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Martin Luther King’s moral test for confronting public officials

A look back at rude radical Martin Luther King, and his moral test for public protest.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In the the Age of Trump, media elites are using a new coping mechanism to deal with the bottomless supply of administration outrages: public handwringing.

The latest example of this emerging — and disturbing — trend found the chattering classes clucking last weekend, after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ declared on Twitter (where else?) that she’d been asked to leave a central Virginia restaurant because its owner felt a “moral” call to deny service to someone who works for President Donald Trump.

Predictably, Sanders’ tweet set tongues a’wagging. And, just as predictably, opinions tended to lean in the direction of everyone’s pre-set political tilt. At The Guardian, for example, Jessica Valenti offered the leftward-slanting view that Sanders has no right to eat in peace when the White House, for which she flacks, is kidnapping babies from their mothers.

But when you’re talking about the kind of human rights violations the Trump administration has unabashedly enacted and defended, there is no public/private line worth honoring. When it comes to kids in cages, you’re not just accountable for your actions from 9 to 5.

If you’re responsible for the jailing of Latino toddlers, you do not have the right to enjoy Mexican food free from protest. If you are defending internment camps where children are leaving with bedbug bites, lice and irreparable emotional trauma, you don’t get to have a fun dinner out without servers and restaurant owners taking umbrage. You are not entitled to pose with celebrities, or take in a movie about the power of kindness and neighborly love when you are stripping millions of their healthcare.

Meanwhile, former White House press secretary Ari Fletcher, who served in the George W. Bush administration, proffered his own conservative-right view, forecasting Sanders’ denial of dining privileges presages a coming political segregation of U.S. restaurants. He tweeted: “I guess we’re heading into an America with Democrat-only restaurants, which will lead to Republican-only restaurants. Do the fools who threw Sarah out, and the people who cheer them on, really want us to be that kind of country?”

Here’s some news: The fact of the matter is the nation is already segregated in this fashion. Americans live in steep silos of their own making. Where one chooses to dine out is a political identifier, just as clear to marketers as the types of cars customers drive or the brand labels on their clothing.

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“Market segmentation in the restaurant industry is the practice of targeting a specific customer base to maximize sales, even if it means alienating other potential customers,” write Sam Ashe-Edmunds in an explanatory article for the business section of AZCentral, a Phoenix, Arizona-based media firm. “Restaurants often use consumer demographics to guide them in developing their brand or concept. For example, if a restaurateur is located in a community with a large number of retirees, he might open a low-service, moderately priced restaurant. If the area has a large number of affluent young people, the restaurateur might offer an international menu, craft beers and live music. In a college town, restaurants know to offer a balance between low prices and a fun atmosphere.”

The unfortunate palaver surrounding Sanders’ getting the bum’s rush from the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, illustrates the challenges posed when business, politics, and protest become a jumble of misunderstood motives — and actions.

There should be no confusion, nor any handwringing in this episode of “As The Trump World Spins Out of Control.” The Red Hen’s owner was flat-out wrong to deny Sanders a meal. Indeed, it’s gravely problematic when any business owner makes a unilateral stand, on personal morality, to deny service to any one or group of people for political or social reasons. We’ve seen this movie before, as racist shopkeepers, hoteliers, restauranteurs, and gas station attendants once felt it right and proper to deny service to black customers.

This is where some progressives — and nearly all conservatives — got confused, both sides often invoking the genius of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s civil rights protests, mistaking his protest movement as a gentle, easy call for justice. It was far from that. Despite contemporary, gauzy images of him as a passive peacemaker now a half-century after his death, King used protest as a blunt-force weapon for change.

Protests are never nice and pretty. They’re supposed to be confrontational, and they are intended to make those in power uncomfortable by drawing public attention and using shame to confront the injustices the powerful perpetuate upon the weak. There’s moral authority in such protesting behavior, even when it challenges immoral laws.

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In recent weeks, we’ve seen protests of this ilk: Last week, for example, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was hooted out of a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., by a committed band of protesters from a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Trump caved to pressure and signed an executive order halting his family separation policy, which prompted the protest in the first place.)

As King argued in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, the power of protesting is in its moral clarity and its civic righteousness:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…there is a type of of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.…So the purpose of the direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitable open the door to negotiations.

Yet, there’s a profound and significant difference between invoking shame-inducing public protests against people who promulgate this administration’s evil polices, and the misguided denial of service to those same officials. While it may feel good in a self-righteous or faux-morally superior way to boot someone from your restaurant that otherwise serves the public, it fails the moral test.

There is no clarity, no creative tension, nor room to negotiate in refusing service to anyone because you dislike them or their politics. It is simply wrong. It is, perhaps, worth noting that the Red Hen’s decision to deny Sanders service had the unintended consequence of potentially sparing the press secretary from a legitimate manifestation of public discontent.

One needn’t excuse or forgive Sanders’ role in the abuses of the White House. Quite the contrary, Sanders deserves no peace in public for her support of a mendacious administration. There exists moral — and legal — justification for concerned Americans to speak in protest of White House policies and actions.

Handwringing be damned. Let Sanders eat, but let her hear the howls of protest with every bite.