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Before Adam was dead, Adam was blight
The city's cruelty produces an inevitable outcome
No pithy intro today. Not in the mood. There’s a dark shadow over everything right now. I’m so fucking mad and sad and jaded. It’s like staring at the sun looking at the cruelty our city tolerates and encourages.
An unhoused person died in Crompton Park Monday. On a bench. His body was found by other unhoused people in the area, then it was taken away in a bag by the State Medical Examiner. His name was Adam.
Community organizer Kevin Ksen was there to witness the arrival of the van and the loading of the body into the van. Without his being there it’s likely no one would have known about this besides the people that knew Adam and the people that found him and the state employees that carted him away. There was no press release from the city or the police or the district attorney. There was a MassLive story, but it only quoted Kevin as the source of “attention” on social media, and a police spokesman they presumably called to confirm that Kevin wasn’t lying. The police only said that officers arrived at 6:22 a.m. and pronounced a man dead. The story does not include Adam’s name.
Adam’s family has started a GoFundMe for funeral expenses. The description is so heartbreaking I can hardly look at it.
Unlike the Chamber of Commerce writing a letter to pressure the city administration to do less to help the unhoused—the topic I’d planned to lead this post with—it does not “make the news” when an unhoused person dies. In death as in life, individual unhoused people are invisible. They only become visible—in policy documents, press narratives and the statements of public officials—in the singular. A “population.” And that “population” is rarely discussed as a collection of human beings with human rights and human agency. Not like “the elderly” or “children” or “people of color” or most importantly “homeowners.” As the Chamber showed us in its letter, the unhoused “population” is most likely to reach visibility as a “blight.” Akin to trash, graffiti, rats, stray dogs. Inanimate “things” that negatively impact the “quality of life” for “residents.” Before Adam was dead, Adam was blight.
The letter I’m referring to went out on Friday and within hours it was dutifully reiterated in the Telegram and Gazette as “news.” The Chamber’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Policy Alex Guardiola emailed it to city councilors shortly after noon. The letter itself is not very easy to find, so I’ve hosted it on Drive. The first paragraph touts the Chamber’s “involvement” in housing policy. The second and third paragraphs consist of effusive praise for the city administration’s approach to housing policy. The closing note is an encouragement to continue to try to do the absolute bare minimum as outlined by state law:
Toward that end, we believe that by working collectively with its partners, the Cit should seek to reach a 15% affordable level threshold that includes supportive housing units for those in need of comprehensive services.
Then, in the fourth paragraph, Guardiola finally gets to the substance—what the Chamber feels the city shouldn’t do (emphasis added to cut through the noise):
This being said, we strongly oppose the petition filed by City Councilor Etel Haxhiaj on behalf of City Council candidate Maydee Morales to establish a moratorium on the City Manager’s ability to prohibit homeless camps from illegally establishing themselves on private property or in the City’s parks. We recognize that the complicated issues of mental health and substance abuse disorder impact a cohort of the single adult homeless population. However, it is a well-recognized best practice that sustained engagement and intervention with this cohort is the most effective way to get these individuals the services and resources they need.
There’s a very flimsy rhetorical conceit in the last sentence that we’ll untangle later. For now, it suffices to say that Guardiola is bullshitting . But more important than how he’s bullshitting is the reason for the bullshitting. Why does the Chamber “strongly oppose” a moratorium on sweeps? In the next paragraph, Guardiola provides an answer. A very telling answer.
As we have seen in many other communities, unauthorized encampments on private property or public settings such as parks and recreation areas create unsafe and unsanitary conditions for residents and businesses and they also create safety challenges for our first responders.
In the use of “residents” especially, we see the Chamber frame the issue as one of people versus blight. The “residents” versus “unsafe and unsanitary conditions.” There is no attempt to grapple with the root cause of encampments or the people who find themselves living in them. They’re just “unauthorized.” End of story.
The letter concludes with a patently false “either/or” framework that I’m sure the majority of the City Council will reiterate in mind-numbing fashion if this moratorium proposal ever reaches the Council floor.
We urge the City Council to continue to work with the City Manager, Commissioner of Public Health, local housing, healthcare and mental health providers, and housing developers in adding more housing units including supportive services for those in need.
