V irtually by definition, abuse — verbal or physical — is never right.
That’s why Charlottesville City Council’s recent statement on respect at meetings injected a much-needed element of reason into civic proceedings.
Council meetings have become verbally abusive.
When an angry speaker blasted three white councilors as being “Hitler’s best friends” — including a councilor who is Jewish — a clear line was crossed: Such invective is beyond the pale. (The speaker has since apologized.)
It’s just one example — although one of the worst — of verbally abusive behavior at council meetings.
This week, four councilors presented a joint proclamation regarding meeting conduct and protocol. The message — read by Kathy Galvin and representing Wes Bellamy, Mike Signer and Heather Hill as well — affects both council and audience members.
The proclamation called for mutual respect within council chambers and said that an “abusive environment” will not be tolerated, outbursts or interruptions will not be permitted, and fellow councilors will support the mayor’s efforts to run effective meetings.
Councilor Wes Bellamy acknowledged he had not supported other councilors at the previous meeting. (It was the decision of other councilors not to support a motion submitted by Mr. Bellamy that generated the recent abuse. Mayor Nikuyah Walker was unable to quell the resulting outburst.)
“I wish I would have said something last [meeting],” he said. “I let y’all down, so for that I apologize. I should have definitely intervened.”
Mayor Walker has consistently said she feels “uncomfortable” shutting down public comment, even when it is boisterous and offensive.
Much of the boisterousness has occurred since the violent white-supremacist rally of Aug. 12, 2017, she said. “I believe that we haven’t done enough healing in this community” to make it possible for speakers always to behave politely at council meetings.
Emotions run both high and deep.
If we haven’t yet healed from events two years ago, even less have we healed from conditions of 200 years ago, firmly planted in the era of slavery, or 400 years ago, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia.
Righteous anger over these injustices has been seething for centuries.
Finally expressing such deeply rooted anger can be cathartic. We imagine that’s what Mayor Walker has in mind when she implies that the community has not healed sufficiently yet to evolve from anger to peace.
But at some point, expressed anger can shift from cathartic to destructive. It becomes ingrained, habitual and even addictive, whether in the human body and psyche or in the body politic.
We imagine that’s what the councilors had in mind in presenting their proclamation.
“Failure to meet these principles [in the proclamation] will render this duly elected, representative body incapable of effectively governing from the dais,” Ms. Galvin read.
Councilors (and other elected officials) should be roundly criticized when they err. But criticism can be robust without being obnoxious.
The council’s job is to govern the city — all of it, day in and day out, the big issues and the small. It cannot do its job in an atmosphere of abuse.