“Dirty Jew.” That was what one Mequon resident, enraged his neighbor would post a Biden yard sign, allegedly called the neighbor as he ripped down the neighbor’s sign. The angry resident allegedly got in his neighbor’s face, said he would rip down any replacement signs and told him that “Jews” were the cause of the riots in Portland. He then left and temporarily put up a homemade “Jews 4 Trump” sign in his own front lawn (even though his parents tried to raise him Catholic).
This was absolutely wrong. And, assuming the facts are accurate, it is illegal.
There have always been hateful people with extreme views and awful behavior. Unfortunately, some will always exist.
But over the last few months, some people have excused overt incivility and horrible behavior because an issue is important to them. People picketed the school superintendent’s home – his home where his wife and children live! Some use the term Nazis when referring to Trump supporters. A few of our neighbors gave the finger to Black Lives Matter protesters and asked to have BLM signs banned. Kids made a video mocking George Floyd’s death. People have suggested that supporting our police is somehow an affront to people of color. Small groups on each side of the virus debate have acted vilely toward those with different opinions. People try to shut down discussion about all sorts of topics on social media.
To be clear, I think most Mequon residents abhor this hateful behavior. It is not what we are about.
Yes, we all have the inalienable right to free speech. But having the right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.
There is no societal issue that is improved by hating or demeaning others. Hate and division rarely, if ever, advance a cause and always are destructive.
I stay out of issues when they do not affect city government or its responsibilities. I believe that, as mayor, restraint is necessarily part of my job (one I often dislike). I am supposed to create community, not divide it.
However, incivility is permeating all discussions, including those about city government. And when someone goes onto another’s property and defaces their sign, that rightfully calls the police (the most important service the city provides) into play. Trespass and disorderly conduct are illegal acts (the resident described above was arrested).
Tensions always run high during elections. Even local races become passionate. Presidential elections raise the temperature even higher. Activists, state and national politicians (of both parties) and the media (real and fake) accuse others of ruining our country and imply, in the process, that only people who agree with them have our best interests at heart. They use division to make themselves relevant.
These weeks going into the presidential election, and perhaps the weeks following it, will test our character. Can we recognize that people with whom we disagree are not bad people (even if we believe them to be wrong)? Can we handle our differences civilly?
I truly believe that the vast majority of Mequon residents – people of color and white people; people of all faiths; Republicans, Democrats and independents – are good people. I am hopeful that we can keep our heads.
This election, the discussion about race and our opinions about the virus, as important as they may be, are not so important that we should destroy our community and our humanity.
City government cannot require civility. It can do little about hatefulness. Hopefully, our elected officials will not contribute to it. Mequon’s staff will faithfully conduct the election. All will do their jobs.
But, when people cross the line, as the resident described above did, our fine police department will fully enforce the law. Leave your neighbors’ yard signs alone. Taking them is theft. Do not put signs on public property. It is illegal. Do not put signs on others’ private property. That is trespass. Do not threaten people with whom you disagree. That is assault. Do not provoke fights. That is disorderly conduct. Do not touch your neighbor. At a minimum, it is assault, and it might be battery.
But it is not enough to just comply with the law. Good people follow not just the law, but the Golden Rule. Sometimes, the right thing is to not express an opinion. When we do, we need to be kind. Words matter. Tone matters. Actions matter. It is not easy. I am not perfect, but I am trying. If we all do that, the law becomes unnecessary.
Let’s all pray that we can emerge from this moment without too much damage.