By Ben Olson
Publisher’s note: The views expressed in this opinion article belong to the author.
The downfall of democracy will not come in the form of a tweet or Facebook message, but in the roar of the angry mob and the sound of shattered glass.
For those who attended or watched the Aug. 19 meeting of the Sandpoint City Council, it was hard to miss the shouting coming from outside the council chambers as those in the crowd attempted to gain entrance to protest a proposed ordinance giving Mayor Shelby Rognstad the power to impose a mask mandate. It was hard to miss when a man attending the meeting in person interrupted Rognstad and began badgering him until he was escorted out by Sandpoint police. Before exiting the council chambers, the man shouted “Nazi” to the mayor.
It was also hard to miss the bullying crowd of anti-mask protestors that swamped the Sandpoint branch of the East Bonner County Library in late July, attempting to force their way inside past employees who were upholding the library board of trustees’ mask policy for the building.
These examples and many more are a clear indication that the state of civil discourse here — as well as the rest of the country — has broken down. When volume replaces reasoned debate, when bullying and harassing public officials become the norm in an era that is anything but normal, it’s a sign that a vital component of our representative democracy is in desperate need of fixing.
Sandpoint is a community of diverse opinions on many subjects, but the moment we allow mob rule to influence our public meetings, we abandon the thoughtful form of governance that the framers of the Constitution intended for us when the states ratified that historic document more than 230 years ago.
After the outburst at the Sandpoint City Council chambers, and police removed the out-of-order speaker from the room, I was appalled when Councilman Andy Groat proceeded to validate this angry outburst by agreeing with the man’s sentiment — that Rognstad exhibited “hypocrisy” by attending the meeting while knowingly ill with a cold. Groat said he didn’t support speaking out of order at a council meeting, but his elevating the outburst at a time when no other verbal testimony was allowed did real harm to the decorum of our city meetings and, by extension, the democratic norms by which we’re supposed to operate.
Democracy is not furthered by shouts and threats, fascism is. Decency is not promoted by personal attacks, hatred is. We can all reasonably disagree about many topics, but I never thought I’d see the day when the rumblings of an angry mob took precedent over the sacred space of a public meeting.
On Aug. 24, as legislators convened for a special legislative session called by Gov. Brad Little, a crowd of protesters gathered at the Capitol building in Boise. Despite limited seating due to social distancing requirements, the protesters — apparently led by famous anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, who now lives in Emmet, Idaho — forced their way into the Lincoln Auditorium at the Statehouse. They chanted, “Let us in!” and shoved Idaho State Police, breaking a glass door to the House gallery in the process before ripping down social distancing signs and filling the gallery seats. Most were not wearing masks and none were practicing social distancing as requested by the governor and Idaho legislative leadership. A video shared to Twitter by Brad Bigford (@mursebigford) showed the moments leading up to the incident. I encourage you all to look up this video on Twitter to see what mob rule looks like. If you think I’m exaggerating the actions that took place, watch the video for yourself.
Idaho Rep. Mellisa Wintrow, D-Boise, tweeted on Aug. 24: “Unfortunately, I had to excuse myself from the Committee due to lack of social Distancing and the large crowd that filled the Lincoln auditorium. The crowd was hostile to me but I tried to remind them of the need for civility. Didn’t matter. This is what we have come to.”
This is indeed what it has come to: An angry mob attempting to thwart the democratic process. A legion of people swearing that they “will not comply,” in the very building where bills become law in Idaho. When legislators feel it is unsafe to participate in a legislative session, that’s a clear indication that we have entered dangerous territory.
Meanwhile, Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Rexburg, seemed to be all for the disruption, as he tweeted next to a video of angry people shouting over legislators: “Fireworks continue! Love it when citizens get involved.”
It’s curious that Zollinger feels that way, when he retweeted this statement less than a month ago regarding Black Lives Matter protests: “The right to peaceably assemble does not include the right to set fire to buildings or assault officers. I know this might seem obvious, but it’s apparent some people don’t know this.”
