Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Enough about civility



I missed Sen. Tom Cotton's town hall meeting in Springdale last week, although I was there in spirit. I listened to the livestream while I rushed from work to pick up my daughters at daycare. I cheered and booed in my car along with the crowd and teared up with pride at the tough questions put to Cotton. It was rowdy, and it was perfect. In the days since, I've heard people praising him for appearing — I'm not sure how we got to a point where we are handing out congratulations to politicians for showing up to meet with their constituents — and criticizing the vocal crowd for being everything from "feisty," as described by CNN, to disrespectful and hateful.

As a rule, I try to be nice and calm in my day-to-day life. I work as a criminal defense attorney in an adversarial system. I interact with prosecutors and judges all day long who disagree with me. That's OK. If we cannot come to an agreement on a case, my client has a remedy through either a trial or an appeal. No need to yell and shout. Our legal system isn't perfect, but it allows for a public redress of wrongs (that is until the legislature gets their hands on it).

Politics are different. Sure, we have elections, but money tends to win at the ballot box. Between elections, we only have as much influence and contact with our elected officials as they will give us. Since the election of President Trump, Cotton has ignored some of his constituents at every turn. He has responded to phone calls, letters and visits with closed doors and patronizing form letters until last week's town hall meeting.

Many progressives in Northwest Arkansas, as they are in much of the state, are mad. They show up to legislative forums and coffee meetings and engage in civil discussion. They make polite phone calls to congressional staffers and legislative switchboard operators. The result? State Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) ignored pretty much his entire district and continued to push a bill taking control away from local college campuses, Sen. Uvalde Lindsey (D-Fayetteville) voted to pass SJR 8, the terrible tort reform and judicial power grab resolution, and Cotton voted, despite bipartisan objections, to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education.

The voices in that town hall reminded me of another part of my job that is often uncomfortable and tough to hear: the victim impact statement. Sometimes the victim is calm and collected and deliberate. More often, the victim starts off being civil and calm but soon his or her voice is strained and breaking. There are moments of anger and tears. It is messy. It is raw. It is real.

Who are we to tell those victims the "proper" way to react and the "proper" way to have their voices heard? Are we to tell them to be "more cheerful," as U.S. Rep. Steve Womack told his constituents at a recent event in West Fork? Are we to chastise them for their passion and anger, as the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette did to activist and former candidate for state representative Irvin Camacho in a recent, unsigned editorial? Are we to tell Kati McFarland, the woman who relentlessly questioned Cotton about the Affordable Care Act, to be sweeter to the man who has a hand in her health care?

No, Camacho and the immigrant community he represents; McFarland; Toby Smith, the 7-year-old who asked about PBS; and many of the men and women in the town hall all benefit from programs that are in the crosshairs. They and their friends and families are victims or will soon be if we take the GOP at their word. Maybe not victims in the exact sense as those who stand up in a courtroom and confront their perpetrators, but what we saw in that Springdale auditorium was the political equivalent.

People are angry. People are scared. No longer will there be town halls, coffees with a congressman or legislative forums where the crowd sits quietly while another politician dismisses valid concerns with canned talking points. Progressives in Arkansas will do what we try to do in our everyday lives. We will try hard to be civil. We will try hard to be deliberate. We will try to be nice. But, moving forward, we will not try so hard to be quiet.

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