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“All I am saying is the police will do their job as they see fit.”
Councilor Nguyen takes the city administration to the mat over the abuses of “outside constables”
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“All I am saying is the police will do their job as they see fit.”
At the City Council meeting Tuesday, Councilor Thu Nguyen put on a real master class in actually pressing the city administration to do better. It’s what a councilor should be doing but what councilors in Worcester so rarely do.
Nguyen took the city manager and the city’s lawyer to task on the issue of “special process servers” acting in gruesome and unaccountable ways when they carry out evictions—and how the cops just seem to let it happen.
For months now, Nguyen has been working with the Worcester Anti-Foreclosure Team (WAFT) to put a spotlight on the issue of “outside constables” or “special process servers” who are appointed not by the city but by the state and who come into the city to carry out evictions and foreclosures. They aren’t accountable to the city in any way and they sometimes act in violent and abusive ways.
I got my hands on two letters to the mayor which support the claim, written by an attorney on behalf of WAFT. In one instance, observers said a constable ran up the steps to an apartment, did not announce himself, then pinned a woman to the wall, threatening to arrest her and injuring her wrist. In another, a constable used a crowbar as a weapon. The documents are rife with instances of such thuggish behavior. Over the past several meetings, members of WAFT have articulated similar situations during public comment.
Last month, Nguyen asked the law department to look into outside constables and what the city can do to stop the housing court from using them. City Solicitor Mike Traynor provided the report for Tuesdays meeting, and in it he essentially says the city has no authority in the matter.
At the meeting Tuesday, Nguyen posed the question of these “special process servers” assaulting residents directly Traynor on the council floor, opening a long and frankly worrying back-and-forth on the issue.
“What’s your legal opinion on special process servers who evict people and, in the cases that we have seen, physically assault our residents?” Nguyen asked Traynor.
Traynor said such assaults are “well beyond my legal opinion” and “a separate issue.”
Nguyen asked what options are available to the city to address this issue. As he wrote in his report, Traynor maintained that the housing court has an independent authority that’s outside the city’s scope.
“If someone objects to that, they should take an appeal up to the appeals court and see if they can fight the fight that way,” Traynor said. “Right now the law is the law. The courts have that authority.”
Nguyen then deftly shifted the conversation to a matter which the city administration does have authority, at least in theory: what about the police? This exchange was very telling of one of the more pressing points I’ve tried to illustrate in this newsletter: the power dynamic between the Police Department and the city administration.
Here’s the straight transcript of the moment. (I only lightly edited for clarity and removed the incessant procedural language attached to the council’s insistence on making sure such conversations go “through the chair.”)
Nguyen: “What is the role of police during evictions?”
Traynor: “To keep the peace.”
Nguyen: “Could you explain that more? What does that mean exactly?”
Traynor: “The police are there to make sure nothing gets out of hand. They don’t assist in the eviction, they just make sure that nothing... untoward happens.”
Nguyen: “So what happens when someone is physically assaulted or injured by the folks who are doing the eviction and the police are there? What should happen in that scenario?”
Traynor: “The police would take the appropriate action they deem necessary. They’re on the scene. If they’re on the scene and they see it I’m sure they would react. But that question is really better posed to the police chief. But it’s pretty obvious I think that the police would enforce the law as they see proper.”
Nguyen: “What does that mean to react? What would it mean to enforce the law properly?”
Traynor: “If they see someone physically attacking someone, I’m sure that they would... apprehend them, arrest them, or just remove them from the scene and separate them. But I am not qualified to tell the police what they do and how they do it.”
Nguyen: “Ok, but, legally, what you’re sharing is that, lets say in a scenario where a constable or a server is physically getting involved with a person who is in their house, the officer should probably properly hold them back or something like that? Apprehend them as you would say?”
Traynor: “All I am saying is the police will do their job as they see fit.”
Seeing they’ll continue to hit a dead end of non-answers with Traynor, Nguyen turned to City Manager Eric Batista. Batista didn’t answer the question either. He was just a bit more ham-fisted about it than Traynor.
Nguyen: “All right I’ll turn to the city manager for this question then. In this scenario what does ‘doing the police’s job’ look like?
Batista: “I think you’re asking a very specific question that is philosophically based on the situation. And I can’t really answer to what the chief would enact on, based on the condition of the situation. So I can’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘they should be doing this’ or ‘they should be doing that.’ Because every situation is different. So I can’t jump into a conclusion like that and try and lead the public astray with an answer I could provide at the moment.”
Nguyen: “Thank you for that. I wouldn’t say it’s philosophical because it’s a reality for a few of our residents. Especially the stories I’ve been hearing.”
