What Happened To Polite Protest?

As Members of Congress hold town hall meetings on health care reform across the country, some lawmakers have seen the discussions go debate to debacle as audience members shout their views. Tensions at a few meetings have even climaxed into shoving and punching matches. That tone leads many to ask, where is the line drawn between civil discourse and civil obedience? Host Michel Martin talks with Mark DeMoss, of the online- based Civility Project. Also joining the discussion is Madea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, a grassroots movement that advocates for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And we're just continuing this conversation about what constitutes civil discourse, we just heard - as you heard from two members of Congress who have had the challenge of dealing with angry questioners or protestors, if you will, which got us to thinking, how do we feel about that?

Is it necessarily wrong to be rude? Is it necessarily wrong to be pointed, loud, even nasty when discussing a public policy with which you profoundly disagree? So for answers, we decided to turn to Mark DeMoss. He's the founder of the civilityproject.org. It's a Web-based organization that hopes to promote more civility in public discourse. He's with us also from Georgia Public Broadcasting.

We also have, here in Washington, D.C., Madea Benjamin. She's a co-founder of Code Pink. That's a grassroots movement that has been vocally and often dramatically pushing for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and redirecting those resources towards domestic issues, including health care. Many of you will know Code Pink, even if you don't know that it is Code Pink, because they have staged some of the more dramatic, and some consider entertaining, protests in Washington in recent years. She's here with me in Washington. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MADEA BENJAMIN (Co-founder, Code Pink): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. MARK DeMOSS (Founder, civilityproject.org): Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we get started, I wanted to play a clip of Missouri's junior senator, Claire McCaskill. She's talking about one of the town hall meetings that I just referred to. Here it is.

Senator CLAIRE McCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): I hate to use my mother's voice here because I got three teenagers, and I got one, but what is it that you think we're going to accomplish if you don't let anybody talk? What is the point? What is the point? Is the point not to let anybody talk? I'm confused.

MARTIN: Madea, let's start with you, what is the point? You do this sometimes, disrupt public meetings, you and the folks who also belong to Code Pink. What is the point?

Ms. BENJAMIN: Well, we always do it with a point, and we do it usually out of frustration because we've tried so many other ways, and we've tried meetings and calls and getting thousands of people to write in and don't get - usually don't get any response. We usually don't even get the meetings. I am from San Francisco. We can't get a town hall - we haven't had a town hall meeting with Nancy Pelosi since January of 2006. So just getting face time with our representatives, if you're not a big corporation that pays a lot of money for lobbying, is very hard.

In our case, we - (unintelligible) out of that kind of frustration. We didn't just go into, you know, a meeting one day and disrupt. This was years in the making. And now we don't really believe in politeness because we don't feel our system responds when, in our case, we went to a war on the basis of lies and can't get people to stop funding that war. We don't feel that politeness is necessarily the way to respond.

MARTIN: Well, there are those who say - who, for example, some of the people in Congressman Scott's - that encounter with Congressman Scott later told reporters the same thing. They said that they had tried to get a meeting, or they had tried to set up a meeting through his office. They got nowhere, so they decided to come to this meeting. Do you think they were right?

Ms. BENJAMIN: Well, I think it's true that our Congress people are very hard to get hold of if we're not lobbyists, and they don't give us enough face time. They don't have regularly scheduled town hall meetings. I mean, I'm amazed and delighted that there are all these town hall meetings happening, but it's usually very hard to get our Congress people to set up town hall meetings.

I think they should mandated. They should be regularly scheduled, and I think if people had more of a chance to meet with their Congress people, maybe we wouldn't feel this level of frustration.

MARTIN: So you have no problem with what these people are doing at these town hall meetings right now?

Ms. BENJAMIN: I don't like the whole debate that's going on. I don't feel that - first of all, we don't believe in pushing and shoving and putting swastikas and burning people in effigies and, you know, that kind of nastiness. I think people ought to chill out and really start talking about the issues.

