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Chalk on the Sidewalk: Idaho faces difficult discussions in a time of political polarization

By August 26, 2020September 8th, 2020No Comments

On Aug. 16, the Boise Black Lives Matter chapter went to the home of Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg to protest her vote to expand the city’s police budget by $1.2 million. They said they wanted to facilitate a conversation, drawing body outlines in chalk on the sidewalk, chanting into a megaphone and blowing bubbles. According to BLM Boise Spokesperson Terry J. Wilson II, going to Clegg’s house was what they felt they had to do to be heard.

“I tried going through the proper channels and it didn’t work,” Wilson said. “We’re very disappointed because we don’t want to go to their sanctuaries to get noticed but in reality it’s our sanctuaries, BIPOC’s homes and communities, that are on fire and we demand to be seen.”

Clegg said it didn’t feel like the protesters wanted to have a conversation. She felt unsafe and called the police.

“I absolutely believe in people’s right to protest, but the tactic of disturbing the peace in a neighborhood at 7 a.m. is traumatizing,” said Clegg. “I thought calling the police was the best way to de-escalate the situation at the time.”

Across the Treasure Valley in recent months, activists from across the political spectrum have started to appear at the homes of public figures to air their grievances, from those of Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo to a Meridian police officer involved in the arrest of an anti-lockdown demonstrator.

“Democracy needs robust disagreement and challenges,” said Principal Research Specialist for the National Institute for Civil Discourse Timothy Shaffer. “Protest at personal homes is an interesting thing and there’s a lot of complexity involved.”

According to an annual poll done by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, the majority of Americans think that incivility is an issue. Out of this poll, over half believe that the problem will only get worse.

Clegg said waking up to a group of protesters outside of her home frightened her. She said that she has always made herself available to constituents, and that she has attended community conversations requested by Boiseans, and welcomes the opportunity to have sit-down, face-to-face discussions. But a protest in front of her door was something she wasn’t prepared for, adding that there have been so many threats of violence on social media from different groups that she was afraid the arrival of counter-protesters could cause the situation to erupt.

Wilson said that he and others from BLM went to the Clegg’s home because he feels his organization has been consistently ignored and that they consider themselves civil rights activists as opposed to protesters, and added that many people in positions of power in Idaho have paid lip service to progressive ideas, but have done little to advance the cause of justice. He went on to criticize her decision to call the police.

“Clegg claims she’s a progressive and an activist but anyone who says that and calls the police on peaceful protesters is a hypocrite,” Wilson said.

Clegg said that political change doesn’t come merely because people ask for it, and speaking as an elected official, she has rarely found that more aggressive tactics have facilitated conversation. She said that her power is not her own personal power, but the power as an elected representative of Boise; and she felt the activists were putting her family in danger by engaging the way they did.

“I don’t think it’s effective,” said Clegg, “and secondly, it amplifies this heightened sense that we have to become more radical. Whatever your cause is, my experience in making change is you come to the table, talk and settle on a path forward, although people rarely get everything they’re asking for.”

Wilson said going to the councilwoman’s house was a plea to be heard. He added that historically, laws like Black Codes were used to keep Black people from participating in civil discussion and that disenfranchisement and gerrymandering still affect Black political participation today. He also added that people often protest at public servants’ homes, citing recent instances in which people protested the Postmaster General’s house over funding the United States Postal Service.

The BLM movement in Boise achieves its ends by education through research, seeking to create a more egalitarian Boise where “Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise,” and Wilson said the group is working with legislators on new legislation. However, he said the group has struggled for a seat at the table during community discussions, and that he sees going to elected officials homes as the highest form of accountability.

“What we want people to take away from this is that we scream louder because we go unheard, and it’s a variety of tactics that will get us to our goals,” said Wilson. “There are other ways to promote discussion just as there are other ways to police. We’re here for all marginalized groups and we want to use research and education to help turn our communities into places for all of the people.”

Both Clegg and the Boise BLM chapter want the same thing: to engage in civil discourse. People want to be able to have discussions about the city where recommendations can be made and considered, and where people feel safe while it happens.

Those people who are on opposite sides of the political spectrum may have even more of a divide to overcome. Armed counter-protesters have been regular features at BLM demonstrations, increasing the potential for violence, and cutting down the potential for constructive conversation. The tension between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators has a spotlight on the deep political divides in the city and state.

Traditionally, people often disagree along political party lines, but according to Jasper LiCalzi, author of Idaho Politics and Government: Culture Clash and Conflicting Values in the Gem State, Idaho’s political divides are a bit different and may help explain why there seems to be a stalemate regarding civil discourse.

“In Idaho, I look at the differences along the lines of individualism and community rather than Republican or Democrat,” said LiCalzi. “I see people splitting up in these two ways and when a new issue comes along people use their comfortable and known ideologies to make decisions and these two groups see things in very different ways.”

LiCalzi said although most former presidents and politicians move within the middle ground of political discourse, the individual rights ideology conflicts directly with people with a more communitarian outlook. These two points of view can make it very difficult to have conversations.

To move the discourse in a positive way, LiCalzi said people should look to leaders who are non-ideological. He cited former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, whom he said is an example of a leader who did what was right versus what was popular. A democratic governor, Andrus was known for his environmental work; but to hold the office and get legislation passed, he also had to be able to negotiate with the state majority republicans.

“These kind of middle-ground politicians are what can help move people past ideology,” said LiCalzi. “Most former presidents are in the middle, but people have been screaming at each other forever. I believe people in the middle should be put into positions of power—thoughtful, problem-solving people. Change comes from the middle moving.”

Echoing this sentiment, Treasure Valley Branch of the NAACP President Charles Taylor said that he sees people talking past each other, pointing fingers and seeing who can scream the loudest. He said people seem to be unwilling to even consider different points of view, and also believes political leadership sets the tone for civil discourse.

“Politicians quit talking and political leadership trickles down into the people,” said Taylor. “We at the NAACP don’t believe we get to any place of value screaming at people. Our mission is to move things in a direction of positivity and to do that we need to talk about what got us here today.”

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