The nation's top Democrats want you to be courteous and polite in the face of bigotry. Specifically, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer called on Rep. Maxine Waters on June 25 to set a better example with her words (Waters had urged people to continue to publicly shame members of the Trump administration). The 79-year-old lawmaker addressed her beef with fellow Democrats at the Families Belong Together March on Saturday, June 30, where she also addressed calls from her critics for inciting violence against her. Maxine Waters' response to Pelosi and Schumer's comments is a sharp rebuke to calls for "civility," and it's giving me life.
At a rally a week earlier, on June 24, Waters set off a firestorm of controversy when she urged people to protest Trump administration officials seen out in public. (Weeks earlier, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen and President Donald Trump's senior adviser Stephen Miller were the subjects of protests while they attempted to dine out in D.C. Also, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was kicked out of a Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia for her defense of the Trump administration). Trump later tweeted falsely that Waters had called for harm to his supporters.
“The American people have put up with this president long enough. What more do we need to see? What more lies do we need to hear?” Waters shouted at a rally in Los Angeles on June 24. “If you 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!”
Apparently for some, Waters had crossed a line.
"That's not right. That's not American," said Schumer of Waters, per CNN. Pelosi later tweeted, "In the crucial months ahead, we must strive to make America beautiful again. Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable."
As criticism of Waters bordered on racist tropes about "angry black women," she showed no signs of slowing down. Following the week-long deluge of criticism and calls for her resignation by Republicans who had accused her of using the language of war, Waters spoke again at a rally and addressed her critics head-on.
“I have no fear. I am in this fight,” Waters said at a June 30 Families Belong Together rally in Los Angeles, according to Vox. “And I know that there are those who are talking about censuring me, talking about kicking me out of Congress, talking about shooting me, talking about hanging me. All I have to say is this: if you shoot me, you better shoot straight. There’s nothing like a wounded animal.”
The death threats, the Tucker Carlson segments on Fox News about Waters using the "language of war,"the illiterate comments made by the president on Twitter — by now, I expect it. But the fact that Schumer and Pelosi were so quick to denounce Waters should be a red flag for Democrats who are passionate about organizing against politicians who support policies that hurt people and who use hateful rhetoric.
Here's the big problem with preaching political politeness: it's misguided, and erases decades of progress that was made without it. As Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and social and cultural analysis at New York University, wrote in a June 29 op-ed for The New York Times, civility is an obsession of white America that ignores the harsh realities of the civil rights movement. Popular leaders of that movement, Sugrue said, believed in nonviolence, but knew that they needed to be disruptive.
There's either a grave misunderstanding of Waters' language or a general cowardice on display among Waters' critics on the left. Her calls to "push back" on her political opponents weren't likely to be taken literally. Instead, she wants people to be disruptive and resist the urge to be polite.
Being disruptive was more important than civil dialogue during the civil rights movement, and civil dialogue is what Schumer, Pelosi, and others are mistakenly calling for. Fundamentally, Sugrue argues, the Civil Rights Act was the result of putting pressure on the Kennedy administration to act. Civility washes away the urgency — and the integrity — of the movement. That Schumer and Pelosi were so quick to condescend to Waters, a black woman who lived through the civil rights movement, should alarm people who put their faith in the current Democratic leadership.