When we disrupted, it was always because our issue wasn't being brought up. In the case of a town hall meeting with Nancy Pelosi that we finally got in January of 2006, we asked her why, if you say you're against the way in Iraq, do you keep funding it? When she wouldn't give us a decent answer, all we did is stood up with our signs quietly during the meeting so that the meeting could continue to go on.

We believe in discourse. We believe in trying to find ways to make sure your issue is getting discussed, but we've got to discuss the issues.

MARTIN: Let's bring Mark DeMoss into the conversation. Mark, what's your take on what you've been hearing and what you're hearing now.

Mr. DeMOSS: Well, I think first of all, to me this is not a question of our rights or democracy or whether we're entitled to, you know, free speech and all of that. To me, this is - more of a question of effectiveness.

What's an effective way to achieve, to make your point or to make progress? And, you know, we don't, Madea, we don't get our way in a lot of things in this world. I didn't get my way in this election. I didn't vote for President Obama, but because I didn't get my way doesn't mean I'm going to go make a scene or interrupt some meeting.

No, this is a great country in that, especially in this communication age, there are so many outlets to speak and be heard. And you can write, and you can speak, and there are programs like this that are thoughtful and respectful and intelligent, and we're not being drowned out here on these NPR airwaves.

This is the way I'd like to see people make their points. Liberal and Democrat, I think there's enough guilt and blame on this issue of incivility on both sides of the political spectrum.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, Mark, we're going to take a short break, and we will come back to this conversation in just a few minutes, but before we take our break, I wanted to ask you to respond to what Congressman Scott was saying. He feels that there's a racial undertone, and one cannot help but notice that a lot of the people who seem the angriest at these town hall meetings don't - do seem to be white. I don't know what that means, but I don't see a lot of diversity in the sort of the demographics of the people who are doing a lot of the yelling.

I just wonder if you've noticed that, and what do you think it means? He thinks that there's a racial undertone to this, that there's resentment about Obama's candidacy, and this is what it's being - how it's being expressed. What do you think?

Mr. DeMOSS: I don't think, by and large, that this is a racial question or issue. But I will say, I was sitting, you know, three feet away from Congressman Scott at this microphone and I saw this piece of paper he was reading from and it's reprehensible, and I feel terrible about it.

It's awful, it shouldn't be, but I don't think - and it's obviously aimed at him directly. It's not a figment of his imagination. I saw the paper, but I don't think nationwide, I don't think this is - an outpouring of any sort of racial resentment.

MARTIN: Forgive me - we need to take - I hope I'm being civil in interrupting. We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we're going to continue this conversation about the town hall debates and whether this is appropriate civil discourse or not - or appropriate civil disobedience, with Mark DeMoss, the founder of the civilityproject.org, he's with us from Georgia Public Broadcasting, and Madea Benjamin, a political activist and co-founder of Code Pink, which is known for its anti-war activism over the last couple of years. She's here with us in Washington. Please stay with us. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Obama administration last week unveiled plans to change the way the U.S. detains suspected illegal immigrants. We'll hear more in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about the debate over civility at the town hall debates. We're speaking with Mark DeMoss. He's the founder of the civilityproject.org. It's a Web-based organization that hopes to promote more civility in public discourse. We're also speaking with Madea Benjamin. She's a co-founder of Code Pink, a grassroots movement that has been vocally and often dramatically pushing for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Madea, I'm going to play a short clip of a - what was it? Was it a sit-in or something? What was it?

Ms. BENJAMIN: Uh-oh. I don't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: At a recruiting station. Here it is, a Marine recruiting station. Here it is.

(Soundbite of political protest)

Unidentified Woman: No business as usual today. Stop the torture. Stop the War. Drive out the Bush regime.

MARTIN: See, some people think that's kind of mean. What do you think is the difference between how you approach these civil actions and what you're seeing at these town halls, or is there a difference?

Ms. BENJAMIN: Well, I'd say maybe the difference is we really try to go armed with the facts. We bring fact sheets to hand out to people. We try to engage in the issues, and then if we feel totally shut out, we will resort to more dramatic actions like a sit-in. We know that if we're doing a sit-in, we're risking arrest, and we're totally aware of that and ready to take responsibility for that. And we feel that civil disobedience has been part of our history of social change in this country.

