Local controversy reflects shift in protest movements

Slowik: Local controversy reflects shift in protest movements

By Ted Slowik   February 2017   From Chichgo Tribune/Southtown

In many respects, Donald Trump is unlike any other president. There remains a lot of uncertainty about what he’ll try to do and how he’ll try to do it.

On the other hand, there’s a sense we’ve seen a lot of this before. The pendulum swings back and forth in American politics. A new president is trying to fulfill some of his campaign promises. He wants to implement policies to take the country in a different direction.

I think that’s a good context in which to consider the controversy over Will County Board member Steve Balich and comments about women.

Balich is under fire for posting on his Will County News website an article written by a conservative commentator who called participants in the Jan. 21 women’s march “grumpy old women and their wives.”

Three women spoke at Feb. 16 Will County Board meetings, saying they found the remarks “distasteful” and “disrespectful.” Balich had previously removed the article from his website and publicly apologized during a Feb. 2 committee meeting.

Some called for Balich’s resignation, but Balich told me Thursday he will not resign.

Balich, of Homer Glen, was first elected to the county board in 2012. He was re-elected in November to a two-year term and has to run again in 2018. He previously served as a Homer Township trustee for eight years and as town clerk for four years.

He started publishing his website in 2009, the same year he helped found the Homer/Lockport Township Tea Party. Balich told me they’d typically get 3,000 people at rallies, and once drew more than 10,000 people to a rally in New Lenox.

“That group was not all Republicans,” he told me. “When your property taxes go up, it affects everybody.”

Nationally, the tea party movement helped Republicans gain 63 House seats in the 2010 midterm election. Democrats that year lost the most seats in the House since 1938.

Tea party supporters expressed sincere frustration about issues like taxes and spending in the wake of Barack Obama’s first presidential victory. Seven years ago, Democrats held power, but conservatives and Republicans seized the momentum of grass-roots support.

Now, it appears the tide has turned. Republicans hold power, and Democratic supporters are the outsiders raising a ruckus.

Suddenly, it seems, there’s a passionate groundswell of support for causes like immigrants’ rights and women’s liberties. Many are spontaneously assembling peaceably in public to protest.

Republican members of Congress — those willing to meet with constituents — are hearing choruses of protests across the nation at town hall meetings this week. People want to keep their access to health care and Medicare.

They’re organizing, these like-minded voices of dissent, into a movement calling itself Indivisible, much like the tea party did seven years ago.

There’s a sense momentum is shifting. It’s like watching a basketball game where a visiting team down by double-digits suddenly goes on a run and wipes out the lead held by the home team. You can feel the air being sucked out of the room as the hometown crowd falls silent.

Balich told me there are some similarities between the tea party and Indivisible movements, but he believes there are two key differences. For one, tea party demonstrators were more respectful, he said.

“The tea party never burned cars or broke windows,” he said. “There were people there with young kids in strollers.

“Now you go to these things and they’re always violent. I don’t know that they’re all like that. But they’ve associated themselves with violence and swear words.”

Second, Balich told me he believes people today are being paid to demonstrate.

“It’s paid for by groups,” he said of today’s protests.

Others also claim Indivisible is not an authentic movement. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told Fox News on Feb. 6 the movement wasn’t grass roots but “Astroturf,” meaning phony.

I should point out that I could find no reports substantiating claims that Indivisible demonstrators are paid protesters. I also challenge the depiction that today’s protests are all violent and profanity-laced.

I asked Balich, in light of last week’s appearance by three women at the Will County Board meeting, how often he’d been challenged in person by others objecting to his conservative views.

He said in 2010, after the township board approved a resolution he proposed to declare English the official language of Homer Township, people burned him in effigy in Culver Park.

“This is nothing for me,” he said of the backlash over the article about women. “This is mild compared to that (Culver Park protest).”

Balich responded to the current controversy by publishing a piece on Monday titled, “Will County Board member under siege from local leftist women’s group.” The article invites readers to contribute to his re-election campaign.

“Please don’t let the left get away with these Alinsky tactics,” the article said, referring to the late Saul Alinsky, whose book “Rules for Radicals” is a guide for organizing community protests. “Let’s push back and not let the left drowned [sic] out our voices and silence our right to free speech.”

Free speech has consequences. Milo Yiannopoulos gained notoriety for expressing conservative views. Many critics thought he often crossed the line and promoted hate speech, but supporters stood by him. That is, until he defended adult males having sexual relationships with 13-year-old boys.

Reaction was swift. An invitation to speak at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference was withdrawn. A lucrative book deal was canceled. He resigned from Breitbart News.

I see the controversy over Yiannopoulos as a manifestation of the gradual decline in civility over political discourse. I believe it also represents the fractured nature of the coalition that makes up support for the Republican majority.

GOP supporters include sensible moderates, fiscal watchdogs and Christian conservatives. Trump voters included “forgotten” men and women enduring stagnant wages and rural Americans disillusioned by a perceived lack of economic prospects. Good, salt of the earth folks.

But the coalition includes some who reflect society’s more sinister views. Many Republicans have been too reluctant to denounce the views of white supremacists, anti-Semites, racists, xenophobes, misogynists, Islamophobes and others who use hate speech to gain fame, power and money.

Gradually, the threshold for outrageous speech has shifted in recent years. What was once unacceptable became tolerated. Some reveled in the new climate that decried political correctness. People said they liked Trump because he spoke his mind.

Civility proponents were slow to react. They were unaware, in many instances, of the shocking ideas exchanged on obscure online backchannels. Some ignored the hateful rhetoric, assuming it was isolated.

As hate speech became more and more normalized and mainstream, people started pushing back. Now, greater numbers are standing up and speaking out.

In my opinion, Balich’s expressions of his conservative views do not compare to Yiannopoulos’s promotion of hate speech.

But I think there is a connection between the three women who confronted Balich at last week’s county board meeting and the broader movement taking root nationally.

Dissenters are paying closer attention these days to how views are being expressed. They’re becoming more involved and standing up when they think people are being disrespected.

tslowik@tribpub.com

Twitter @tedslowik

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