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Column: Bullies take over our public forums

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • The Kansas City Star illustration -- Neil Nakahodo The Kansas City Star illustration — Neil Nakahodo

For the Valley News
Published: 10/16/2021 10:20:11 PM
Modified: 10/16/2021 10:20:12 PM

The bullies began their ascension with the 2020 protests over mask mandates imposed by various state governors. Armed anti-government militias surrounded state capitols, menacing legislators, interfering with government business and even plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan.

The bullies’ takeover of the public forum accelerated after Jan. 6, when a disorderly mob overran police at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block the transfer of power following the election of Joe Biden. On that date, the sitting president, Donald Trump, urged the assembled crowd to “fight like hell” to “stop the steal” and goaded them to march on the Capitol. Once in the building, many of his followers tried to track down legislators who voted to certify the election, especially intent on finding the vice president, chanting “Hang Mike Pence” as they marched through the building, in hopes of hauling him to the gallows constructed for that purpose on the Capitol grounds.

Months later, like-minded bullies across the country were especially emboldened when the former president and his loyalists in the GOP hailed those who breached the Capitol as “patriots,” a signal that interference with state and local government meetings, and efforts to intimidate elected officials and government employees, was acceptable.

Several recent news stories illustrate the how bullies continue to dominate the public forum.

The Sept. 29 meeting at Saint Anselm College of the New Hampshire Executive Council, held to consider accepting $27 million in federal funding to help control the spread of COVID-19, was postponed when an “unruly crowd” prevented council members from hearing the testimony of state employees with expertise in the administration of vaccines. Because of the explicit threats shouted by members of the audience and posted in online forums, armed state police troopers escorted the state employees to their vehicles. A day later, Saint Anselm College announced that, given security concerns, it would no longer allow public meetings on its campus. That same day, the governor and the state attorney general pledged to investigate the incident. (On Wednesday, the council met at the Police Standards and Training building in Concord and voted, 4-1, along party lines to reject the funding. Several protesters were arrested during meeting, and some struggled with state police troopers.)

On Sept. 30, The Associated Press reported that the National School Boards Association sought President Joe Biden’s assistance in investigating “threats made over policies including mask mandates,” likening the anti-mask and anti-vaccine protesters to “domestic terrorists.” The article described how school board meetings across the country have been “disrupted by unruly attendees out to interfere with business and silence other viewpoints.” The association’s appeal to the president cited more than 20 instances of threats across the country.

On Oct. 4, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI and U.S. attorneys’ offices to meet with local officials over the next month to coordinate a response to the threats, which he said “are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values.”

And anyone believing that New Hampshire was immune from this epidemic of bullying at the local level was disabused of that notion by New Hampshire Bulletin senior reporter Annmarie Timmins’ Oct. 7 article, “It’s like a time of war,” which described how hostile groups are disrupting public meetings, especially school board meetings, across the state.

The bullying extends into the monitoring of elections as well. ProPublica-Texas Tribune investigative reporter Jeremy Schwartz recently described how a small group of conservative hardliners unseated Michelle Carew, an elections administrator in a Texas county that supported Donald Trump by 81% to 19%.

Carew’s experience illustrates the findings of the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, which showed how elections officials “increasingly face pressure to prioritize partisan interests over a fair, democratic process.” The Brennan Center cited Texas’ laws as examples of a troubling new trend of state laws that target election officials and poll workers, noting, “Laws like these rub salt in the wounds of election workers, many of whom faced unprecedented threats and intimidation last year for simply doing their jobs.”

Bullying behavior can also be found in high school athletics. On Oct. 9, the Valley News reported on the crude conduct and taunting by Fair Haven Union High School spectators that compelled Hartford High School girls soccer coach Jeff Acker to pull his team from the field with 6 minutes remaining in a recent game. The next day, VtDigger reported that this was not an isolated incident, noting that the Vermont Principals’ Association has received “several high-profile reports of teenage athletes getting harassed during games in recent weeks.”

These stories sent chills down my spine. Democracy is a participatory form of government that depends on civil discourse, the rule of law and the gracious acceptance of defeat. Bullies are not interested in those niceties. They are interested only in power. And when bullies take control of the public forum, many citizens will be unwilling to participate.

Who would want to seek election to a public office when there is the possibility of being threatened by those who don’t support the will of the majority? Who would want to devote their lives to public service when bullies target not only one’s livelihood but one’s life and family? Who would want to serve on a public board only to face angry bullies and their public taunting and toxic online harassment? Who would volunteer to monitor elections if “poll watchers” are belligerently challenging every ballot cast? Who would want to serve as a coach or athletic director when every game is played in a hostile environment? What student would want to participate in a sport where taunting, harassment and ridicule are tolerated?

We cannot allow student athletes to be subjected to bullying and harassment any more than we can allow the vice president of the United States, our elected officials, our public board members, our government employees or our election supervisors to be subject to that kind of intimidation.

When we accept bullying at any level, we allow the voices and behavior of an unruly minority to drown out the voices and damage the behavioral norms that underpin the rule of law. The bullies appear to be gaining a foothold. Now is the time to stop them.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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