From the Women’s March, to the activists who shut down a Portland ICE facility, to the women who confronted Jeff Flake in an elevator during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, the last few years have been defined by continuous protests of Donald Trump, the GOP, and the cruel status quo of American politics. Yet, if the horrors of the Trump era have generated new energies of resistance, they have also given rise to the consistent critique that these direct actions are uncivil and part of “how we got Trump.”
In the past few weeks, two newly sworn in congresswomen ─ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) ─ supposedly brought “uncivil” actions into the now Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. Ocasio-Cortez joined a sit-in protest at Nancy Pelosi’s office and called Donald Trump a racist, twice; in a speech to supporters, Tlaib promised to “impeach the motherf*****.”
Reacting to these bold actions, pundits lamented that these “norm-breaking” statements “ played into Trump’s hands.” Calling Trump and the GOP what they are apparently only serves to threaten Democratic objectives and further debase our political culture. While this recurring cycle of outrage is ultimately an insipid distraction ─ both parties and pundits are more afraid of policy proposals like Ocasio-Cortez’s recommendation of a 70 percent marginal tax rate and Tlaib’s support of the BDS movement ─ this conversation about appropriately civil responses to the current moment will be sure to happen again and again as these left-wing women of color continue to push against expected political conventions.
The civility policing of Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib makes me recall the eight white Birmingham clergymen who in their 1963 open letter, “A Call for Unity,” chastised the demonstrations and sit-ins as “untimely and unwise.” With a condescending “not in this way” argument, they leveled an aesthetic critique against the civil rights movement, which contended the protestors’ methods threatened their goals. Martin Luther King Jr.’s now famous response in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” eviscerated the clergymen’s weaponization of civility, stating that their supposed tactical moderation was in fact a deferral of justice.
Today, civility policing is just one more layer of rhetorical fog which obscures the truth of our political reality ─ how poverty and cruelty are manufactured and sustained by the policy regime of America’s ruling class. In reality, the Trump tax cut is uncivil, the American support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen is uncivil, the prison-industrial complex is uncivil, ripping families apart at the border is uncivil.
Policing the response to the deadly policies and those that perpetuate them does not carve out a space for the better angels of our political process, but sides with violent injustice and racial oppression. Harsh words won’t undo uncivil policies, but statements like Ocasio-Cortez’s and Tlaib’s are required to continually unveil the bedrock of cruelty this country rests upon.
Incivility can accomplish more than just draw attention to evil policies. My own city, Chicago, suffered under the leadership of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. During his tenure, 50 schools in mostly black and brown neighborhoods were closed, half of the city’s mental health facilities were closed, and his office assisted in the cover up of Laquan McDonald’s murder by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke.
Deeply unpopular, yet flush with re-election cash, it came as a shock this last fall when Emanuel announced he wouldn’t be running for a third term. In later interviews it was revealed that regular, raucous, and decidedly “uncivil” protests at his home wore on his family and helped dissuade him from running again. Uncivil actions by Chicago activists opened up the city’s electoral horizon in a way not seen in generations.
Communities of faith have something to learn from activists, labor unions, and organizations like Assata’s Daughters in Chicago and the Democratic Socialists of America. Uncivil dissent and uncivil words ─ from wildcat teacher strikes, to protesting government officials in restaurants and at their homes, to everyday workers marching on their bosses, to saying that we are going to “impeach that motherf*****” ─ are hopeful actions that confront the bitter truths of our political economy. No truly effective form of resistance will ever be acceptable to those in power, and the critiques of representatives Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib are enchanted by a form of politics and common life not available to us. They fail to recognize the sources of oppression and what is at stake.
Passionate and uncivil opposition to injustice doesn’t mirror Trump, but it does mirror the actions of Jesus. In his own act of uncivil disobedience, the cleansing of the temple (John 3:13-16), Jesus doesn’t politely ask the money changers to leave, but fashions a whip, flips tables and drives the bastards out. Jesus takes a side in the class struggle, and as president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, put it, “And if Jesus himself had to take the whip to chase [the exploiters] from his temple, it is indeed because that is the only language they hear.”
A more just and beautiful world is possible. Yet it won’t be built with pious vagaries about neighbor love and the common good, but with solidarity in the fight against the ruling class and an oppressive system. The work of liberation ─ the hopeful work that Christ calls us to ─ certainly entails loving our neighbor, but it is also work that continues with profane words, overturning a few tables, and then maybe overturning this entire cruel economic system.