There is a concerted, thinly veiled effort here to paint a “two sides” debate: If you want a moratorium on sweeps, you want people living outside indefinitely and you’re not going to do anything to house them. On the other hand, if you want the sweeps to continue, you want “more housing units including supportive services for those in need.”
This is complete nonsense, of course. In reality, routine encampment sweeps exacerbate the problem of homelessness. This is well documented. Lest we forget a recent medical study found that routine encampment sweeps contribute to a 15-25 percent greater mortality rate among the unhoused. The consensus of experts and advocates across the country is that routine homeless encampment sweeps is a harmful, reactionary policy. Cities like Boston have been sued on the grounds it is cruel and unusual punishment. There is a federal court judgement from five years ago which clearly states that sweeps are illegal. When Guiardiola insinuated that sweeps are part of a “a well-recognized best practice,” he’s just plainly full of shit. Opposite day.
Sweeps make the problem worse. A moratorium on sweeps is a step toward solving the problem. Its supporters also want more temporary housing and more permanent supportive housing and all the other things that actually help people experiencing homelessness.
The way Guardiola frames the reality is a ham-fisted Orwellian inversion. In his framing, sweeps are a necessary component of the overall effort to expand housing options and services. To stop the sweeps is to give up on the goal of housing people. This framework is inherently reductive: You either support sweeps or you think it’s fine that people are living in tents.
There’s nothing this backwater political class in control of the city loves more than a reductive argument which allows them to do nothing and feel good about it. There’s nothing the Chamber of Commerce is better at doing than providing the lines of such an argument, knowing the majority of the council will follow.
So this letter hit Councilors’ inboxes at noon and within a few hours it was on the Telegram’s website. The headline read “Chamber of Commerce comes out against moratorium on homeless encampment sweeps.” The structure of the article is as follows: 1. The Chamber’s letter is dutifully repeated, though rearranged and condensed. 2. The Chamber is framed as “the latest stakeholder to weigh in” on encampment sweeps. 3. A meeting to discuss a moratorium back in May is briefly summarized. 4. The opposing position of “homeless advocates” is summarized in a short and reductive sentence. 5. One encampment sweep from 2021 is summarized, but there’s no mention of sweeps being a regular practice, despite that being the main cause of concern. 6. Councilor Etel Haxhiaj’s position is given two paraphrased sentences. The rest of the article quotes officials at various levels of opposition, from tepid to staunch. The experts who spoke and the data presented at that May meeting are omitted. The argument that sweeps exacerbate the problem, though frequently expressed at the meeting, is absent. Mayor Joe Petty is given the last word. He says he doesn’t support a moratorium. Then he says “the issue goes further than Worcester,” which is his way of saying he doesn’t want to do anything different. Not my chair, not my problem.
That the Chamber wrote this letter and sent it to the City Council is the only newshook for this story. There is no upcoming council vote on any ordinance. It hasn’t really been talked about since May. Right now, there’s nothing in the works except a polite request that City Manager Eric Batista, who already publicly opposed a moratorium, put together a “working group” to consider it. There’s no context for this story that’s more newsworthy than the fact the Chamber wrote a letter and emailed it to councilors. The Chamber is quoted simply as “the Chamber.” Alex Guardiola’s name is not in the story, despite the fact Alex Guardiola is a School Committee candidate for a district seat without an opponent. Despite the fact his campaign is being managed by David Sullivan, a Chamber of Commerce employee.
The fact this story was written in the first place shows how our city’s paper of record is quick to reinforce the political influence of the Chamber of Commerce in the affairs of city government. To the Telegram, the Chamber is a “stakeholder.” What they say is “news” by default. Don’t ask why! Dumb question! That’s just how it is. Adam is not a stakeholder, nor is anyone in Adam’s circumstances.
If you think of city government as a democratic institution beholden to city residents, the Chamber of Commerce’s influence doesn’t make a lot of sense. What even is it? What makes it a “stakeholder”? It’s not a resident. It doesn’t vote. It “represents” businesses in the city but we don’t really know what that means.
