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The controversy over Maxine Waters’s call for confrontation, explained

Maxine Waters called for supporters to confront members of the Trump administration in public. It started a firestorm.

LA Pride ResistMarch
Reps. Maxine Waters (left) and Nancy Pelosi at the the LA Pride ResistMarch on June 11, 2017.
Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The firestorm about civility that began with the refusal of a Virginia restaurant owner to serve White House press secretary Sarah Sanders has now concentrated on one person: California Rep. Maxine Waters.

It started over the weekend at a Los Angeles rally, when Waters urged attendees to keep “push[ing] back” against members of the Trump administration with whom they disagreed, apparently referring to attention-grabbing incidents in which administration officials were confronted by the public.

“You think we’re rallying now? You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Waters said at the event, according to a HuffPost report. “Already you have members of your Cabinet that are being booed out of restaurants ... protesters taking up at their house saying ‘no peace, no sleep.’”

“If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere,” she added.

Those remarks have been at the center of a weeklong controversy. Republicans have strongly condemned them. President Trump tweeted about them. Even some Democrats have distanced themselves, while other Democrats have criticized those critics. Waters said she has since received a “very serious death threat.”

Waters has become the embodiment a broader debate about political resistance, the definition and value of civility and what it actually means in the age of Trump — a president who’s known for lobbing insults and belittling opponents at the drop of a hat.

Who is Maxine Waters?

Rep. Maxine Waters is a 14-term House member who represents California’s 43rd Congressional District, which covers part of Los Angeles. A longtime Democratic firebrand, she was first elected to Congress in 1991, and more recently became a social media icon who is affectionately known to her followers as “Auntie Maxine.”

In the past two years, Waters has increasingly adopted the mantle of the resistance movement against the Trump administration: She refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, was among the earliest to announce a boycott of the president’s State of the Union address, and served as a main draw for the inaugural Women’s Convention of activists and movement leaders last fall.

Waters has also captivated the internet on numerous occasions, including last summer when she said she was “reclaiming my time” while then-Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin apparently tried to stall during a congressional hearing.

She’s known for pushing back against then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly when he insulted her appearance as well. “Let me just say this: I’m a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated. I cannot be undermined. I cannot be thought to be afraid of Bill O’Reilly or anybody,” Waters said in an MSNBC clip that quickly went viral.

This civility debate is also far from the first time Waters has come under fire. She previously fielded heat over corruption allegations related to a bank bailout, according to The Daily Beast. As The Los Angeles Times reports, the House Ethics Committee ultimately cleared Waters of any allegations, a move that enabled her to ascend to the top Democratic spot on the House Financial Services Committee.

During a rally condemning the Trump administration’s family separation policy this past weekend, Waters was focused on ginning up energy among her supporters, directing them to show the Trump administration how they feel. “If we can’t protect the children, we can’t protect anybody,” she said, urging people to protest and heckle members of the Trump administration if they see them in public.

In an MSNBC interview, Waters stood by her message. “I have no sympathy for these people that are in this administration who know it is wrong what they’re doing,” she said.

As part of a committee hearing on Tuesday, Waters further slammed Republicans who had criticized her remarks by directing them to scrutinize the president’s behavior, per RealClear Politics. “As to the Chairman’s comments about civility... let me just say that every reasonable person has concluded that the president of the United States of America has advocated violence, he has been divisive and he has been the one that has caused what we see happening today,” she said.

Waters said Thursday that, since her remarks and the backlash to them, she’s received a “very serious death threat.” It prompted her to cancel events in Texas and Alabama this weekend, reports the Washington Post.

Republicans argue that Waters is pushing the bounds of civility

Critics seized on Waters’s reaction as an example of what they called a new extremism in politics.

“The people who claim tolerance seem to be the most intolerant in this process,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said during a Fox News interview, adding, “We need civility in this country, but the idea that you’re asking people to go forward, that becomes very dangerous and it becomes a risk inside our country as well.”

House Majority Leader Paul Ryan has also asked Waters to apologize for the remarks, and said that there’s just “no place for that in our public discourse,” even as he skirted critiquing Rep. Steve King for his promotion of a neo-Nazi.

Trump chimed in on the discussion on Monday afternoon and threw in an insult of Waters’s intelligence, while falsely suggesting that she was advocating for “harm” toward his supporters.

He went on to attack her repeatedly over the next few days, calling her the “unhinged” face of the Democratic party.

Trump has himself called for political violence against protesters before in the past, something that Waters pointed out on Tuesday. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” Trump said about a rally protester in 2015. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he said about another the next year. Trump has also been criticized for promoting violence on social media, including a tweet that showed him beating up a person with a CNN logo overlaid on his face.

The Waters debate is among the latest incidents to prompt discussion about how political rhetoric has become more violent of late on both sides of the aisle. After the recent back-and-forth, government officials — including Waters —have espoused heightened concerns about security this past week.

Pelosi has gone after Waters, too

It’s not just Republicans who seem uneasy about Waters’s calls to action, however. In a tweet Monday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appeared to criticize Waters as well. Waters has become a flash point in a debate within the Democratic Party about how best to push back on Trump.

“Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable,” Pelosi wrote. “As we go forward, we must conduct elections in a way that achieves unity from sea to shining sea.”

Former Obama administration adviser David Axelrod also expressed his disagreement with Waters’s tactics and called on people to organize and volunteer to convey their discontent with the administration.

As part of the discussion about civility, some Democrats, including former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have argued that driving people out of different businesses is a tactic that echoes historic segregation policies.

Other liberals, however, argue that this kind of activism is exactly what Democrats need.

Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond has put out a statement defending Waters’s freedom of speech, per ABC News. “In exercising her constitutional right to freedom of speech at a recent rally, Congresswoman Waters did not, as she has made clear, encourage violence, like President Trump has been doing since the election,” he said. “She, instead, encouraged Americans to exercise their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly by letting President Trump and members of his Administration know that separating young immigrant children from their parents is not who we are as a country.”

Former CBC adviser Angela Rye has also argued that the attacks on Waters are heavily tied to her race. “It has everything to do with the fact that this black woman is intimidating to some people who can’t handle the truth. It has everything to do with race,” she said during a CNN panel.

Some have also pointed out that Republicans are simply pushing another double standard, and seemed plenty fine with some polite disagreement when a Virginia bakery declined to host a media event with a Democrat like Joe Biden.

In her remarks on Saturday, Waters appeared to suggest that protesting officials in person is necessary to hold the administration accountable, especially in the wake of its gut-wrenching family separation policy.

“We want history to record that we stood up, that we pushed back, that we fought, and that we did not consider ourselves victims of this president,” Waters said during the rally this weekend.