"It’s about policing people and policing people’s culture"
Why's it so hard to do cool things in this city?
No customary “main feature” today. More a grab bag of shorter stories. I’m gunna borrow from the format of one of my favorite newsletters, Garbage Day by Ryan Broderick, and section every topic off nice and neat with a line and a subhead.
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Love What They Did
A big chef’s kiss to this post on the Worcester Eats Facebook page.
It could have gone the way we all expected but instead it went a way that was better than anyone could have expected.
Gaskin Strikes Back
The highlight of the City Council meeting this Tuesday was Jennifer Gaskin, local author over at the Bacchanal Business newsletter and organizer of the annual Worcester Caribbean American Carnival, taking the city administration to the mat for how needlessly frustrating and confusing they make the permitting process and how hard they seem to come down on the Carnival especially. Here’s a choice clip:
Speaking about how the Parks Department (for some reason) put up a stink about “public intoxication” at the Carnival, Gaskin made an extremely important and biting point.
“Why is ‘public intoxication’ different at the Worcester Caribbean American Carnival than it is at St. Patrick’s Day?” she asked, quite rhetorically, referring to the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Worcester which as most of us will know is a veritable orgy of public intoxication.
“There is something that’s happening here that is more than...” Gaskin paused, formulating the right words—perhaps the most polite and productive way to describe the racism she’s encountered from City Hall—“...more than just about rules and policy. It’s about policing people and policing people’s culture. Or at least that’s what’s happening to us for the Caribbean American Carnival.”
The conversation was spurred by a petition placed on the Council Agenda to “clarify” the process for approving such events.
Gaskin’s comments came after a lengthy and predictably pointless conversation among city councilors on the issue. I rewatched said discussion (it starts at around the 1:15 mark if you want to as well) and there are a few illuminating moments.
First, there was a little exchange between Councilor Kate Toomey and Jennifer Gaskin that Mayor Joe Petty promptly squashed before it could get going. Toomey was the third councilor to speak on the issue and she posited that the problem could be fixed by making the process more prominent on the city website—”having that on the front as a small box would be helpful”—and Gaskin got up to the mic in the audience.
“I don’t know if I can offer this but Councilor Toomey—”
“No excuse me for one second,” Petty said, cutting Gaskin off. “Have you spoken on this?”
“I did speak,” Gaskin said. “But she said something—”
“No. No. Hang on one second,” Petty said.
“Aright, aright, go ahead,” Gaskin said.
Because Petty didn’t allow it, we didn’t get to hear what exactly it was that got Gaskin up to the mic. But I reached out and asked her.
“She kept talking about how they need a document that explains the process. Which made my brain want to explode because THEY have one. No one follows or reads it,” Gaskin said in a message. “They probably knew I was going to say it exists and THEY DON’T FOLLOW IT! Or at least not when it comes to us.”
The issue, as Gaskin and Killebrew clearly articulated, is not that there isn’t a process, it’s that the city doesn’t follow the process. Getting an event permitted and approved is a chaotic mess not because the process is a mess but because the bureaucracy of City Hall goes out of its way to make it messy. That’s why Killebrew put the order on. That’s why Gaskin spoke. The issue here is whether it’s as messy for the organizers of some events as it is for others. That there might be some undue burden foisted upon certain organizers for certain reasons, especially by the Parks Department. And there was a concerted effort by both Mayor Joe Petty and City Manager Eric Batista to keep the conversation framed around “the process” as a matter of policy and not the way in which certain elements of the city bureaucracy choose to interpret the process.
“There is a guidebook,” Gaskin said on the Council floor, after all the councilors had spoken, “But nobody’s is following the rules or reviewing the guidebook or using it as a tool to help us as event organizers.”
Gaskin described two separate processes she has to go through — one for a “special event permit” and one for Parks Department approval — which are both laborious and confusing. The Parks Department process, especially, leads the event nearly to disaster every year, she said.
“We’ve been doing this process for nine years. Every single year the same things come up, new things come up, and things just fall out of the sky,” Gaskin said. “It’s almost to the point where we’re being challenged to the point where they want us to walk away.”
That’s the rub here. That’s the real argument. These organizers feel like City Hall is actively dissuading them from putting on events in public spaces and the way they’re doing that is by mucking up the approval process.
Batista responded to Gaskin. In the way he chose to speak about the issue, we see a concerted effort to avoid that line of inquiry. So much so that Batista seemed to fall on the sword.
“First of all I agree with Jennifer and I agree with Geoffrey that the system is broken and we need to fix it,” Batista said as an opening remark. That’s not really what Jennifer or Geoffrey were saying! It’s not the system, it’s the way City Hall chooses to employ the system! You can’t say you agree with someome and mischaracterize what they’re saying in the same breath. That’s not agreement.
“Totally agree with that,” Batista continued.
He then admitted that he wrote the handbook—the very “system” he claims is broken—some 11 years ago. But, he conceded, that’s separate from the Parks Department process. “There’s a disconnect sometimes.”