If you think of the municipality in a different way—not as democracy but as one of several vehicles by which the local elites maintain their status, dominion and real estate gains—it makes a bit more sense! The Chamber of Commerce is just another such vehicle, used by the same people toward the same ends. Two pistons in the same engine. One big growth machine. Where the city administration has to maintain appearances as a democratic institution, the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t. It can just say it “represents businesses” and that’s that. This is especially useful when the local elites have to swat down a proposal to help struggling people. Like inclusionary zoning or a moratorium on encampment sweeps. It’s gauche for a mayor or city manager to swat it down directly, unless they can do so quietly. Better to let the illusion of a public process drag on—give ‘em a chance! Public comment!—while the Chamber swoops in to provide the “other side” needed to rationalize inaction as “a balanced approach” which considers all “stakeholders.” It’s really easy to do this when you’ve kept the Chamber president role, the mayor and the city manager position “in the family” for decades, as this class has done.
If you have all three, it’s smooth sailing. You can do whatever you want. The way the past three city managers have been appointed makes an awful lot of sense in this context, while making no sense in the “democratic process” context. The way Ray Mariano has attacked the new superintendent, given she was hired from “outside the district,” also makes a lot more sense in this way than it being motivated by some legitimate issue with her leadership or the quality of the schools.
It’s annoying for this class of people when someone who’s not “in the family” gets on the City Council. Usually it’s just one at a time. A token conservative or do-gooder who can be ignored. But now there’s three. When it’s a conservative crank like Mike Gaffney it’s pretty easy. Not hard nor all that inaccurate to write him off as abrasive and performative. But three people on the left? Who try to do things with their power? Who have their own channels for information and their own base of supporters? A different vision for what City Hall should be, and for whom? That’s a new challenge for this political class. They’re getting tired of it.
The progressive bloc is making them put on the show that City Hall is democratic and responsive to the public in a way they used to be able to avoid. The progressives are forcing that theater over and over and over again. It’s exhausting. Every time the old guard swats a progressive proposal down, it gets a little more obvious to the folks at home how the swatting happens. That’s embarrassing. And now one of these progressives, Khrystian King, is running for mayor. And he has a legitimate shot. Petty is going to have to actually campaign and as we’ve seen he’s not good at it and it’s too late to find a new guy to take Petty’s place (or is it?). There are a lot of progressives running for council. The 6-vote majority can’t be taken for granted. And the 6-vote majority is how you get your guy in the city manager seat. Uncharted territory!
Facing the very real threat of losing its hold of City Hall, this cohort (to use Guardiola’s word for people living in tents), has yet to come up with a very good counter move. In a recent email sent out by Joe Petty’s wife Gayle, we see this class is prepared to trot out the old, tired “divisive” line. Sent to supporters, the dud nature of this messaging is illustrated with *chef’s kiss* -level clarity.
“Like you, I think that there is far too much divisiveness in our national politics today. Sadly, we now find that same divisiveness and lack of civility in Worcester politics on the city council level,” she wrote. “It is essential that we keep that type of politics out of the Mayor’s office.”
Given who’s running for mayor versus who has done “divisive” things—such as ask why the police overtime budget starts massive and balloons every year—Gayle Petty is very clearly talking about Khrystian King when she uses “divisiveness and lack of civility” to describe a “type of politics” to keep out of the Mayor’s office.
So that’s the line. “Divisive.” Thin line. Very thin. Who cares? Even if King was actually divisive, it wouldn’t track. But he’s not divisive at all.
King has only ever been confrontational on the City Council floor in service of deep and moral convictions about racism and the working class and the police and equity. He takes his time. He asks thoughtful questions. He probes the administration. This is what a city councilor should do! He pushes City Hall to do better. He demands more. That’s what Gayle Petty is calling “divisive.”
What do people care more about, you think? The systemic racism and exploitation and inequity at the center of King’s concern? Or his decorum on the City Council floor? Even if he was a performative asshole derailing Council meetings with stunts and theatrics and slandering other councilors, there are maybe 100 people in the city that would care, and half of them would enjoy it. No one watches City Council meetings close enough to pick up on King’s “divisiveness” besides a handful of people. It’s hard to describe at all let alone make it interesting when King does something taboo. It’s thoughtful and intentional when he does. He picks his battles. He’s coy about it. He doesn’t lead with emotion or make huge statements. It is honestly extremely boring to watch, even when he’s really cooking on a good line of inquiry.
