When Activism Turns Antisocial

My previous post was about the merchants of Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace seeking legislative action to toughen anti-loitering and vagrancy laws — turning misdemeanors into criminal offenses. My point was that their fear and concern are understandable but misplaced. They face an existential crisis thanks to President Trump’s boneheaded handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the way forward is not to kick out or lock up the city’s most vulnerable; it’s to address the root causes of homelessness, substance use, mental illness, etc., in common cause with the city government, social service resources and members of the community.

Now we’ve got the inevitable egregious overreaction to the merchants’ pleas for help: a Twitter campaign urging a boycott of the merchants. One Tweeter, who shall go nameless here, warned signees “Get off the list or you’re in for a bad time.” Yeah, threats are always in season. Another pondered doing their shopping on Amazon instead of downtown retailers. The Burlington Tenants Union chimed in with support for the boycott.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about what we’re all — I hope — trying to accomplish: A city that’s compassionate, that tackles its problems in common cause, that seeks solutions that work for all its people.

The merchants are part of the Burlington community. They are taxpayers and employers. And they are currently going through a period of extreme stress. The last thing they need is a boycott. The last thing the entire city needs is a bunch of vacancies on Church Street. That would hurt the tax base and throw Burlingtonians out of work, leaving the city with fewer resources to tackle its problems.

If you won’t listen to me, perhaps you’d listen to your patron saint, Bernie Sanders.

When Sanders became mayor of Burlington, one of the first things he did was to meet with the city’s developers. He crafted a working partnership with them — particularly with the kingpin of Burlington real estate, Tony Pomerleau. In fact, the two men enjoyed a lifelong friendship based on their mutual interest in making Burlington a better place.

They didn’t always agree on how to make that happen. But they saw the necessity of working together for the good of the community. And they made it happen.

Communities are not gatherings of like-minded people. They are geographic entities encompassing rainbows of character, life goals, politics, belief, economic status, ability, race, ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation who still, somehow, identify with their community and wish the best for it and its members.

That’s how it ought to work. That’s how the merchants ought to work — by reaching out to the community for help in a time of crisis.

And that’s how the activists ought to work as well. Let empathy and understanding temper your righteous anger. The merchants are not the real enemies here. They are your neighbors, doing their best to get through trying times and making mistakes in the process.

Try not to compound the damage by making mistakes of your own.

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