Saturday, February 26, 2011

Every Day Rage

Last week's news out of Madison, WI included union members showing up at the residences of elected officials to protest and of union-backed organizations publishing personal information about their opponents’ families, with sinister overtones. Also noted, in Idaho, proposals to reform the education system have been met with mass union protests and now vandalism to the personal property of union opponents.

People of good conscience rightly revile these thug tactics. I’m gratified to see that when they occur, *most* observers still express surprise or even shock. While I hope the American people will never cease to condemn this kind of activity, it’s about time we got over our sense of surprise. Because it happens all the time when government special interest groups feel threatened.

The “Days of Rage” tactics in Madison and elsewhere have me thinking about the last time citizens in my city challenged the education status quo. The motivating circumstances were different, but the means employed to quash dissent were the same.

In Stillwater, in 2007, there was yet another, in a continuing series, of school bond referendums. The administration, in lockstep agreement with the teacher’s union, were backing a doubling of funding of the operating levy, from $32 million to $64 million. Substantial property hikes would result for residents of District 834. One year earlier, in a high turnout election, the voters rejected a similarly large money grab decisively. But in the off year of 2007, school funding increase advocates gave it another try, organizing under the human shield worthy nickname “Yes to Kids!”.

As election day neared, yards signs, letters to the editor, and new blogs sprouted up on both sides of the issue. The tone of the debate was often acrimonious and it became clear this was a polarizing issue for the city. Alas, the confrontation evolved beyond mere heated rhetoric. In the weeks preceding the vote, vandalism, theft, and intimidation were becoming increasingly common. The atmosphere was summarized on True North:

The organized effort to systematically harass, intimidate and retaliate against citizens who oppose the Stillwater ISD 834 tax levy began during the Summer of 2007. 

An anonymous blogger known only as "Stillwater Infidel aka NSA" posted personal information about folks who publicly spoke out against the tax levies at School Board meetings, Open Forums, in Letters to the Editor, and/or posted campaign signs on their private property. 
On Sept. 11, 2007, Primary Election Day, a Stillwater couple, members of the group opposing the levy had a bomb blow up in their mailbox. They reported the incident to the Washington County Sheriff's Office.

The problems continued with anonymous posters stating on the CRS834 blog that members of CRS "deserved whatever happened to them" due to their campaign activities against the tax levies.

These stories were mostly the province of the alternative media and discussed through informal channels among the levy opponents. Eventually, they made their way to the mainstream press. For example, this from the Stillwater Gazette:

... several levy opponents contacted the Gazette to report that their yard signs had stolen or vandalized in the past week. Many found printed notes in their mailbox, apparently left by members of the Stillwater Area High School Class of 2008.

One note accused levy opponents of being selfish, arguing for the levies in a five-paragraph essay. Another simply said, "Please stop f-ing with students' futures. Love, The Class of 2008. P.S. You're not getting your sign back."

Although, by the time these stories made the mainstream press, the overwhelming one-way direction of the attacks had been diluted to “both sides” are at fault.

On Friday, the pro-levy "Yes to Kids!" group offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of levy sign thieves, noting that as many as 110 of its nearly 2,000 signs had been stolen in recent weeks. (…)

Leaders on both sides of the levy debate said the sign thefts show the level to which their opponents are willing to stoop, and they said their respective campaigns would continue to take the high road.

I have only anecdotal evidence, by my opinion is that these equivalency stories were bunk. They were ginned up to deflect the outrage people would have naturally felt toward the pro-levy movement if it became known what tactics were being used in their service. So the real intimidation continued in one direction, while the public story was that both sides might have gone a bit too far.

I’m not aware of any evidence turned up that union members were directly involved in the vandalism and intimidation tactics. It could have been independent actors, motivated to support their cause for who knows what reason. But it was interesting to note the reaction school officials had once they were asked to investigate the source of the problem. The threatening notes implied that high school students were acting as the storm troopers for the movement. When the very people who could have gotten to the bottom of this were asked to help, here was their response, from the Stillwater Gazette:

District 834 Superintendent Keith Ryskoski denounced the thefts, which he said reflect poorly on both sides. He considers them evidence of the tension and insecurity that many are feeling in advance of the Nov. 6 election.

"It tells me that there's a lot of interest - and anxiety - on both sides," he said. "But if people are trying to be supportive, I don't think this kind of behavior is helping their position ... regardless of which side they're on."

Both Ryskoski and Stillwater Area High School Principal Chris Lennox said they would cooperate fully with any police investigation into the sign thefts, but they do not at this time see a need to investigate the matter independently.

"We're not going to be taking time out of the activities of the school day to go and chase this down," Ryskoski said this morning. "If we become aware of information, we will make sure it gets in the right hands and work together to act on it, but we aren't going to stop the education of kids to go and figure out who's taking signs."

The serial use of the “both sides are at fault argument” and then refusal to actively pursue likely suspects for the self-aggrandizing reasons of “not stopping the education of kids”. A pathetic reaction.

Well, the lessons being taught in District 834 were not halted for a second by any investigation into these crimes and intimidation tactics. The levy vote occurred in early November, and the people said “Yes to Kids”, by a margin of 53% - 47%. (It should be noted, 10,000 fewer people voted in this off-year election of 2007, than when a similar proposal was defeated a year earlier in 2006).

I suspect the lessons learned from this experience were all of the wrong ones. Intimidation works. Deception works. The people can be bullied into irresponsible funding of government programs.

But there are lessons available to be learned on the other side as well. When opposing the education monopoly or other government special interest groups, EXPECT these kind of things to occur. At the outset, plan contingencies to prevent specific tactics which have been used in the past. Plan a strategy to identify the perpetrators and expose them immediately. Plan a strategy to refute false accusations of the “equivalency” of disreputable tactics. And, perhaps first and foremost, grow a thick skin. Expect to be demonized and threatened and attacked, but do the right thing anyway. Truth is on your side, you will win if you’re not scared away from the fight. The people who know that most of all are the ones who are trying to scare you.