We Have to Get Better

Gov. Kim Reynolds is a short person. In fact, she’s nearly as short as I am. And I can tell you this, because I just got in her face. I did. I found her at the Coralville Hyvee, talking in the dining room, to a standing-room only group of folks about how Iowa is Number One. I belonged to a group of activists who squeezed in to challenge her about the Sanctuary bill, which KCRG reported as her saying she’d sign. Reynolds left little room for questions*—so after her spiel, a local Muslim started to ask Reynolds about the sanctuary measure. Reynolds said she’d look into the bill. I stepped in front of Reynolds, and asked how she could reconcile the Constitutionality of the bill—and she repeated that she’d look into it. The first woman stalked away. Some other people took her place. They started talking too. I said to Reynolds, “Last night, the news reported how you said you would sign the bill.” And then Reynolds got a look of disgust, turned her back on all of us, and walked away. 

Some other poobah with salt and pepper hair was telling the Muslim woman that she was blowing things out of proportion. The Muslim woman said that she’s a person too. The poobah said he didn’t dispute that. The Muslim woman, losing composure, strode off. And the poobah called after her about what a great activist *she’d* turn out to be. Nice. So I said to him that the Sanctuary bill violated Fourth Amendment Rights. He said that Reynolds would not sign the bill. I said that she indicated to our local news that she would. He said that today she promised to look into it. I said that maybe politicians say different things in different venues. He said Iowa City would not see sanctuary interference. I said I hope he was right. And he *patted me on the hand.*

P-I-S-S-A-N-T.

James took me out of the store, and brought me to a bar. And I couldn’t order anything, because my stomach was upset. I’m sitting on our couch now, Facebooking my fingers off.

Now for some qualifications and a puzzlement:

Q1. I was not as eloquent as I’d liked to have been. My voice shook. And in this post, I admit I’m assembling my dialogue with an editor’s eye. Q2. I don’t know what other people were doing around me, so my focus on myself is more on account of the fog of war than any sort of ballad of Meggie Disgusts the Governor. 

But now for the puzzlement: I’m not sure we activists handled this moment all that well. For one thing, the event was designed to keep us from handling it well. We didn’t have time to ask our questions. We certainly didn’t have time to press our questions. The people who answered our questions were able to resort to dismissive sidesteppery. This enraged us, and that caused us to lose at least part of our composure, and this allowed people like Poobah Pissant to pretend he was taking the mature stance by staying calm. This pattern allows our opponents to further control the conversation, by using this event as an example of how Iowa City is full of hysterical liberals. We have the moral advantage. Oh, we do. But at the moment, they have the rhetorical high ground.

The question is how the heck to handle this. The fact is that we average resistors aren’t a group of politicians who make a career out of appearing rational, even while saying the most hair-raising things. More to the point, we have way more skin in the game than they do. For instance: I’m betting that Muslim woman lost her composure, because she (or someone she knows) could probably lose her family to deportation. I lost part of my composure, because I wanted to defend something, but didn’t know how. This brings me to the next point. We activists need to decide what our role is when we engage with somebody like the governor. Are we there to protest, or enter a dialogue? Each of these calls for some very different tactics. A protest doesn’t require you truly to engage the other side. You can chant, and proclaim, and disrupt if need be. It’s all pretty one-sided. But a dialogue requires that you listen. It requires that you depart from your speaking points, and actually adapt to what the other side is telling you. Reynolds gave me a BS answer. But I was expecting her to. And what I should have said was, “You’re looking into it? Tell me how you’re looking into it.” Instead I insinuated she was lying.

She probably was. I quoted the news. And she may have turned away because I called her on it. But at that moment, I was so angry that I didn’t let myself choose whether to protest or converse. Protest was all I had. 

And this brings me to the major point that I’m going to make in this whole, rambly post. As activists, we have to work to stay calm. We have to. And let me tell you, it is so hard to do that. It is hard not to yell when you’re getting BS answers. It is hard not to accuse, when the Muslim next to you has begun to cry. But when we get angry, we don’t listen—which means we don’t argue well—which means we leave our opponents rolling their eyes. God forbid we get angry enough to throw a punch. To control our side of the engagement—and our choice about that engagement—we have to control ourselves. And although I’m focused mostly on the dialogue kind of encounter that I saw today, this goes doubly for the protest stance. When people spit on you, you have to stay calm. When cameras are rolling, your whole cause can depend on how well you hold your temper.

I request that we activists find someone who can teach us how to keep our composure. I don’t know who that is. Albus Dumbledore and Ben Kenobi are dead (and, uh, not real). But we have to find someone—an old Freedom Rider, a hostage negotiator, a suicide hotliner–someone. The difference between a mob and an army is discipline. And we need that discipline. We need Obama’s discipline. Otherwise, we might run the governor out of town, sure. We might even cheer a little when we see her flee. But this just leaves her all the more willing to say that no reason, no compassion, and no truly effective resistance, can come from Iowa City.

*That said, my hat is way off to the teenager who managed to ask what Reynolds would do to keep kids from getting shot. Reynolds gave the line about “walking up and not out.” Some gun nuts started hollering at the kid. The kid persisted, and then Reynolds called off the Q&A.

(Originally posted April 5, 2018)

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