In short, he’s good at being a city councilor. Takes it seriously. His only crime is that he refuses to conform to the cultural norms of what, in Worcester, a city councilor does and says. This cultural mold for council behavior, filled admirably by Kate Toomey and Donna Colorio and George Russell and Candy Mero-Carlson, produces objectively bad city councilors in the democracy sense but good ones for the purposes of the elites who actually make the decisions. The most important thing for them is a city manager who’s in on the way things really work and knows who his real boss is. The good normative city councilor knows the city manager might technically be their decision but it really isn’t. Whoever the guy ends up being, that’s the guy you vote for.
King was his most “divisive” in the months he spent last year trying to get the City Council to do a real search for a city manager. A baseline expectation. Insane that we don’t do that. Trying to get the council to do that was pretty “divisive.” Petty had already announced the chosen guy in Eric Batista and gave him the fill-in job while paying lip service to a search he knew he was never going to do. That’s the tradition. All the normative councilors supported it. Who cares how Batista was chosen, he was chosen. Not our chair, not our problem.
But King didn’t bend on pushing for a search. The battle pushed on for months. it made the whole thing a bit too public for the mayor’s liking. The swatting away of the idea, though inevitable, was a bit too transparently undemocratic. That was the really “divisive” element. King’s taking a real stand allowed the public an uncomfortably long, clear look behind the curtain. A glimpse at how these people have kept City Hall “in the family” for decades.
On these grounds alone, Khrystian King is the clear choice for mayor. He is by and away the best candidate in the race and as shown in this email from Gayle, the threat the old guard is taking most seriously.
King demonstrated in that struggle he wasn’t “in the family” nor jockeying for membership. He allowed us to see how the machine really works. That’s what “divisive” really means when people like Gayle Petty say it. It means “not in the club.” “Not a good soldier.”
Given most voters are not in the club and won’t understand the word as code, “divisive” won’t cut it.
This is going a little far afield here for a sec, but really — who could possibly care about decorum in 2023? Who could bring themselves to even feign concern? We’re all losing our minds. There’s a mass shooting every day. We check the air quality index as much as the temperature. The fires are happening where they shouldn’t. We know the cities will drown someday. We aren’t expecting a hero to save us. In memes, we create a dissociative astral plane to absorb it all. Just throw your car battery in the ocean. Why not. Ha ha. The Grimace’s Birthday milkshake at McDonald’s will kill you. Ha ha. When wealthy idiots die on a weird vacation at the hands of unregulated grifters we celebrate like it’s the end of Star Wars Episode VI. Everyone’s waiting for the decline to get going for real. The Pinegrove Shuffle is the new TikTok trend. Everyone’s filming themselves dancing a slow and sexless and bizarre dance to a dissonant chord strummed with a big weird accent on the three and they’re all in front of their phones waving their arms like jellyfish as the guy sings “I’m out. There’s nothing new to care about.” The singer canceled himself before anyone else could back in 2017. No one remembers why. He’s doing fine now. .There’s a part of the song after the clip that made it on TikTok where he sings “What’s that song about? It's nothing worth me sayin' aloud. So then why do I seem to... need to?”
Everyone is fuckin’ lost is what I’m saying. Except Adam. Adam’s dead.
So no. No one cares if a city councilor is a little rude or doesn’t follow some arcane little normative decorum ritual. Even if the “divisive” attack wasn’t the transparent crock of shit that it is. No one votes in city elections because the way most cities are run there’s absolutely no reason to care, or expectation that your caring would accomplish anything. No one is showing up to the polls thinking about decorum on the council floor.
However, there’s a lot of people who support these progressive councilors simply because it’s nice to see someone give a shit. No one cares if they’re “divisive” in the process. No one knows what that word really means. When Etel Haxhiaj says the justice system “chews people up and spits them out,” that means something. We know people who’ve been chewed up and spit out. We know that can happen to us and it would have nothing to do with “divisiveness.”
No one knows what it means when a candidate or surrogate says they’re “working together to solve our problems,” as Gayle Petty wrote about her husband in that email.
“Worcester works best when we work together,” she said as a concluding note.
Once you get past “Worcester” every single word in that sentence is devoid of meaning. Hollow. What do any of those words actually mean? Tell me!
