Tim Whyte | When Intimidation Runs Against Free Speech

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By Tim Whyte

Signal Editor 

A part of me was disappointed when David Barlavi didn’t raise a clenched fist during the flag salute at Tuesday’s Saugus Union School District board meeting.

Not that I liked the clenched-fist salute in the first place. I just didn’t like seeing intimidation prevail over free speech.

The controversy started a couple of weeks back, after a photo circulated online showing Barlavi participating in the flag salute at a Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency board meeting. 

In the photo, he has one hand over his heart, and the other hand, fist clenched, raised above his head.

The temperature on the situation was dialed up after a video was posted online showing Barlavi, a newly elected SUSD board member, displaying the raised, clenched fist during the flag salute at a school board meeting. 

A group of protesters turned out to the Feb. 5 board meeting, calling for Barlavi to resign or be recalled. They found the gesture to be offensive, unpatriotic and disrespectful to the flag. 

After the meeting, the rhetoric took a threatening turn — to the point where Barlavi filed a police report saying he had received multiple death threats. 

Among the comments posted in response to the online video were statements like this one:

“This guy needs a lead injection.”

Yeah. Someone really said that.

Barlavi says he has used the raised, clenched fist gesture as a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Fair enough, I guess. The original message of Black Lives Matter is a noble one — that young black men seem to be disproportionately likely to be on the receiving end of institutionalized, excessive force from police, and that, of course, is wrong and must change. However, sometimes it seems that the original noble message of Black Lives Matter has gotten muddied by a general contempt for the many thousands of good cops out there — and that the movement has even fomented violence against police.

So, it’s complicated. And clenching a fist in support of Black Lives Matter is inherently going to stoke passionate reactions, if nothing else from those who have friends and loved ones in law enforcement who risk their lives every day to protect others. 

There’s also the fact, too, that a raised, clenched fist can mean different things to different people. For example, it was used as a salute by the Black Panther Party in the 1960s — but it was also later appropriated by white supremacists as a symbol of “white power.” In any case, there’s a militancy about it that isn’t a good mix with an elementary school district board meeting, and I don’t know about you but I’d generally prefer to avoid gestures whose meaning may be confused, especially on such hot-button matters.

Regardless, as of this past Tuesday, it seems Barlavi is no longer raising a clenched fist. 

Why? Barlavi has declined comment, and I don’t especially blame him. Exercising one’s First Amendment rights in this day and age has gotten awful damn messy. 

I’ve always been a firm believer that having the right to free speech means we also have to tolerate the speech of others. As the cliche goes, I may not like what you have to say, but I will defend your right to say it. 

Call it corny but I really believe in that stuff. 

In the past six months, I have lamented tactics by the left that are designed to squash the speech with which they disagree. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the MAGA-hat-wearing kids from Covington Catholic High School who were slandered and libeled in various media outlets, and unfairly labeled as racists.

I’ve seen it closer to home, too. There are those, right here in our community, who will seek to destroy your career if you’re not marching in lock-step with their political views. That leaves a mark on the psyche. 

So, I can only imagine the psychological marks left by actual death threats. And with that in mind, today I am not just lamenting, but condemning, those on the right who sought to squelch David Barlavi through threats of violence. They won. And I hate that. As we editorialized last week, whether you like the gesture or not, Barlavi should be able to raise his clenched fist without fearing for his safety.

Some of the protesters (who, I must acknowledge, were not necessarily the same people who allegedly threatened Barlavi) showed up again this past Tuesday, signs and placards in hand, to see what he would do, and to protest. 

That, of course, is their right.

Ironically, during the flag salute — which they had criticized Barlavi for disrespecting — most of the protesters were not focused on the salute itself, but on shooting video of Barlavi, just in case he should raise a clenched fist.

There’s an irony and a hypocrisy about that.

Barlavi, without comment, refrained from raising the clenched fist. His critics applauded him. Some shook his hand after the salute. Then they proceeded to call for his ouster during the public comment portion of the meeting.

I don’t know exactly why Barlavi stopped raising his clenched fist. He’s not saying, and that, too, is his right. Defusing the situation probably seems like the safest thing to do, and I don’t mean that lightly, and that’s a shame. There comes a point where you have to think about things like safety, and family, and is it worth it?

But there’s a part of me that wishes he had stood his ground — even though I wasn’t fond of the clenched-fist salute in the first place, and I’m not trying to make him out to be some kind of hero or martyr. However, in refraining from the gesture, intentionally or not, he’s reinforced the bad behavior of those who were so intolerant of the way that he chose to exercise his First Amendment rights, that they physically threatened him for doing so.

Unfortunately, there were powerful motivating factors in play. That’s not the way this whole “free speech” thing is supposed to work, and it’s a sad commentary on how our society has devolved, on both the left and the right.

We can’t even have a civil conversation anymore.

Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On twitter: @TimWhyte.  

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