I think at these town hall meetings, there's a kind of a anger that's coming out without the clarity about what they really want. If you go to the - you listen to the chants, and you hear just say no, just say no, that doesn't tell you very much.

I think it's good that people are getting out and going to meetings. I love to see lots of people engaging in the public discourse, but I think that it's - what we're seeing is really more a reaction to an economic crisis that has people feeling vulnerable. People have seen the bailout. They've seen the Wall Street getting their money but people worried about what's going to happen to their jobs and to their families. And so a lot of this insecurity I think is coming out in negative. Right-wing populism…

MARTIN: I understand that, but I mean, I think, I mean, that could be true. I mean, people - they say, you know, as you would say, they have a right to speak for themselves and to say what's on their minds. But the question I would have is, you know, when athletes mess up or do something that we don't like, we say, well, what about the kids? What example are we setting for the kids about how to conduct themselves? And so I'd like to ask you that question. I mean, what message do you think you're sending when you disrupt public meetings and yell at people and call them names?

And I understand your point. You say that - you think the difference between the way your group conducts itself and some of these folks are conducting themselves at the meetings is that you are prepared to be arrested, that you don't talk over people, you don't take over the meeting, but sometimes you do.

Ms. BENJAMIN: Well, for example, the clip that you played when we were in that Marine recruiting station, what we did is a sit-in. We sat down and we locked arms and we sang. And we eventually did get arrested, and we had to pay fines of disruption. And I think we are teaching our kids there when you go into a war that you shouldn't be in, you should take action to try to get out of that war to save lives. I think it's a positive example for the young people.

MARTIN: Mark, your take?

Mr. DeMOSS: Well again, I would just go back to the effectiveness question. I would question the effectiveness of some of these tactics, of Code Pink and dozens and dozens of groups like Code Pink.

Ms. BENJAMIN: I wish there were dozens and dozens, Mark.

Mr. DeMOSS: You know, look, one of the great things, Madea, in this country, when we don't get our own way, is we have an election every couple of years and we can vote new people in office. And we may see that next year. We may see a whole sea change of elected officials, but I think that's more effective.

You know, we have people yelling about health care or any other issue who don't know anything about the issue because they haven't studied it, they haven't read it, they don't know what they're talking about. They're just shouting. And I don't know what we're accomplishing except, you know, sort of feeding the media beast.

MARTIN: Mark, can I just ask you - forgive me - may I just ask you this? I mean, you didn't found civility.org just because you were worried about the effectiveness on the Republican side. I mean, you have a day job for that, which is as a public relations strategist and consultant. So you have a day job where you could talk about the effectiveness issue. Isn't your concern a larger one, that you feel that there's something eroding of the sort of the fabric of society when we routinely use these tactics?

Mr. DEMOSS: Yeah I really do. I think, to me, civility has value, not just in public life, it has value in my marriage. It has value with - in my relationship with my children, in my relationship with my employees, in when I'm driving through Atlanta, as I did this morning, is a real test of civility.

But this is not just about, you know, how we settle national elections or liberals versus Democrats. I think that the tone in our whole country, every age, every demographic, every race has room to grow here, and I was concerned about it.

I'm a conservative Republican. I'm an evangelical Christian. I have a lot of concern about people in my own camp, on this issue, and I have - and so I'm really not, I'm preaching as much to my own camp as I would be to someone else. I'd rather someone… I joined hands, Michel, with a liberal Democrat, a Jewish man, Lanny Davis in Washington.

Ms. BENJAMIN: Ooh, he's not a very civil man. I hate to say, Mark.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right. We'll hear from you in a minute, Madea. Let Mark finish his point and we'll let you (unintelligible).

Ms. BENJAMIN: I know him well.

