The controversy made its way to Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, who at a rally in Los Angeles on Saturday, endorsed Red Hen tactics as a tool for pressuring senior administration officials. “You tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” Waters told the crowd. “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station—you get out and you clear the crowd. You push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore anywhere.”
The rebukes for Waters and Wilkinson came swiftly and from all political corners. President Trump responded with familiar and predictably crass vitriol, referring to Waters as an an “extraordinarily low IQ person.” “She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement,” Trump tweeted on Monday. Then came a barely veiled threat: “Be careful what you wish for Max!”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also rebuked her longtime colleague, tweeting: “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.”
“Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment,” wrote The Washington Post’s editorial board, warning of mirror-image actions by conservatives against pro-choice advocates. At USA Today, the conservative columnist James S. Robbins agreed, adding that “a return to decorum would be a useful step towards restoring the notion of a personal sphere and promoting a more rational tone in our policy debates.” My colleague Conor Friedersdorf weighed in on Twitter: “I think members of the Trump coalition are more likely to be energized and less likely to be turned off by flagrant incivility than members of the relatively more civil anti-Trump coalition.”
Many of these arguments invoke the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protest as a platonic ideal. Indeed, some version of his organizing philosophy is often produced as the “right way” for abused minorities in the country to protest and effect change. But the version of Kingian and nonviolent civil-rights activism used to scold those who use shame and confrontation as tools today is a false image.
For King—and more so for the younger generation of student civil-rights leaders who initiated sit-ins Freedom Rides—nonviolence was militant. It was confrontational by design. Often, this sort of protest required breaking laws—which is why King went to jail dozens of times. While Red Hen-style tactics were obviously unavailable to black activists during Jim Crow, obstruction, public call-outs, and protests designed explicitly to provoke white onlookers into violence were part and parcel of the civil-rights strategy. But those tactics were not widely considered civil, and according to public-opinion polls, many whites believed black agitators were themselves the ones upending public order, and creating the conditions under which voters who supported white supremacy would only double down on their beliefs.