It’s often best to avoid giving odious people air time.
There’s little to gain from engaging with the ugliness that passes for political protest these days.
Governor Charlie Baker has studiously avoided speaking publicly about the racist Trump supporters who have regularly converged on his Swampscott neighborhood — sometimes flying the traitorous flag of the Confederacy — since the pandemic began. He has rightly calculated that doing otherwise would only encourage them.
But the ugly protests outside the Roslindale home of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu are impossible to ignore. The folks protesting the city’s vaccine mandates have been particularly nasty, and personal. They have crossed all kinds of lines.
Critics of Wu’s policies requiring all city employees to be vaccinated, and proof of a jab to enter certain businesses in Boston, have laced their arguments with racism and misogyny: One protester’s sign at a recent public event in Mattapan called Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, a “communist [expletive],” and read, “Welcome to the Peoples Republic of Boston.”
In Roslindale, the rabid vaccine resisters have shown up early in the morning, making as much noise as they can in an effort to wake not just Wu’s family, it seems, but the entire neighborhood, joking that they’re the mayor’s “alarm clock.” Their presence is all the more jarring in a progressive city like Boston, where Wu was elected in a landslide just a few months ago.
The protesters’ rhetoric mirrors the poisonous, pandemic-prolonging talking points that have infected millions across the country, a rejection of science becoming a kind of perverted patriotism that is integral to conservatism these days. They parade their ignorance even as hospitals are at their breaking point and public health professionals beg for mercy.
The protesters in Roslindale rail against “forced medicine.” The most vocal of them work in public safety, a field in which their refusal to take the most basic precautions should be utterly disqualifying. They proudly post videos of their disruptions. In one clip posted to Twitter on Friday, Wu’s birthday, somebody in the crowd converging on her car kept yelling “Happy birthday, Hitler!”
Earlier last week, my colleague Stephanie Ebbert heard one protestor say something menacing to Wu, a mother devoted to her two young boys.
“You’re not going to be around for your children cause you are going to be held accountable,” the person said.
Even by the standards we’ve come to expect from these protests, which is to say none, that is despicable. There are human beings in that house, including little kids, and Wu’s mother, who has struggled with mental illness. Imagine how terrifying it must be for a kid to have people show up at your home and say such awful things. It wouldn’t be the first time enraged adults have behaved despicably around children in the city, but one would hope we’d grown as Boston grew more welcoming to people of color.
Instead, we seem to have regressed. Threats, veiled and otherwise, are the currency of public discourse these days, from school board meetings in Derry, N.H., to the office of the nation’s top COVID expert, Anthony Fauci.
The targets of anti-vaccine mobs face an impossible choice: Call out the threats, thereby giving them a bigger platform; or ignore them and risk normalizing the behavior, knowing that one in the mob may actually do them harm. Increasingly, those railing about tyranny are doing more than just posturing, a fact last year’s insurrection made plain.
Wu has gone back and forth, struggling with how best to respond to her increasingly hostile critics. In tweets on Saturday, she called out some of the slurs and said: “To have a chance at healing & building community, we can’t keep normalizing hate.”
Every elected official expects to be the target of protests, particularly in this fractious era. And Wu’s critics have the right to express themselves, no matter how wrongheaded their point of view.
But do they have to be this appalling, this cruel? Can we at least agree that the protests should be confined to public settings, and not the homes of elected officials — of either party — who deserve to feel safe where they live?
Or have we lost the capacity for even that basic decency, too?