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Inside the newsroom: Is it time to protest the protester?

FILE - Protesters disrupt a Utah Inland Port Authority Board Meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.
FILE - Protesters disrupt a Utah Inland Port Authority Board Meeting at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Have you heard of Egg Boy?

He's the 17-year-old who rocketed to fame — or was it infamy? — in Australia after he smashed an egg on the head of a politician whose offensive views on immigration outraged that nation and New Zealand as he tied them to the killing of 50 at two mosques in Christchurch.

The politician's comments were worth condemnation, particularly as the world mourned with New Zealand after the horrific attack. But does that justify additional violence, albeit an attack with an egg?

Four days ago during an altercation in England, a milkshake was dumped onto a Donald Trump supporter during a protest of the U.S. president's visit to the country. Milkshakes, it seems, have replaced eggs as the weapon of choice for some protesters.

Last month a man was charged with assault and criminal damage for throwing a milkshake on one of Britain's leaders in the Brexit movement. And it's just one of several milkshake attacks on people whose views run counter to the attackers. It prompted the New York Times to ask, "Why are milkshakes being thrown at right-wing politicians like Nigel Farage?" in a story published May 21.

Which brings us to Wednesday's meeting of the Utah Inland Port Authority: As Deseret News reporter Katie McKellar wrote:

"Seconds after the Utah Inland Port Authority'smeeting began Wednesday, chaos erupted.

"Protesters with the group Civil Riot swarmed the port board meeting — many wearing surgical face masks marked with an "X" — ran to the front of the committee room at the Utah state Capitol, some locking arms as nearly a dozen Utah Highway Patrol troopers jumped into action to escort them out for violating rules of decorum."

One person was arrested and the protesters successfully prevented the meeting from beginning. But will that stop the inland port? Does that provide any further education or insight into the benefits or challenges that the port would bring?

Inside the newsroom this week, and in conversation with others outside the newsroom, I discussed the rise in personal attacks during protests and the threat that it brings. No one knows when civil disobedience will turn violent, and that becomes dangerous. Security will increase, or worse, conversations could be driven behind closed doors.

Last year I moderated the congressional debate between Congressman Chris Stewart and Democratic challenger Shireen Ghorbani. After nearly a full hour of questions and answers in the televised event, a man came on stage, took the microphone from Rep. Stewart and began his message, which I won't repeat.

Turns out it was the second such meeting he had disrupted. Security was increased for each debate that followed. But the man put others at risk because no one knew his intentions as he stood less than four feet from a congressman.

So what's to be done? Society is not served by the interruption of debate and public discourse. Media comes into play as many of the protests are done for media attention. When do we cover a protest and when do we ignore it? Government officials and social media providers are in the throes of that discussion as it grapples with how to take down offensive videos and messages from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

I began this column with the term Egg Boy, a shorthand that grew up through social media and captured by other media to describe the young man. But such a "naming" makes light of the event and makes a sympathetic character of a person that actually committed a minor assault on a politician. I, then, am complicit in spreading that message.

During the protests and confrontations at the inland port meeting, our Deseret News reporter was confronted by a lobbyist who attempted to prevent her from recording the event and doing her job. That, too, was wrong, potentially dangerous, and counterproductive to what should be a process of discourse and media coverage.

Utahns have become known for an ability to sit down at a table and listen to people they may disagree with. That's the legacy to champion as solutions are sought to prevent the creep of violence — small scale and large scale — from coming into our meetings and discussions.

Perhaps the greatest example to learn from is Mahatma Gandhi, whose peaceful activism was purposefully nonviolent. Among the many things he said and wrote about peaceful resistence was this:

"To answer brutality with brutality is to admit one's moral and intellectual bankruptcy, and it can only start a vicious circle"

That was an inspiration to Dr. Martin Luther King. The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University notes Dr. King's journey to nonviolent change as he sought to be a counterpoint to the violent protests that erupted during the civil rights movement.

His "pilgrimage to nonviolence" is described this way by the institute:

"In 1950, as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary King heard a talk by Dr. Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University. Dr. Johnson, who had recently traveled to India, spoke about the life and teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi, King later wrote, was the first person to transform Christian love into a powerful force for social change. Gandhi’s stress on love and nonviolence gave King 'the method for social reform that I had been seeking."

Protest has its place. Peaceful protest, as envisioned by Gandhi and King, can bring about remarkable results. But there is no place for personal attacks, or the perceived threat of such attacks requiring meetings and public discourse to be shut down. It threatens to make public servants less willing to work on boards, commissions, run for elected office or even be in positions of trust for organizations trying their best to make Utah a great place to live.