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The Tyranny of Politeness

The proper time and place to protest, they say, is always the time and place where they feel they can most easily ignore us. When we show up at their churches, homes, and country clubs, we are no longer constrained by their rigged rules.

Sorry it's not convenient for you: Mike Ervin (l) and other activists outside Speaker Ryan’s parish church in Janesville, Wisconsin to protest Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, January, 2017.

Sorry it's not convenient for you: Mike Ervin (l) and other activists outside Speaker Ryan’s parish church in Janesville, Wisconsin to protest Republican attacks on the Affordable Care Act, January, 2017. (Photo: Brian Alberth) 

On a Saturday evening in 2017, just before the Inauguration, I gathered with about forty other protesters outside the Catholic church that Paul Ryan attends in Janesville, Wisconsin. We quietly passed out flyers as parishioners filed in for mass. The flyers noted that Ryan was championing drastic changes to Medicaid that would be devastating for disabled people like us.

Within minutes, the priest came out clutching a flyer. He angrily told us to get off the property. He said this was neither the time nor place for protest. We kept flyering. He went back inside the church. Within minutes, police were there, threatening to arrest us.

The same thing happened about five years earlier in Ohio, when some of us passed out flyers outside the church of then-Speaker of the House John Boehner. The priest came out in full vestments, clutching the sheet music of a hymn. He said this was neither the time nor place for protest. We kept flyering. He went back inside the church. Within minutes, police were there threatening to arrest us.

I’ve taken part in probably a hundred or more protest actions. Sometimes people have thrown themselves out of their wheelchairs. They’ve blocked traffic, chained themselves to buses, and been arrested by the dozens. But rarely have I felt more energized than I did at those two church actions, where all we did was pass out flyers.

Our simple act drew such a sharp overreaction because we had penetrated the fortress. The people who screw us over, like Boehner and Ryan, thrive when they are surrounded by layers of insulation. The last thing they want to do is come face-to-face with people like us. Their rules of polite and proper political engagement are designed to keep us at a distance.

Our simple act drew such a sharp overreaction because we had penetrated the fortress.

The proper way to engage them, we’re told, is to write letters they don’t read or maybe testify respectfully at hearings they don’t even attend. The proper time and place to protest is always the time and place where they can most easily ignore us.

But when we show up at their churches, homes, and country clubs, we are no longer constrained by the tyranny of politeness. We are no longer playing by their rigged rules.

So I’m all for heckling and hounding the higher-ups whenever and wherever the opportunity arises. See one of them eating dinner in a restaurant? Go for it. Do you know where they play tennis? Go rent a sound truck and circle the place airing your grievances.

Imagine if the Ryans and McConnells and that evil bunch all had to fear that they couldn’t even go to a church picnic without encountering uninvited packs of angry protesters. What if they cringed every time their doorbell rang for the same reason? Something tells me they’d be a lot less cocky.

One of the most impenetrable shields these guys hide behind is the phony notion of civility. When that doesn’t work anymore, they may have to do something different and drastic, like pay attention.

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Mike Ervin

Mike Ervin is a Chicago-based writer and a disability-rights activist with ADAPT (www.adapt.org). He can be reached at prmproj@progressive.org.

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