It’s also apparent that the Idaho Legislature is filled with lawmakers who condone the very type of behavior we saw at the Capitol with their silence — behavior that would have resulted in criminal charges for any other group, provided they weren’t supporters of the conservative supermajority. In fact, it did, during the 2014 Legislative session, when 40 gay rights protestors blockaded Idaho Senate committee rooms on the west side of the Capitol to bring attention to the Add the Words campaign. The organization tried unsuccessfully to lobby legislators to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act. The activists were arrested and 23 were charged with misdemeanor trespassing, ultimately serving restitution through a combination of fines and community service hours.
As of yet, no charges have been filed against any of the Aug. 24 protesters, despite clear video evidence of Bundy wrenching on a door multiple times to help gain entrance to the Lincoln meeting room.
ISP issued a statement Aug. 25 claiming that ISP “personnel determined they could not have made arrests on the spot without elevating the potential for violence. … An investigation is underway into any criminal behavior that may have occurred.”
So, if protesters are civil and peaceful, they should be arrested, but when they are violent and angry, it’s too dangerous? Got it.
After such a raucous Aug. 24 session, you’d think the protesters would have shown more decorum on Aug. 25. Nope. When lobbyists from the anti-vaccine group Health Freedom Idaho refused to vacate seats they occupied in the press section of the Lincoln auditorium, ISP formed a wall of officers between the unruly audience members and legislators. Committee chairman Rep. Greg Chaney directed ISP to remove several of the protesters and according to photos on Twitter at least one individual was arrested and charged with trespassing.
Only credentialed members of the press are permitted to sit in the press section. While the activists claimed they had proper credentials, they are in fact lobbyists and not permitted to sit there. The hearing was suspended and lawmakers left the auditorium immediately after the disruption to reconvene in another room, proving how an angry mob has yet again obstructed the work of a legislative body in session. Meanwhile, Bundy took a seat at the press table after Chairman Chaney directed the meeting to another room, in an apparent protest of the removal of “citizen journalists.”
After the House and Senate both convened hours later, Bundy and a handful of his supporters still refused to leave the press section at the Lincoln auditorium, forcing ISP to cuff him right in the chair he refused to vacate. He was arrested and wheeled out of a side door of the Capitol and down the sidewalk in the black swivel chair before being placed into an ISP vehicle. He was later booked in Ada County Jail on a misdemeanor trespassing charge and resisting and obstructing officers, also a misdemeanor.
After posting bail, Bundy showed up at the Statehouse again Aug. 26 for the third day of the special session and promptly received a no trespassing order by Idaho state officials as a result of his arrest Tuesday. Refusing to comply with the order barring him from the Statehouse for one year, Bundy was arrested a second time. He resisted arrest, so ISP officers had to carry him out of the gallery by his hands and feet before booking him in Ada County Jail again on a second set of trespassing and obstruction charges.
It’s curious that there were no armed citizens on hand at the Capitol building to “protect” against damage to government property. When a few dozen teenagers gathered to protest for Black Lives Matter in Sandpoint on June 2, armed citizens gathered to “protect” the protestors from a nonexistent Antifa threat. Later that night, they patrolled downtown, some in full battle dress, all carrying weapons to “protect” downtown office buildings from riots and looting. Again, where were those armed citizens in Boise on Aug. 24 when the angry crowd literally smashed a glass door and muscled their way into the meeting? Isn’t that exactly what armed activists claimed to be doing when parading around with their guns downtown — “protecting” our businesses and government buildings from being vandalized by politically motivated (frequently out-of-state) demonstrators?
The erosion of freedom?
Government tyranny is not an empty threat — it is very much something that citizens should be on the lookout for. The problem is that lately everything seems to be labeled as “tyranny.” Like the boy crying wolf, the more anti-government activists label benign actions as “tyranny,” the more it erodes their message when and if actual tyranny is actually observed.
At the base of this breakdown in civil discourse is a staggering amount of hypocrisy.
County residents have penned letters claiming, “We don’t need an activist, we need a Mayor,” but that’s not quite accurate. Many of those same letter writers openly support activism from other elected officials. When Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler wrote a letter to Gov. Little urging the governor to convene a special session in late March because he believed the stay-at-home order was “unconstitutional,” was that not activism? When the Bonner County commissioners sued the city of Sandpoint over The Festival at Sandpoint’s no-weapons policy, that was also activism — which has cost taxpayers more than $200,000 to date.