We also see in this statement—albeit in a squirmy roundabout way—a White woman accusing a Black man of demonstrating a “lack of civility.” Which... I know I’m preaching to the choir and don’t have to go all Frantz Fanon here. You get the idea.
Joe, et al, if you’re reading this, keep calling the progressives uncivilized! Do it all the time. It’s a fine thing for you to say given who you are! Especially if you really mean it! If that’s what you see when you look at King and Nguyen and Morales and everyone else, just say so! Say it often! There’s a neat synonym for “people who display a lack of civility.” A shorthand. Sounds better in speeches. Punchier. The word is “savages.” Try it out!
A Homelessness Reading Series
Instead of working the background into the above post, here’s a reading list of Worcester Sucks stories on homelessness and the unhoused and the city’s cruel and harmful approach. It’s a short book at this point. Maybe it should be? Any publishers out there? JK haha... unless?
The three big essays on the unhoused and the effects of encampment sweeps:
Recent reporting on the sweep moratorium, shelter proposals and reactionary right wing opposition:
May 12, 2023 | “End The Sweeps” (third subsection)
May 16, 2023 | March of the Lady Uncles (second subsection)
May 20, 2023 | Under Batista, the sweeps will never end
June 6, 2023 | “The Lady Uncles Take A Big L” (first subsection)
Phew! That’s a lot when you put it all together like that huh?
Please consider a paid subscription to support my reporting on the unhoused.
Here’s another example of how city government doesn’t make any sense as a democracy but makes a ton of sense as a front for undemocratic control! Like King did with the city manager search process, this bit of city hall sketchiness was revealed by way of Councilor Thu Nguyen pushing for action on crisis pregnancy centers.
Last week a class action lawsuit was filed against Clearway Clinic, a crisis pregnancy center in Worcester. The plaintiff, a Worcester woman, alleges “employees unlawfully failed to adhere to standards of medical care, resulting in a missed diagnosis of an ectopic pregnancy.” In a statement, the advocacy group Reproductive Equity Now painted a nightmarish picture of willfull and malicious incopetence on the part of the anti-abortion activists at this clinic who pretended to be medical experts.
“The ectopic pregnancy should have been terminated immediately under proper medical practice, but instead later required invasive emergency surgery. The complaint further alleges that Clearway Clinic engaged in deceptive practices to lure in people seeking pregnancy care and options, when the clinic’s true purpose was to steer patients away from choosing abortion.”
The city’s progressive have been hammering and hammering and hammering the city to do something about crisis pregnancy centers. The city has done less than nothing. Batista’s subsequent defense of his having done nothing reads like a transparent and sloppy lie.
In March, I wrote about it for Teen Vogue.
In Worcester, a push for similar action has largely been met with silence. Last July, progressive City Councilor Thu Nguyen requested the city’s law department write a draft ordinance targeting the deceptive advertising of crisis pregnancy centers. While the request passed with little stated resistance, there hasn’t been any subsequent movement.
“I think it's so important that we take the stand of being like ok we need to really hammer it down in Massachusetts and in Worcester,” said Nguyen, adding later: “If we can't even make a stand like that, it's upsetting.”
Asked for an update on Nguyen’s ordinance some seven months later, a city spokesman instead referred to the state attorney general’s form for filing consumer complaints.
Here’s the email I got from the city.
Doesn’t even mention the ordinance.
It’s June now and the story really hasn’t changed. The City Manager’s Office has not fulfilled the obligation mandated by the City Council last July. Close to a year now! Instead, Batista and Co. are claiming they had an ordinance drafted in September, but the Attorney General’s Office told them to axe it. Batista didn’t tell the City Council about that. Not in any formal or public way. Nguyen had to pry it out of him. Just the other day, the Patch did what Batista apparently couldn’t and put it in writing.
A proposed law regulating crisis pregnancy centers in Worcester in the wake of last year's fall of Roe v Wade was scrapped in 2022 after then-attorney general Maura Healey's office urged against it, according to local officials.
The article quotes mostly from a statement Nguyen posted on social media. Only after Nguyen posted the statement did the City Manager’s Office make any sort of official statement. Here’s what they said:
"The city solicitor spoke with a representative in the Attorney General’s office who informed the solicitor that they were not recommending municipalities act for a variety of reasons," Batista's office said in a statement.
