Southern civility fascinates me perhaps more than it should, this exaltation of politeness as a maxim of behavior to which we should aspire, no matter the situation. Even when circumstances are unfathomably dire, we in the South are expected to smile at strangers, join hands and pray, gently ask for what we know we deserve from those who will never give it to us, quietly assure each other that things are going to get better, and convince ourselves that this is so with our sweet dispositions and optimism. I often wonder whether this facet of our culture might be the reason progress here is even slower than our molassed cadence. What would happen if we stopped being deferential and began to make demands, traded pleasantries for profanities?
Some residents did just this during the public comment portion of Charleston County Council meetings in the aftermath of Elliott Summey’s leaked audio scandal last October, and the reaction by local media and elected officials has been to restore the old order through condescending appeals to propriety.
Last week, Charleston County Council proposed a formal code of conduct that would ban cursing and threats at meetings. Chairman Vic Rawl initially wanted to include “personal attacks,” but other council members expressed concerns about the vagueness of such phrasing and possible limitations on free speech (which the rest of the proposal clearly represses despite the council’s claims to the contrary). At their March 9 meeting, several council members articulated their reasoning for such a measure, including councilman Summey, who opined that “most people was [sic] raised better than to walk into a public place and start screaming at people.” This coming from a man who, in the aforementioned leak, called Councilwoman Anna Johnson “ignorant,” referred to a North Charleston councilman as someone’s “bitch” (oh hi, misogyny), and described South Carolina politics as “about controlling race.” Rich stuff, y’all. Maybe his daddy should have raised him better.
While similar provisions curbing the public’s right to free speech exist in other local governments, I doubt they have been met with such fanfare from our media. Post & Courier metro columnist Brian Hicks jumped on the gentility train in his March 10 column “What in the #@*! is going on at County Council?” — a question many of us have been asking. Unfortunately, his piece is not a much-needed analysis of the shady back-room dealings regarding the 526 extension and Summey’s nasty taped commentary but yet another hit piece directed at activists who care about their communities enough to continuously subject themselves to abusive rhetoric by our elected officials and pundits like Hicks himself. (Also, #sorryboutcha for going in so hard these past two columns, Mr. Hicks, but I promise to stop if you’ll refrain from oozing regressive nonsense at Black activists from your festering microcosm of privilege.)
Characterizing accusations of racism directed at Summey as “unfair,” Hicks attempts to undermine protesters’ critique of the council by describing the public’s comments as “bile-spewing, venom-spitting craziness,” concluding that their grievances lack validity “because to make a rational argument, people would actually have to know facts, as opposed to a few cuss words.” But concerned citizens have repeatedly confronted local government with evidence of discriminatory policy that disproportionately benefits affluent majority-white communities and with questions rooted in facts, like why is it that our state is last in education? Given that Charleston was recently named the most rapidly gentrifying city in the country, how will we preserve the few historically Black neighborhoods left? How can we live in the culinary epicenter of the South and have a food desert downtown? Why are we building hotels and not grocery stores? Why the fuck does local government seem to care more about tourists than the quality of life for residents?
Dropping an f-bomb or calling a bigot a bigot does not diminish the reality of the disparities along lines of race and class that permeate our county. As tired as the council may be of hearing that they need to get their shit together, the public is infinitely more tired of having to deal with the fallout from their inability to so.