What happened on Tuesday at the Palm Coast City Council is indefensible and dangerous. But it’s nothing new. We’ve simply not been paying attention to a perilous degradation of public discourse and behavior. We’re no longer witnessing just fiery opposition, which is the DNA of any vibrant democracy. The opposition is now routinely aggressive, threatening, irresponsible. The gap between that and violence is vanishing.
Tuesday’s council meeting was one example. There’s been many others. Even on Tuesday, the disturbing thing wasn’t just the meeting’s interruption by the aggressive way Mark Phillips, an audience member, marched toward Mayor Milissa Holland after a vote he didn’t like and got in her face for god knows what purpose, before a sheriff’s deputy stepped between him and the mayor and eventually got him out of the room. That was just a culmination. By the time Phillips hawked his belligerence the room was already a hothouse of tension.
Several speakers had been rebuked either by the mayor or the city attorney for not following procedures during public comment, making veiled threats or leveling outright insults at council members or staffers. One man called a staffer a “clown,” and when he was rebuked, started lecturing the mayor about being a taxpayer, as if that absolved him of courtesy. When another speaker was upset for being deemed off topic–he was seeking a reprimand for one of the council members–he vaguely threatened something about not giving council members an inch.
Phillips had himself earlier addressed the council, politely, though he’s become known to council members and many others as the type to get in one’s face with his cell phone brandished like a weapon. You know the kind: using video as intimidation and hoping to entrap the subject in a slip-up that can then be spliced into a Facebook clip for a public stoning. He did it to Matt Morton, the city manager, just two weeks earlier, right after Council member Victor Barbosa’s own goonery that night, when he slandered the manager, and Holland had to be escorted to her car for her safety. So Holland had every reason to be startled and then angry at the interruption as fellow council members sat on their hands. Lucky for them the city attorney found a way to channel Cicero at the right moment and calm the room as Phillips was shown out and trespassed. But it shouldn’t have come to this.
Council meetings have become routinely unpredictable since November as they never had before. I’ve known meetings to be dull, even tense at times, but only because of the dynamics on the council, because of conflicts between the manager and council members. There’s been displeasure and anger from the floor on many occasions in the past 10 years. There’s never been outright threats. There’s never been a sense that the meeting could go off the rails at any moment, and there was never a need for added security, for metal detectors, for thinking twice whether one wants to be in the room at all. Now there is.
Something has changed in local government. We’ve seen these disruptions and belligerence at the county commission and in Flagler Beach over masks, we’ve seen it at the school board over masks and transgender students, and now we’re seeing it in Palm Coast over anything under the sun, because affronting elected officials is becoming an end in itself. There’s no goal other than to disrupt, to insult, to intimidate and to provoke. This is the sort of tactics that normalize aggression and precede violence. It isn’t Mark Phillips anyone should be worried about. He’s a poseur with a cell phone. His antics won’t go beyond the theatrical. But if he’s the measure of the rational from that world, imagine the irrational’s trigger. The chances of violence are low. But they are no longer zero. And that’s the difference.
The unaccountable, irresponsible language of social media is spilling into the communal sphere. We are slowly becoming a crueler community debased by primitive instincts, because no one in charge, or too few people in charge, are standing up and saying enough. Too many people in charge–our own elected officials among them–are instigating the aggression with bigotry and outright lust for violence. If they’re not instigating it, they’re apologizing for it and enabling it when they’re not wasting time fetishizing the very Constitution they’re implicitly trampling.
The aggressive bile frequently spilling during public comment segments, though elected officials haven’t been innocent: there was the Ed Danko-Eddie Branquinho duel in November. There was Council member Victor Barbosa’s slander of City Manager Matt Morton a month ago. There was County Commissioner’s public insult of two fellow-commissioners in September, which two fellow-commissioners shamelessly excused rather than censured, greenlighting goonery. Janet McDonald on the school board has been more subtle, couching her hostility for truth and government institutions, her own included, in retweets and magnificent passive-aggression that has nevertheless had the desired effect of encouraging more public enmity at board meetings.
None of this is alien to the tenor of a more radicalized extreme right in the wake of the Trump years, which normalized degradation, and his loss, which intensified it, not when his supporters claim that ““The decent know that they must become ruthless. They must become the stuff of nightmares,” as Jack Kerwick wrote in the Trump organ American Greatness. “Fear and violence are the butter to the bread of our politics.” This is the Jacobin language of terror, not the Republican–let alone republican–language of democracy.
And no, none of this is simply a difference of opinions. The language of ruthlessness, the language of threats, isn’t opinion. It isn’t another point of view, as a conservative Supreme Court ruled in 2003 in the cross-burning case. It’s threatening conduct, the kind of conduct that seeks to end opinions and points of view, and it’s the kind of conduct we now routinely see locally. We saw it Tuesday. We’ve been seeing it for months at meetings or online, the difference between the two having also vanished.
Almost no one is doing anything about it–not the Republican party, from whose extremist ranks much of this degradation originates, not most elected officials, some of whom are guilty of aggression themselves, not local media, some of which feeds at the troth of those same instigators.
It doesn’t take that much for a community–or a nation–to keep its bearings. It takes men and women of good will to step in and take the reins, to say enough. We’ve heard it at times. Most members of the Flagler Beach City Commission have spoken up, especially Ken Bryan and Eric Cooley, the School Board’s Colleen Conklin spoke up, Palm Coast council members spoke up at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, if more timidly than their manager, who put the case more bluntly: “27 years I’ve not seen this level of intentional intimidation, and intentional intent to just bully. And it’s quite disgusting,” he said. His own code enforcement staff has been threatened with shootings. “It’s time to have enough of this. Enough.”
But it isn’t enough to speak outrage from silos. Without some collective action, whether in the form of joint statements or joint condemnations, even without unanimity—let the craven’s silence speak for itself—it’s a matter of time before the distance between threats and violence vanishes entirely. The fear Holland and her colleagues experienced Tuesday is not imaginary.