A new urgency was added to the deliberations of the Shelby County Commission as it met Monday to consider the overdue matter of funding the county schools during the current fiscal and academic year. But that's not all. A new audience was on hand as well.
The crowd that turned up for the meeting -- composed in large part of newcomers to commission proceedings -- was loud, disruptive, and insulting. At one point, Commissioner Walter Bailey -- a stouter-than-average man, to say the least -- was called a "little potentate" by a man who stood up in the middle of proceedings and shouted out the epithet at the top of his voice. Other commissioners, and the commission as a body, came in for equal -- and equally inappropriate -- abuse.
Bailey and Chairman James Ford made several attempts to assure the audience -- clearly as determined to cut the commissioners down to size as to pursue their stated aim, that of resisting a tax increase -- that their concerns would be dealt with. And, until the crowd's more vocal members committed the strategic error of overkill, it was clear that several commissioners were responsive to the anti-tax complaints and even to an organized stunt whereby several audience members symbolically brandished empty wallets.
Inevitably, however, the demonstrators -- for such, in effect, they were -- pushed their luck to the point of using up both it and the patience of the commissioners. Finally, it was one of the council's known conservatives, Buck Wellford, who had enough. Pointedly saying, "We're not going to have anything like Nashville here" (a reference to disturbances last month which erupted in occasional violence and which many think prevented the state legislature from properly finishing its work on a budget), Wellford called for a recess and for the additional presence of several uniformed county police and sheriff's deputies.
"What I found interesting," Wellford said later after the commission's deliberations had resumed in a more sedate atmosphere, "was how many of those folks took off once they realized they weren't going to be able to disrupt the meeting. They didn't want their reasons to be heard. All they wanted was to put on a show." The East Memphis Republican member, who has placed much emphasis on curbing increases in the county property tax, said he thought the crowd had been artificially "whipped up" by a local radio talk-show host, who apparently, said Wellford, was emulating two Nashville broadcasters who used their broadcasts to generate the mass turnout at Capitol Hill in Nashville last month.
In all fairness, the local broadcaster in question, Mike Fleming, may not have condoned the tactics which led Chairman Ford to say, "I have never experienced that level of contempt for a public body in all my years of service." But the behavior of the ad hoc throng summoned by Fleming was clearly beyond the pale.
All citizens have a right to be heard, and that includes their elected representatives, whose rights were under assault on Monday afternoon. Indeed, it is our hope that the outburst in Nashville, which resulted in broken windows at the state capitol and physical intimidation of various legislators, will prove to have been a watershed event of sorts.
For some time in the late '60s and early '70s demonstrators of the political left pushed so recklessly against responsible constraints that they eventually generated a backlash. Something like that is almost certainly in store for the cureent demonstrators.