Mr. DEMOSS: Well you may not like some of his politics or some things he does, but by and large I thought as I watched Lanny on television advocating for Hillary Clinton, who I know Madea's had problems with. I watched him and I said there's a Democrat I like. He's thoughtful. He's respectful. He's not yelling with anybody.

I don't agree with Lanny on almost anything and he doesn't agree with me on almost anything. We've become wonderful friends. We've become wonderful friends and we've had some wonderful dialogue about issues we disagree with, like marriage, gay marriage and other issues and it...

MARTIN: I understand. Mark, forgive me. Let me give Madea a chance to respond...

Mr. DEMOSS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...to your point. I mean I think Mark's point, if I could just rephrase a little bit is this is a very diverse society. We have a lot of different perspective. There really is no way to advance these different perspectives if people don't lower the temperature as it were. What do you say to that?

Ms. BENJAMIN: Well first, I just have to ask Mark if he heard Lanny Davis on "Democracy Now" last week when he was just mean as could be interrupting and shouting. But separate from that, I want to give an example. I believe in the single-payer health care system, Medicare for All. I don't think it's been given a voice in this debate.

I'm angry that the Democrats didn't give it a fair chance and neither did Obama. And when in one of the hearings where there were no people testifying on the single-payer option, some of the doctors in the audience stood up and said single-payer must be on the table. We should have somebody here advocating for single-payer. They got pulled out and they got arrested.

I felt very proud of their action because their voice was not being represented and they took responsibility, stood up, and made their voice heard.

MARTIN: And so do you feel similarly proud of these town hall protesters who would say exactly the same thing? They say we don't feel our voice is being heard. We feel that we are not being - that our perspective on this, our anxieties, whatever motivates them, are not being respected by our elected leaders - do you feel similarly proud of them? Or is more of an issue of whether you agree with what they have to say?

Ms. BENJAMIN: Well, if they got up, and instead of just yelling, if they got up and said here's a particular issue I care about and this is what I want to see instead of what you're proposing, if it was clear, if it was specific; fine.

Unfortunately, you know when these doctors got up they were immediately escorted out and arrested, and the hearing continued, so it was maybe a 10 second interruption. If you're going to take over the town hall meeting and you can't continue the discussion, then I think people could be taken out.

MARTIN: Okay Mark DeMoss, I'm going to give you the final word. I gave Madea the first word, I'm going to give you the last word. What would you like to see happen now? Now that the genie is out of the bottle, at least, for now, do you think that that genie could be put back in? What would you like to see happen now, going forward?

Mr. DEMOSS: Well, it's a tough hill to climb, certainly, but I think this: I'd like to see us, on both sides of any issue, I'd like to see us increasingly wage ideological battles with words and ideas, and not with volume and tactics and antics. I think we're losing this ability to debate with words and ideas and instead we're debating with volume and shouting and those sorts of things. I don't think it's effective and… So there's a practical reason. Even if you don't agree, philosophically with this, there are, I think, there are practical reasons for operating this way. Some won't agree with me and that's fine. That's why it's America.

MARTIN: What do you want people to do first? Who's going to take the first step? Who would you like to stand down first?

Mr. DEMOSS: Well, if we view it that way it won't happen. So, my view was I'll do my part if you know somebody else will do their part and we'll do it together. If I waited for liberals, who I think are not always civil to move, and they're waiting for me to move, we - neither one of us moves, we don't get anywhere so I think, and I'm not claiming perfection on this.

One of the reasons I wanted to do this is I want to remind myself to behave this way. I need, I have room for improvement here and Lanny Davis, Madea would say the same thing.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. DEMOSS: But, so...

MARTIN: Forgive me we have, forgive me, we have to leave it there for now...

Mr. DEMOSS: Okay.

MARTIN: ...to make room for our next conversation.

Mark DeMoss is the founder of the Civility Project.org. He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Madea Benjamin is a veteran political activist, co-founder of Code Pink and she was kind enough to join us from our Washington, D.C. studios.

And I thank you both for a civil conversation. Thank you both so much.

Ms. BENJAMIN: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. BENJAMIN: Thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

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