What many of these letter writers are saying — whether they recognize the hypocrisy or not — is that they only support activism when it aligns with their own ideology. When it does, it’s not activism in their eyes, but an elected official doing their job. That is the definition of hypocrisy: The practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform. If you don’t want activism, then reject it from all sides of the aisle, or stop with the bellyaching.
Those who claim law and order as a party platform are also hypocritical when they then refuse to follow laws they don’t believe in. There are laws that I don’t personally believe should be on the books, but I follow them and I also face the consequences — as do all of you — if I violate those laws. How arrogant of us to think we have some entitled right to disobey laws because we don’t believe in them. These laws that we follow are not enacted by mob rule, but by reasoned bipartisan debate.
To give credence to those who choose to harass public officials instead of stating their points in a civil manner is to abandon all hope for healthy civil discourse. You don’t shout down democracy, you participate in it. In the privacy of our own homes, or in a setting among friends, we have every right to be as loud and annoying as we like, but when you enter the sacred space of a city, county or state meeting, check your entitlement at the door. The reason we have rules and decorum in public meetings is to allow everyone the fair opportunity to hear what has been said and to add their point of view in a respectful manner in order to convince their duly elected representatives to be swayed to their cause.
I have a hard time buying the argument that people are using to justify forcing their way into these meetings: That their voices are being silenced. The meetings are offered via live stream from a number of different sources. If you can post memes on Facebook, you can probably manage logging into a Zoom meeting. Instead of tuning into the meeting, I watched as some live streamed a protest outside the council chambers, claiming they didn’t know what was going on inside. It’s actions like these that make it clear that the mob desires only attention and disruption, not reasonable debate.
Attack policy, not people
When you have problems with your government, attack the policy, not the person. When Councilwoman Deb Ruehle proposed the emergency powers ordinance, she was doing so because many of her constituents raised the concern to her. Ruehle was doing her job as a representative of the people by bringing their concerns to the council. That is how representative democracy works. For her to be verbally attacked in person and personally attacked online is unacceptable. One Facebook commenter even wrote, “A tall tree and some rope is the best idea for her.”
Really? Hanging an elected official because they were responding to their constituents’ concerns? Are we in 1820 or 2020? There is never a good reason to propose violence toward an elected official. While I get a dig in here and there toward elected officials who I think are disrespecting their office by their actions, I have never wished any of them physical harm. Nor should any of you. They deserve your respect, even if you disagree with every word that comes out of their mouths. If you don’t like their actions, vote them out of office, don’t threaten them with violence.
This editorial has nothing to do with the decision of the council to vote down the emergency ordinance. I agreed with Council President Shannon Williamson that the decision for a mask mandate is best made by the Panhandle Health District, not our City Council or mayor. Beyond that, however, I take issue with the fact that our City Council meetings have devolved into lengthy unproductive gripe sessions that often skew wildly off topic. The fact that these outbursts have apparently influenced some councilmembers is cause for alarm, because we elected these people to lead and govern our city, not to hold up a megaphone to extremists — from the right or the left.
We should be proud of our public discourse, not ashamed of it. I am ashamed to see and hear some of our city and county residents behaving in public like petulant children. Grow up and participate like adults, or stay home and wear your tin foil hats.
We all need to get along at the end of the day. Respecting the decorum of a public meeting goes a long way to ensure we can voice our differences in the American way, which is through measured debate and respectful discourse. Once we abandon this practice, it truly will become a world of mob rule.
Idaho Rep. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, leveled a crucial blow on Twitter to Idaho Republicans who continue to condone this behavior: “… Make no mistake, the leadership who feigns frustration with this behavior are the same people who have encouraged and allowed it to happen.”
The shattered glass on the floor at the Capitol building in Boise is yet another reminder that forces are aligning to usurp the rule of law in this state. When will rational, decent Republicans stand up to these anti-government extremists instead of looking the other way?
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