Nguyen asked Batista to work with Police Chief Steven Sargent to write a report on what exactly officers should do when they witness a constable assault a resident during an eviction. Based on past reports from Sargent, we shouldn’t expect anything more than a third non-answer in the tradition of the above remarks from Batista and Traynor. No one wants to answer this very simple question! Wonder why! Could it be that they know the cops are not doing what they’re supposed to?
After requesting the report, Nguyen turned back to Traynor.
Nguyen: “My question to the solicitor is who is liable if a resident sues because our Worcester Police Department was there and did nothing?”
Traynor: “If someone is going to claim the Worcester Police Department acted improperly then the City of Worcester would get sued.”
If Traynor knows one thing, he knows about the city getting sued for the impropriety of Worcester Police Officers. Such lawsuits keep his department quite busy, as we’ve seen dozens of times in recent memory.
Nguyen said they’re aware of people who’d been assaulted by constables and subsequently tried to press charges. “Nothing happened,” Nguyen said. They asked for a report on recent instances of residents attempting to press charges against constables and how the police handled those situations. Should there be an impending lawsuit, I would think that document would prove quite useful for the plaintiff!
In this whole exchange, we see Nguyen working on behalf of residents by putting political pressure on the city administration to do better. They did so without apology or concession. Instead of justifying the city government’s inability to act on behalf of its residents, as is the traditional role of a councilor, Nguyen refused to accept it.
“What I’m hearing on this council floor is that we’re not going to do anything about it,” Nguyen said. “No more digging? Nothing else?”
As this question hung in the air, meeting a long and awkward silence, Nguyen looked at Traynor, then looked at Batista. They said “through the chair?” to reiterate that it was an actual question, not a rhetorical one. “To the manager, maybe?” After a beat, Mayor Joe Petty, his voice noticeably heavy with apprehension, said “Mr. Manager...” and in doing so forced Batista to answer a question he obviously didn’t want to. Batista rose slowly from his chair, clutching his tie to his chest as he leaned in to the mic. He spoke softly, his head pointed down at his desk.
“You’ve asked for a number of orders and I look forward to bringing those orders back to you.”
Just as slowly as he rose, he sat back down.
It’s hard to stress just how deeply at odds Nguyen’s use of their City Council seat is with the entrenched norms of the Worcester City Council. The city administration is accustomed to a petty and deferent City Council, jockeying among themselves for the manager’s political favor while running cover for the unilateral decisions he makes and the even more unilateral decisions made by the Police Department.
A Worcester Sucks reading series toward that end:
After Nguyen opened the conversation, it went “around the horn,” as is tradition. Each councilor had the opportunity to “speak on it” regardless of whether they had anything worthwhile to offer. The majority of councilors seized that opportunity. They gave customarily long-winded and directionless monologues that only served to demonstrate they understand their normative assignment: absorb, squash, deflect, diffuse pressure from the public, on behalf of the city administration.
First up after Nguyen was Councilor Kate Toomey, solidly a member of the Normative Six. In the difference between Nguyen’s thoughtful and critical examination and Toomey’s use of her time at the mic, the City Council’s fundamental normative divide was exceptionally clear to see.
“Certainly if someone is not doing their job, there is a process that needs to be followed. And that’s reporting a citizen complaint. And there’s a procedure with our Bureau of Professional Standards,” she said.
Notice how she says “our” and not “the department’s” in referring to this bureau. It’s not the City Council’s bureau. It’s not the city manager’s. The Bureau of Professional Standards is squarely in the Worcester Police Department’s org chart. Nowhere else. Toomey is the chairwoman of the City Council’s Standing Committee on Public Safety—the closest thing in the structure of our city government to a mechanism for public oversight of the police—and just with that little “our” she revealed so much about how she sees her role as a councilor. She’s not there to represent the public. That’s not her “our.” She’s on the force. Deputized. And she understands her assignment. If there’s any criticism of the Police Department on that City Council floor, she’s there to stick up for her fellow officers.
That’s how she approached this conversation Tuesday night about what to do about constables and evictions and city residents being subjected to violence and abuse. She looked at her phone and read from the submission page for citizen complaints on the WPD website.
“I’d encourage anyone who’s had any issues to please consider filing a complaint through the Bureau of Professional Standards,” she said.
“We certainly expect our police department to act professionally and to do the right thing. And I certainly know that’s what my expectations are and I believe that 99.9 percent of the officers on duty do just that. For those that don’t, there is a process that needs to be followed.”
