Home > Essays > Bullies Taking Over The Public Forum and Democracy is in Peril… We’re Going to Need Kids to Show Us the Way

Bullies Taking Over The Public Forum and Democracy is in Peril… We’re Going to Need Kids to Show Us the Way

October 18, 2021

Here’s the op ed I wrote that appeared in yesterday’s local newspaper. I remain hopeful that the generation of students in schools now will lead the way… and believe that Hartford High’s soccer coach, Jeff Acker, did the right thing by pulling his team from the field in response to the crude behavior of fans. Here’s the article: 

Bullies are taking over public forums and democracy is in peril.

The bullies began their ascension with the 2020 protests over mask mandates imposed by various Governors. Armed anti-government militias surrounded state Capitols, menacing legislators, interfering with government business, and even plotting to kidnap the Governor of Michigan.

The bullies’ takeover of the public forum accelerated after January 6, 2021, when a disorderly mob overran police at the Capitol in an attempt to block the transfer of power following the election of Joe Biden. On that date, President Trump urged the assembled crowd to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal” and goaded them to march on the Capitol. Once in the building, several of his followers tried to track down legislators who voted to certify the election, especially intent on finding Vice President, chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as they marched through the Capitol in hopes of taking him to the gallows constructed for that purpose on the Capitol grounds.

Months later, like-minded bullies across the country were especially emboldened when the former President and his loyalists in the GOP hailed those who breached the Capitol as “patriots”, a signal that interference with state and local government meetings and efforts to intimidate elected officials and their employees was acceptable. 

Several news stories in the past week illustrate the how bullies’ have taken over the public forum since. Last week’s meeting of the Executive Council to consider accepting $27,000,000 to help control the spread of Covid was “postponed” when an “unruly crowd” prevented the Council members from hearing the testimony of State employees with expertise on the administration of Covid vaccines and how best to monitor it. At the conclusion of the meeting, because of the explicit threats shouted by members of the audience and posted in on-line forums, armed police officers escorted the State employees to their vehicles. A day later, St. Anslem’s College, given security concerns, announced it would no longer allow public meetings at the Institute of Politics on its campus, the site of the Council meeting. That same day the Governor and State AG pledged to investigate the incident.

Later in the week, an AP article reported that the National School Boards Association (NSBA) sought President Biden’s assistance in investigating “threats made over policies including mask mandates”, likening the anti-mask and anti-vaxx protesters to “domestic terrorists”. The article described how school board meetings across the country have been “disrupted by unruly attendees out to interfere with business and silence other viewpoints”. The NSBA’s appeal to the President cited over 20 instances of threats across the country. Later in the week, US Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI and US Attorney’s offices to meet with local officials over the next month to “coordinate a response to the threats” which he said “are not only illegal, (but) run counter to our nation’s core values.” Anyone believing New Hampshire was immune from this epidemic of bullying at the local level was disabused of that notion in Annemarie Timmons’ article, “It’s Like a time of War”, which described how hostile groups in New Hampshire are making public meetings, especially school board meetings, into “war zones”.

The bullying extends into the monitoring of elections as well. ProPublica writer Jeremy Schwarz’ recent essay described how a small group of Conservative hardliners ultimately unseated Michelle Carew, an election administrator in a Texas county that supported Donald Trump by an 81-19 margin. Ms. Carew’s experience illustrates the findings of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice reporting how elections officials like her are “increasingly feeling pressure to prioritize partisan interests over a fair democratic elections process”. The Brennan Center cited Texas’ laws as exemplary “…of a troubling new trend of state laws that target election officials and poll workers, noting that “laws like these rub salt in the wounds of election workers, many of whom faced unprecedented threats and intimidation last year for simply doing their jobs.”

High school athletics has also experienced an increase in bullying. As reported in the Valley News and Vermont Digger, the crude conduct and taunting by spectators in Fair Haven, Vermont compelled Girls Soccer Coach Jeff Acker to pull his team from the field with six minutes remaining in the game. The Vermont Digger noted that this was not an isolated incident, reporting that the Vermont Principals’ Association has received “several high-profile reports of teenage athletes getting harassed during games in recent weeks”.

These stories sent chills down my spine. Democracy is a participatory form of government that depends on civil discourse, the rule of law, and the gracious acceptance of defeat. Bullies are not interested in those niceties. They are only interested in power. And when bullies take control of the public forum many citizens will be unwilling to participate in such an environment. Who will want to seek election to a public office when there is the possibility of being bullied and threatened by voters who don’t support the will of the majority or support the mandates they must inevitably impose? Who will want to devote their lives to public service when bullies threaten not only one’s livelihood but one’s life and that of one’s family? Who will want to serve on a public board when bullies could subject them to public taunting and toxic on-line accusations? Who will volunteer to monitor elections if poll watchers are angrily challenging every ballot cast? Who will want to serve as a coach or athletic director when every game is played in a hostile environment? And last and most sad of all, what student will want to participate in a sport where taunting, harassment, and ridicule are tolerated?

We cannot allow student athletes to be subjected to bullying and harassment any more than we can allow the Vice President of the United States, our elected officials, our public board members, our government employees, or our election supervisors to be subject to that kind of intimidation. When we accept bullying at any level, we allow the voices and behavior of an unruly minority to drown out the voices and the behavioral norms that underpin the rule of law. The bullies appear to be gaining a foothold. Now is the time to stop them.

And here’s a footnote quote from NYTimes’ columnist Thomas Edsall’s October 6 column for those who might claim that I overlooked “Antifa” (whoever they are) or other extremist groups:

In the U.S., between 2016 and 2017 the number of attacks by right-wing organizations quadrupled, outnumbering attacks by Islamic extremist groups, constituting 66 percent of all attacks and plots in the U.S. in 2019 and over 90 percent in 2020.

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