work they do on the board, and the fact that they are productive, contributing members of this community.

We hope everyone involved, on all sides of the debate, will adopt a similar attitude.

There is far too much rancor on the national scene, with individuals such as President Trump and Rep. Waters spurring their supporters to act in hateful, perhaps even dangerous ways.

We should be better than that in Mount Airy. We hope folks speaking on the Spencer project, or any issue, will do so in measured ways, respectful ways. If we see this open disagreement devolve into tactics that include harassment and intimidation, then Mount Airy will have lost far more than tax dollars — it would have lost its souls as a kind, caring, respectful community.