“Because it’s not streamlined, we create inequities,” he said. “I don’t think the inequities are intentional. That’s what I don’t think. This system is broken. We need to fix the system.”
He said he was “totally committed” to fixing those problems, but maintained that they were of a “systemic” nature, not “intentional.” Definitely don’t consider whether or not these inequities are intentional or why that might be the case. No. Instead, look at me! Look at this big shiny sword I’ve produced. Watch me fall on it.
People tend to avoid falling on swords if they don’t have to, and I imagine Batista is not pleased at having been made to do so. Hopefully it’ll lead to some tough internal conversations and event organizers like Gaskin will have an easier time putting on the sort of things that make Worcester awesome.
If you’re not familiar with the Carnival Gaskin puts on, it is among the finest events held in the city. I wrote about the event, and the troubles it has faced, at length in a post last August:
This outlet is often heavy on the “Worcester Sucks” and light on the “I Love It” but this is a moment which reminds me how much I love this place. Same goes even more for the parade itself. When I first moved to Worcester, the parade came right by my apartment and I had absolutely no idea such a thing existed. Like the siren scene in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” I dropped what I was doing and ambled in a daze toward the source of the thumping music. On the sidewalk, watching the parade go by, I distinctly remember being shocked as I was thrilled that such a display took place here. The bright colors and extravagance of the costumes, the grace of the dancers, the sheer volume booming from the massive speakers on flatbed trucks… the force of positive energy radiating from the whole spectacle… I was smiling ear to ear. It was one of the first moments that brought me around to thinking that Worcester is a truly special place. Then as it is now, almost a decade later, the Caribbean American Carnival is a thorough credit to the city and we are richer for having it. Anyone who would use the cop car moment in question to suggest otherwise is not a person whose perspective is worth entertaining. But it would appear City Hall does not share my opinion on the matter and are very much entertaining the perspective.
It’s still one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written, and reminds me I need to do more with the concept of “Lurie’s Dome.” Too good. Read up if you don’t know what I mean by that!
A Man In Crisis
Amid all the recent chatter about the Worcester Police Department and its problems, it doesn’t get brought up nearly enough that in 2021 a Worcester officer shot someone to death in the street. Like, that’s a real thing that happened. It’s a big deal.
There are understandable reasons why it’s slipping so quietly down the memory hole. It was a complicated situation. The officer’s decision to open fire wasn’t so transparently unwarranted as, say, the 2014 murder of LaQuan McDonald at the hands of Chicago police officers who shot him sixteen times in the back as he walked away. In this instance, when Worcester officer Paul Cyr killed 31-year-old Worcester resident Phet Gouvonvong Jr. on Grafton Street in 2021, the possibility of a bomb going off was a real one. Gouvonvong had threatened to do so, and in the highly populated area of lower Grafton Street.
The police made the decision to kill the man. The decision was not made reflexively, but rather after a long process of containing Gouvonvong within a perimeter and talking to him. Yesterday, This Week In Worcester released a 52-minute video of footage depicting this event. It’s a difficult watch. Some 40 minutes in, Gouvonvong is seen standing nearly still in the middle of the street. Then there’s the sound of three rifle shots in measured succession. All misses. Gouvonvong doesn’t flinch. Doesn’t move. He raises his hands slightly and puts them down. Then the fourth. It connects. He folds in on himself and crumples to the ground.
It is very hard to watch this video and think there wasn’t some other way—any other way—to handle this. It is hard to comprehend why Cyr would open fire at that moment, some 30 minutes after the threat Gouvongong presented had been contained within a perimeter. What prompted that first squeeze of the trigger. What was different about that specific moment in time than the moments before. What changed the equation.
I don’t have anything more to say on the matter than these types of questions are ones we should never ever stop asking. We should never accept as a blind article of faith that a police shooting is justified. Not in the way we’re made to accept such a thing. Not in the way we’re conditioned and primed—from the journalism we read to the shows we watch and the talking points we take from the men on the TV—to accept it.
Kudos to This Week In Worcester for entering this footage into the public record.
While we’re on the subject of the Worcester Police Department, let’s take a look at this recent story from WCVB headlined “Woman: Worcester breaking own rules after German shepherd kills cockapoo.”
Jane Gerhardt said her neighbor’s dog killed her 12-year-old cockapoo Cooper, and she wants the city to follow its own rulebook.
Last month, Gerhardt and Cooper were out for a walk when she said a German shepherd got out of a nearby yard through a broken fence and attacked the smaller dog.
There was a hearing and the German shepherd was put in quarantine for 10 days and the owners had to put up some fencing and start using a muzzle. This is, as Gerhardt complains, a rather light sentence per the city’s rules, which, as stated in the article, read: “no person shall own, harbor or keep any dangerous dog anywhere within the city for any length of time."
