From a Facebook post – Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor
In America today, we are seeing an increase in social activism and direct action politics. There is nothing wrong with this in a nation which values freedom. But recently, we have seen instances where fringe elements of anarchists and rioters run lawless and wild. And we have seen others invoke hateful, violent language against opponents. We have heard some very ugly rhetoric. Some directed at the President and his family. And some directed by the President at other people.
Last week, I visited the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington DC. The visit got me thinking about how Dr. King’s approach to political and social action compares to ours.
In his civil rights work, Dr. King was no easy adversary. He was persistent and he was insistent and there were aspects of compromise that he did not care to accept or discuss. It must have been difficult and frustrating to oppose Dr. King for these reasons. But not just for these reasons. He was also someone who knew how to locate and occupy the moral high ground and how to employ the power of civility. Maintaining dignity and respect helped him gain the upper hand.
It is appropriate that the first name of the civil rights movement was “civil.” The tactics employed in lunch counters and buses and on marches was “civil” disobedience. This does not mean that the movement did not contain people who were angry and who held fierce resentments. But even if the movement was not perfectly civil, it really was overwhelmingly and amazingly so.
In 2017, in the face of frustration with and challenges to the political status quo, we see far less of the morality and civility of Dr. King’s era. At demonstrations, we see bricks and sticks and molotovs and bear spray and gunfire. We see serious violence against police officers.
As a Sheriff, this concerns me. It concerns my Deputies who are responsible for policing protest and civil disobedience. It should concern any citizen of the United States who cares about how words and conduct impact the quality of civic and political life in America.
In all of this, we could benefit from following Dr. King’s example.
But this will not be easy. Truly civil direct-action / and even civil (truly civil) disobedience requires self-restraint, emotional discipline and solid ethical grounding. It requires an ethic of civility: affording a modicum of respect to other people and policies we oppose. In 2017, all of these things are in very short supply.
Today, we tolerate and celebrate a culture of self-centeredness. Our language is full of trash talk and casting blame and expressions of entitlement. Acting up and acting out, insults and threats crowd out moral conviction and righteous, balanced viewpoints.
By contrast, Dr. King’s language in the 1960’s encouraged both social action and personal accountability. It was language with strong moral content often taken from the Old Testament invoking the words of Amos and Micah and Isaiah and Moses.
The language had powerful impact but was not demeaning or derogatory. It urged action to confront injustice but also insisted that the confrontation involve a degree courageous humility. When we listen to his words today, even after fifty years, they still resonate.
My visit to the King memorial came at a time when we are a divided and contentious people. Too often, we see controversy and anger and self-righteousness overwhelm discipline and restraint and humility when addressing America’s most urgent social and economic problems.
If we are to strengthen America, we need to do a status check of our national character and temperament. America can only achieve its full potential if we raise the moral bar for public engagement and bring the best qualities of who we are to the public arena.