There seems to be a tacit acknowledgement buried in this rhetoric, doesn’t there? Like a micro version of the “bad apples” narrative that emerges after a cop kills someone in high profile fashion. A concession in that “99.9 percent of the officers” qualifier. In saying “those that don’t,” it seems like she might have a specific instance in mind. One she’d rather have handled internally, by her department. Her bureau. Her “process that needs to be followed.”
In this discussion Tuesday night, Nguyen sought to use the power afforded by a seat on the City Councilor to stand up for vulnerable city residents and the injustice they experience. Nguyen used their power to help people who need help. They brought a real problem faced by real people to the City Council floor and demanded the city administration address it. When the administration said there’s nothing to be done, Nguyen refused to accept it. Didn’t defer. Didn’t say “I understand, oh well, what can you do you. Thanks anyway.” They said “we need to figure out how to do more.”
In refusing to accept the administration’s “hands tied” position as morally acceptable, Nguyen showed actual leadership. They kept the injustice at the center of the argument and action to prevent it as the goal. They never conceded on either of those core positions, against the best efforts of almost everyone else in the room. They never let go of the goal itself. Never capitulated to the basic idea that a solution is impossible. That’s where the real leadership is.
If Nguyen said “oh well, I guess you’re right” to Batista at any point, it would have been a fundamental handoff. It almost always happens. Batista, as city manager, gets to define the boundaries of what’s “realistic” and conversely “unrealistic” for City Hall. He gets to set the limits on imagination! It’s one thing to decide to give a developer a big tax break, it is entirely another thing to be able to place outside the realm of possibility the very idea of not giving tax breaks. We can’t have that conversation. It’s “unrealistic.” You don’t want to sound “unrealistic,” do you? You want to be part of this club we’ve built around City Hall, don’t you?
City Council, as designed, is supposed to set this box around “realistic.” But that’s not how the normative city councilors here in Worcester see it. On the big questions requiring real political imagination and real vision, the council defers to the city manager. There’s an invisible line between what a councilor can question and what they can’t. Someone like Candy Mero-Carlson could throw a hissy fit about “not being informed” by the manager of some development or “not informing residents.” That’s within the normative confines. You can’t ask the manager something like “why does settlement money for police brutality lawsuits come out of the general fund via the law department and not directly from the police department’s budget.” Well outside the normative confines. Easily swatted away as “unrealistic.”
Taking all this in mind, the truly remarkable thing about Nguyen’s approach Tuesday was not the questions asked or the answers provided or the willingness to get combative or how uncomfortable it made Batista. All that was great, but something bigger happened: Nguyen never conceded the imagination of what City Hall should be doing. Did not allow the manager to write off the possibility of a solution as unrealistic. Didn’t say “ok, you know best.” They said “what you think is possible is not good enough for me and I refuse to accept it. Now keep trying.”
It’s a rare and special thing to see that sort of innate leadership, especially from a municipal elected official, so often content to simply revel in the small comforts and status and vanity of such a position—getting to say “us” when you talk about the cops, for instance—and concerned only with keeping it as long as they can.
But really, the special sort of leadership exhibited by Nguyen here isn’t just a rarity in the City Council chambers. It’s something that’s sort of generally disincentivized and coached out of people. Relegated to fiction. Not even our most powerful people are really expected to have some righteous path they’re guiding us along. No one’s that naive. There’s visionaries in the history books but the most recent of such stories tend to end the same way—with a bullet. Not a lot of history book visionaries after 1968 for some reason.
It’s just the big nebulous inhuman intelligence of money now that gets to have a vision. Like some god we accept its vision is unknowable and intervention is heretical. Homelessness and poverty and medical debt and foreclosures and evictions are absorbed by the social order as acts of god. Unfortunate but inevitable. The victims are sinners and the punishment is deserved.
To be forcibly evicted from your home, for instance, must be in some way deserved. The punishment for some sin. If the person sanctioned by the state to do the evicting physically assaults you in the eviction process, it might be unfortunate and regrettable but it’s not a possibility we can prevent. The law is the law, you see. And you can’t expect police officers to intervene in such an assault because they uphold the law and the law upholds the social order and the social order upholds the market. Whatever led to your eviction is a much bigger crime against the market than any violence to your person which occurs during the eviction. The cops know you’re the sinner and the constable is the executor of god’s will. The choice to turn a blind eye is an easy one.
When Nguyen took a stand against the simple claim that there’s nothing the city administration can do about outside constables and the way they carry out evictions—without qualifiers or capitulation or compromise—they really took a stand against the logic of the market. The diminished imagination it demands. The practical necessity of cruelty.