You sure about that, Batista? You sure about that’s why?
The Attorney General’s Office told Nguyen a different story. When Nguyen reached out personally, someone in the office told them the AG has to “stay in their lane and cannot give legal advice on local ordinances,” Nguyen tweeted.
“I asked the AG’s office like 5 times to give me that in writing then so the CM can’t hide behind them. They chose not to . Its shady.”
Maura Healey, the AG at the time, didn’t respond to the Patch. So now we’re looking at a classic he said she said. Is Batista lying? Or is Maura Healey lying?
Some things to consider in sussing out the liar:
Batista apparently told Nguyen that the ordinance wouldn’t have the votes if it went to the council floor. That’s not up to the city manager to decide at all. It’s a value judgement that he shouldn’t be making. It is also an entirely separate excuse that negates the supposed AG excuse. Which is it, Eric? Did the AG’s office tell you not to or did you personally decide that it wouldn’t pass a vote and as such shouldn’t be put on the agenda?
On the other hand, Maura Healey was critical of CPCs as Attorney General, issuing a consumer advisory warning against them. During Healey’s tenure, several other cities in Massachusetts drafted and adopted CPC ordinances. As I wrote in Teen Vogue:
None of those cities were told to hold off by the AG, as Batista alleges. Or, if they were, they just ignored it. And it was fine.
Did Somerville, Cambridge, Easthampton and Northampton officials all choose to shrug off the AG? Or did Batista make that up?
Does the Attorney General’s Office steer clear of directing cities and towns on local ordinances, as the office told Nguyen? Or did they make that up?
There’s four municipalities lending credibility to the AG’s story. There’s one municipality lending credibility to Batista’s, and it’s the one he has the power to lie about.
Not looking good for Batista!
The city council’s meeting tonight and we’ll be streaming. The CPC ordinance will surely come up. We’re also having a special guest on to talk about the Clearway lawsuit and the ordinance shitshow! Starts at 6:15 p.m.
Odds and Ends
My printer’s on the fritz and I can’t do my normal editing process. So if you saw any typos in this post no you didn’t :-)
Last week was the third anniversary of this newsletter! Wee! Still running a half off deal on a year’s subscription to celebrate.
I just want to bump my last post again, about the June 1 2020 incident. I really left it all on the field and I’m still exhausted frankly. Here’s an exerpt:
Amid thousands of demonstrators outside the Worcester County Courthouse on June 1, 2020, Police Chief Steven Sargent took a knee, a move which earned him a glowing profile in the Wall Street Journal later that year. On the front page. The WSJ led the piece with the moment:
WORCESTER, Mass.—Police Chief Steven Sargent knelt on the street for close to nine minutes, head bowed, hands clasped. He wore a sidearm on his hip and a gold badge on his chest. His stomach was in a knot.
The chief was surrounded by thousands of protesters gathered in his hometown, the second-largest city in New England. The crowd marched down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and took a knee in front of the courthouse on June 1, posing silently for roughly the same length of time George Floyd had been pinned to a street in Minneapolis by an officer’s knee on his neck a week earlier.
“Damn,” Chief Sargent recalled thinking as the minutes passed. “That’s a long time.” He was disgusted at Mr. Floyd’s death, and told residents and his officers as much. None worthy of the badge thought what happened was right.
Just a few hours later, Sargent’s officers would threaten to rape a young woman they’d pinned to the ground. Damn. Fire a barrage of pepper spray bullets at a photojournalist. Damn. Punch a woman in the face then ask if she’s a “nigger lover.” Damn. Sic a police dog on a man, letting it bark and snap inches from his face as two officers pressed him to the pavement with their knees. Damn. They smashed people and they smashed phones. They pulled out the “less-than-lethal” weapons. They didn’t make distinctions between demonstrators and bystanders. They relished in the violence. Bragged about it. Taunted those they arrested. Then when it came time to file arrest reports, they lied through their teeth. Carelessly. They cut and they pasted.
And in case you missed it, Shaun Connolly’s first Bad Advice column ran on Thursday! There’s a whole “Bad Advice” section of the newsletter now too. Make sure you check that out and you also send Shaun some questions.
Ok I gotta run. If you’re watching the City Council stream tonight I’ll see you then.