How to Institutionalize Hate Speech: Wisconsin Recall Edition

Senator Mark Miller with SPARC recall volunteers. Looks civil to me.
In Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, our hometown paper, The Star, is decidedly conservative, and while they did very kindly post our press releases online, coverage of the local recall effort has otherwise been limited to general discussion of the statewide recall effort in the form of a few demeaning editorials and a couple of angry letters from residents of nearby towns.  The paper did send a reporter to our office about a week ago to interview a few volunteers for an article on our efforts, but that article has not been printed yet. In my own interview with that reporter, I named several instances of harassment and intimidation to local recall workers, so I was surprised to see these facts ignored when I read the latest editorial online. In "Is hate speech being institutionalized?" , managing editor Chris Mertes takes on the topic of "hate speech" by refusing to acknowledge local recall violence and referring to a couple of anti-Walker facebook pages he doesn't like. He fails to mention that there have already been several calls on the Governor  to address the lack of civility being shown recall supporters - in the form of actual violence, threats of violence, harassment, and so on (including one from a Sun Prairie resident - me). While local legend and Mertes-Caller-Out Extraordinaire Eric Basile already soundly critiqued the editorial (see the article comments), I felt obliged to send my own letter, to add some balance by sharing some of the things we've seen at the local level in our recall efforts.  People tell me he's unlikely to publish the letter in the print edition, but maybe he'll surprise us. And who knows? Maybe he'll even take me up on my suggestion that he solicit more balance in the editorial department. It could happen. This world is ours for the changing, after all.

Letter to the editor. RE: "Is hate speech being institutionalized?"
I am a member of SPARC (Sun Prairie Action Resource Coalition), and also a United Wisconsin coordinator helping to organize the local recall movement here in Sun Prairie.  We have been collecting recall signatures here in town since November 15, and have been enormously impressed with the civility, respect and productive dialogue we've seen in the community. We thank all of the citizens of Sun Prairie for helping us collect signatures as peacefully and harmoniously as possible - we understand that this is a very charged political moment and many people have very strong feelings about what is happening in Wisconsin right now. We truly appreciate that our right to collect signatures and express our views has been respected by members of the community, and we also strive to be as respectful as possible of fellow citizens who disagree with our efforts.  To this effect, our group has been praised by the City Clerk, the Sun Prairie Police Department, the mayor, and the City Council president, all of whom expressed appreciation for our efforts to ensure that we collect signatures legally, transparently, and as amicably as possible. SPARC is about building community, and we believe that even in times of political turmoil we can still come together as friends and neighbors.

However, while the vast majority of responses we get are cordial and civil (mainly in the form of waves, honks, thumbs up and "thank yous!"), we have also had many instances of people expressing their displeasure with the recall effort.  While not all of these instances count as "hate speech," and people most certainly have the right to express their opinions about our work, we are regularly on the receiving end of negative comments and uncivil remarks. I have personally witnessed numerous instances of harassment, including the following: people shouting obscenities at recall workers from their cars; people giving the middle finger to signature collectors as they drive by; hate mail; threatening and hateful voicemail messages; harassing phone calls in the middle of the night; and threats of physical assault. We have had to call the police on more than one occasion. At a recent event, we even had a man drive by whose young son shouted at us, making obscene gestures, from the back seat while his father looked proudly on.  And while these instances are vastly outnumbered by the civil responses we see, they provide ample evidence that at the local level, it is people who stand in opposition to the recall movement - and not the local recall workers themselves - who have been openly demonstrating the sort of incivility Mr. Mertes bemoans in his disingenuous editorial.

I find it unconscionable that Mr. Mertes feels he can simply ignore the actual instances of political hate speech going on right here in Sun Prairie and yet still draw conclusions about the state of political affairs based on his selective reference to certain posts and facebook pages. For every anti-Walker page he mentions, there is a pro-Walker page that is equally malevolent. He brazenly ignores, for instance, several well-publicized facebook pages which actively collect personal information on recall workers and promote and encourage acts of violence against them, and which are even under police investigation.

Mr. Mertes asks if hate speech is being institutionalized, and I am ashamed and saddened to see that the answer to this question seems to be a resounding YES.  By blatantly ignoring local instances of the very sort of hate speech he claims to abhor, Mr. Mertes effectively condones that speech.  And as a Sun Prairie resident who has been a victim of that incivility, I find this to be shamefully irresponsible coverage of an issue that affects all of us, on both sides. We are neighbors. We are friends. Our children play together every day. Our voices deserve a place beside each other in the local paper.  If our shared goal is to avoid hate speech and come together for civil dialogue, then both sides should have equal time at the table. Perhaps now would be a good time for Mr. Mertes to solicit the occasional editorial from someone who does not share his views, so that we can get there faster.
Heather DuBois Bourenane 
                 Volunteers keep it civil (and fun) at the Sun Prairie Recall Office.    Are these grandmothers threatening our sense of security and civility? Or is there a more sinister subtext at work in editorials like the one posted in The Star this week?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reprinting the above letter. I am saddened to hear that things haven't changed much at The Star since I worked there back in 1998-99. Unfortunately, I am faced with similar narrow-minded editorial thinking at my present job. It is very hard to combat and I wish you and Mr. Basile the best of luck in your quest to be heard.