Local leaders are taking a more confrontational approach to activism, and we respect them for it
By Joe Piasecki
Before marching bands took to the streets and fireworks lit up the sky to celebrate Independence Day, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin and firebrand area Congresswoman Maxine Waters were making national headlines in the emerging cultural debate about the social etiquette of political protest. Both elected officials have taken a firm stance that confrontation and disruption are a necessary response to the Trump administration’s forced separation of immigrant families and other political controversies that fall under the umbrella of human rights.
On July 2, Bonin and a small group of local activists allowed themselves to be arrested for blocking the entrance to an immigrant detention center in downtown Los Angeles. In a television interview with HLN anchor Michaela Pereira, formerly of KTLA News, Bonin spoke of being emotionally shaken and morally outraged by what he called a “sinful and evil” practice of taking immigrant kids from their parents and locking them up. Before his arrest, Bonin told fellow protestors and observers that “we need, by the millions, to be coming out and blocking the entrance to federal detention centers … [and] surrounding the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and the White House,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
The Saturday before Bonin’s arrest, Waters spoke defiantly at the Families Belong Together rally in downtown Los Angeles about death threats she had received in response to her advocacy for verbally confronting Trump administration officials in public places — and a tweet from the president warning her to “be careful,” which she has interpreted as a not-so veiled threat.
This is what Waters said during a June 23 immigrant rights rally (co-organized by Bonin) at the West L.A. Federal Building: “If you see anybody from the cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
This is what she said a week later, after a barrage of threatening letters and phone calls: “I have no fear. I am in this fight … 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.”
Is this really what America has become in the Trump era?
Last week a letter to the editor took issue with both Waters’ June 23 comments urging confrontations with Trump administration officials and Trump’s chilling public response. The writer argues that rather than pouring gasoline on a fire, “We need civility in politics or our nation will be torn apart.”
Journalism can be a dangerous job — on June 28, the LAPD’s Pacific Division sent two officers to check on The Argonaut after a mass shooter killed five people at The Capital Gazette in Maryland in retaliation for its news coverage — so we stand firmly against the use of violence and threats of violence. We also hope that civility will triumph over antagonism and hostility in the public conversation. But we also caution against conflating civil disobedience with physical harm or intimidation.
It’s one thing to interrupt a public official’s dinner or to block the entrance to a government building; to inflict terror by threatening physical harm is another. And those who choose to serve a president who has advocated mob violence against journalists won’t find much sympathy from us for getting heckled in a restaurant by fellow diners. Rather, we applaud Bonin for standing up for his moral beliefs, and we respect Waters putting herself in harm’s way to support ordinary citizens who verbally confront — not physically intimidate — the privileged few who whisper in the ears of the world’s most powerful man.
Such confrontational activism isn’t for everyone, and aside from special circumstances it may not be the most effective way to move public conversation away from entrenched ideological divisions. You don’t have to like it or agree with it. But where would we be if the Sons of Liberty hadn’t tossed some tea into Boston Harbor, or if Rosa Parks had simply gotten off that segregated bus and walked home?
Speaking up and speaking out is ingrained in America’s DNA. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.