When I saw David Lacey—husband of Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey—pull out his firearm and point it at protesters who showed up at his home in the early morning hours of March 2, I must admit that I didn’t experience the palpable rage that a lot of folks on social media expressed after video of the incident went viral.
For the record, I don’t condone or agree with how David Lacey handled his confrontation with those protesters. He most certainly should not have aimed his weapon at anyone, let alone put his finger on the trigger; you don’t do that unless you’re prepared to fire. And charging him with three counts of misdemeanor assault with a firearm is, legally speaking, probably the right call. You simply cannot allow anyone—not even the spouse of a high-profile government official—to get away with threatening to shoot someone who has not violated any laws. And to be clear, it has not been established that the protesters did anything illegal at all.
But context matters. According to Jackie Lacey, she and her husband have been the targets of nonstop harassment for several months, and she also received a credible death threat less than a week before the altercation between her husband and the protesters who came to her home. With those circumstances in mind, it’s not hard for me to empathize with David Lacey, nor is it the least bit difficult to understand why he reacted the way he did. If I were at home with a loved one who had been the target of intimidation and threats of violence, and a group of strangers showed up at my doorstep at five o’clock in the morning and refused to leave my property, I might be inclined to try and scare them off with my own firearm. That seems to me to be what David Lacey was trying to accomplish when he greeted his unwelcome guests with his weapon drawn.
While it is (usually) perfectly legal to protest outside a private residence, critics like myself have long argued that it is almost always a bad idea. Activists have countered that protesting at the homes of public servants is fair game so long as the protests remain peaceful. But just as a few bad apples can spoil the reputation of an entire police department, all it takes is a few malicious actors to turn a peaceful protest into a chaotic scene and put innocent bystanders, law-abiding demonstrators, and the target(s) of the protest in unnecessary danger.
That potentiality became a reality this week during a demonstration outside the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin home of Officer Joseph Mensah. Last month, the Wauwatosa Common Council chose to suspend Mensah while they wait for the results of an investigation into his past conduct. Mensah has shot and killed three people in the last five years. The first two shootings were ruled self-defense. The third and most recent shooting, which occurred last February and resulted in the death of 17-year-old Alvin Cole, is still under review.
But this past Monday, dozens of protesters showed up to Mensah’s home and took matters into their own hands, vandalizing the property and allegedly assaulting both Mensah and his girlfriend. Police also claim that an armed protester fired a single shotgun round through the rear door of the house. In a statement posted to Facebook, Mensah said that he and his girlfriend “were both assaulted, punched, and shot at several times” and that protesters “threw toilet paper in her trees, broke her windows, and again, shot at both of us as they were trying to kill me.” He also noted that there were children in the home at the time.
The outbreak of violence at Mensah’s home may have been an uncommon occurrence, but the protest itself was not. While they haven’t attracted much attention from national media outlets, residential demonstrations have become increasingly common in recent months.
On Saturday, August 1, a group of protesters attempted to make their way to the home of Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. Her neighbors intervened, however, and the protesters were forced to turn back. Protests have also been held outside the homes of Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez. Last month, several Native American organizations publicly condemned the intimidation tactics employed against Juarez, who is a member of the Blackfeet Nation and the first Native American citizen to serve on the Seattle City Council.
Earlier this month, protesters gathered outside the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to demand that he cancel rent. About a week later, protesters converged on the home of Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo to demand that she cut funding to the Providence Police Department. And this past Tuesday, a small group of protesters rallied outside the Coconut Grove home of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle while police officers stood guard at the property’s front gate.
Your home is supposed to be your refuge. It’s supposed to be the one place where you and your family feel completely protected from the dangers of the outside world. Images and videos of protesters surrounding people’s homes, chanting and shouting—and in some cases resorting to vandalism and violence to intimidate their targets—will never sit well with most Americans. That is why activists who show up at the homes of public servants are frequently condemned as bullies and instigators even when they have perfectly good reasons for protesting.
Activists should reconsider the wisdom behind these demonstrations. They reflect poorly not just on the protesters themselves, but also on the movements that protesters purport to represent. And if the incidents involving Officer Mensah and David Lacey are any indication, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured, or perhaps even killed.
Besides, there are a million and one other ways to effect political change. City streets, public parks, government buildings—if taxpayer money was used to build it, the odds are that you can legally protest there. You can also write to your elected representatives, start boycotts, engage in acts of civil disobedience, and volunteer for political campaigns. And if those methods all strike you as a little too boring or unoriginal, you could always consider joining up with a guerilla theater group. But the homes of public servants and their families? Let’s agree to leave those alone before the worst comes to pass.