You do not see that! Not at the U.N., not in the U.S. Senate, not in the Massachusetts State House. The cruelty is assumed. Power cannot be secured by a person who does not strike a bargain with the cruelty. You can’t directly confront it.
But the fledgling progressive bloc of the Worcester City Council—Nguyen, Etel Haxhiaj and Khrystian King—has consistently and stubbornly refused to make that concession. Railed against it. Every time they do so, they show real leadership, and carve out new space for such leadership on a board which may not have ever seen it. Putting the city’s residents over its economic engine. Not just saying it but doing it. You just don’t see that. Ever. On the federal or state level we won’t see it in our lifetime.
In this small arena, however, we have a chance of proving it can be done. Currently, the putting of people over profit is outnumbered so it never wins. Every vote is 8-3 or 7-4. But demonstrating it’s possible is in and of itself remarkable. And they’ve inspired others to join them. There’s a slate of similarly-oriented council candidates. Come November, we could very well have a small executive body in this small city actively defying the prevailing logic of a world order.
No one’s saving the world here and the world may well be beyond saving. The market may lead us straight to a heat death extinction without so much as a hiccup. The logic of profit must be confronted and killed to prevent this. Right now that feels impossible. All we can do is find some small way to demonstrate that it isn’t. Municipal government is so small and insignificant and far from Sauron’s Eye, it’s the perfect place to give it a shot.
If anything, my role here with Worcester Sucks is documenting that such a shot was taken. Really over these three years that’s all I’ve been doing.
Maureen “Double Threat” Binienda
Following a pretty hilarious and very weird controversy over at the Easthampton school district, former Worcester superintendent and current school committee candidate Maureen Binienda has a new job as Easthampton superintendent.
The School Committee there canned their first pick after he referred to School Committee members as “ladies” in a “sup, ladies?” sort of context. They promptly sent him packing then they appointed Binienda in pretty short order last week. This is all well and good and 100 percent not my business. What is my business however is she still plans to run for one of the two at-large seats on the Worcester School Committee. This is what she told the Telegram:
She said she was “feeling great” about running for School Committee while also handling her responsibilities in Easthampton.
“Nobody else from the School Committee can say that they're actually doing the work … that we’ll be overseeing as a School Committee person,” Binienda said. “I think it's gonna be a great complement to be on the School Committee.”
Apparently Binienda sees no potential issue in managing one school district and overseeing the management of another with about 60 miles of distance between them. Being a superintendent and a “School Committee person” at the same time is, according to Binienda, complementary. It speaks a lot to her assessment of what is required by each role, as well as some pretty wild overconfidence.
As I wrote about Sunday, this is the person that Telegram columnist Ray Mariano continues to claim will ~swing the pendulum~ away from chaos he describes in the Worcester Public Schools.
While generally conservative in their politics, this faction was decidedly apolitical. Best thought of as a townie jobs cartel. Other members of this faction include former Superintendent Maureen Binienda, former Safety Director Rob Pezzella, former School Committee members Diana Biancheria and John Monfredo, and former president of the Education Association of Worcester Roger Nugent.
You’ll notice a lot of “former” on this list. This is a faction in its twilight years. Its influence is waning. Mariano is transparently using the platform lended to him by the Telegram to cast unfounded aspersions on the people who now hold the levers of power that his faction used to hold. This is made cartoonishly obvious by the column’s kicker:
Someone needs to grab onto the pendulum and stop it from swinging even further in the wrong direction.
And who might that “someone” be? Mariano doesn’t say. But there are two members of his faction running for School Committee this year! Binienda and Biancheria! I’d bet good money that’s who he means! And then there’s this “pendulum” idea, and the vague image of it swinging in some “wrong direction.” What does he mean by that, exactly? Such an easy concept to hide behind, this “direction.” A favorite of local politicians like Mariano. Detested by journalists and copy editors and anyone else who believe words should have meaning. Could be this “direction” is the overall quality of the school district and the education it provides students? That’s certainly the implication of the column, however thinly it was articulated. Could just as easily mean his personal proximity to power. The “right direction” toward his own influence and the “wrong direction” away from it. It’s anyone’s guess! “Direction” by itself is devoid of meaning. I’m inclined to go with the latter interpretation, personally.
These people want for nothing but the maintenance of their own power and influence. We need to make sure they continue to lose it.
If Binienda won’t reconsider her School Committee run, I’d hope the Easthampton School Committee would reconsider it for her. If only for their sake.
Thanks for reading everyone! I’ve got something special planned for the three year Worcester Sucks anniversary coming up this Sunday. Stay tuned! In the meantime I’d be forever grateful if you decided to pony up for a paid subscription!