Why such a light sentence then? Perhaps this has something to do with it: “WCVB has also learned the owner is a Worcester police officer.” A city spokesman is quoted saying the hearing officer didn’t know the dog belonged to a cop. This is hard to accept given that Animal Control does the hearings and Animal Control is part of the WPD.
To bring it all back home, there’s a very substantiated rumor that this German shepherd is owned by Paul Cyr, the very officer who shot and killed Gouvonvong. It is a rumor. I can’t prove it. Proving it really wouldn’t change anything for anyone. But let’s just say I have it on good enough authority from enough first-hand sources I don’t feel bad about publishing it here in its unconfirmed state with the necessary caveat. If it’s not true my bad.
If true though we see here in this instance the special permission police have to kill is also extended to their pets. And in that we see, perhaps, that the violence isn’t so much state-sanctioned as it is culture-sanctioned. It has less to do with the “rule of law” than it does something else. Something deeper and more insidious.
What a process!
It was funny in a couple ways to witness the City Council appoint Harriette Chandler to the Library Board of Directors on Tuesday. The funniest part: There were three candidates for the opening and there was a public process to choose between the three. Incredible!
The second funniest is that Chandler was chosen unanimously over a woman who was transparently a better fit. Like someone who’s trying to make a career in libraries and has done graduate work and who has a lot to offer and who would be a valuable resource. Instead, the Council went with Chandler because what City Councilor in their right mind is going to vote against the former state Senate president? This is a small piece of the larger puzzle of why Worcester is Worcester and will always remain Worcester.
The Anti-Blight Corps
As a follow-up of sorts to my long essay about homeless camp evictions, I’m going to pull some stuff out of the minutes of a Jan. 9 Human Rights Commission meeting where the issue was discussed at length. The minutes are an interesting read in light of what I’ve observed personally and heard and written about. The Commission brought in Eniya K. Lufumpa, the city’s Director of Homeless Services and Evis Terpollari, the city’s Homeless Projects Manager. They gave a powerpoint presentation and answered a bunch of questions. The following question and answer is quite illuminating.
Q: What are the most significant challenges faced by the quality of life team?
A: We are the Homeless Outreach Team and we are separate from the city managers’ Quality of Life Team which we work closely with. The Quality of Life Team deals with a number of things beyond the homeless. They deal with overgrown grass, trash in inappropriate places including furniture, mattresses. They often know the homeless encampment locations. The challenge here is finding immediate solutions. This is when the Homeless Outreach Team comes in and does their best to connect those living in the encampment to appropriate service. Keeping the city clean can be an issue. At the same time civil liberties has to be respected as well when cleaning. Staff can get in the cross-fire.
In my essay, I spent considerable time on the word “blight” as it relates to the unhoused and the way the city chooses to treat the unhoused. Like this:
Really what’s happening is there’s a class of people who City Hall feels they have to actually satisfy–the homeowners and business owners for whom homelessness is first and foremost felt as a “blight” which threatens property value. Outside of fantasy novels and role playing games, “blight” is a word that only ever gets used in relation to property value. You wouldn’t describe a messy kitchen in your own home as “blighted.” That would be extremely weird. Or if you got a stain on your shirt at dinner. Sicko shit to use “blighted” in that context. My shirt is blighted. However if you describe a public park with some visible tents as “blighted,” everyone would know what you meant right away and understand the problem you’re identifying and the obvious solution and no further explanation would be needed.
When city officials talk about the unhoused, they stress that they’re doing what they can to help people. That the response is a compassionate one. It sounds nice. It’s not entirely a lie. Left unspoken, however, is that “compassion” and “help” are a secondary concern. The primary concern is “blight.” The unhoused are accordingly treated as blight first, human beings second. In the service of addressing blight, you can do things that make unhoused people’s lives worse. That is admissible. You can throw out people’s backpacks and tents. You cannot do something that helps an unhoused person’s situation if it interferes with the mitigation of blight. You can’t sanction a plot of land for outdoor living. That is entirely inadmissible.
This dynamic, cruel as it is, exists as a matter of unspoken consensus in the Overton Window of City Hall. No one is ever made to say it out loud or defend it. But in an interesting way, they got very close to saying it out loud in those Human Rights Commission minutes I quoted above. Take another look at this line:
The Quality of Life Team deals with a number of things beyond the homeless. They deal with overgrown grass, trash in inappropriate places including furniture, mattresses.
And then consider that for years the Quality of Life Team has been the very substance of the claim that the city is trying to help the unhoused. It’s through this team that the city takes the especially compassionate approach it advertises—tries in earnest to lift people out of homelessness. This is what officials say at meetings and write in reports and what local news outlets dutifully repeat in the rare spotlight story on homelessness. Here’s one example by way of Spectrum News.
"Our main goal is to build a relationship with these people, let them know someone's out there, someone's willing to lend them a hand, and hopefully they will take whatever services they need," said (Quality of Life Team leader) Dan Cahill.
Is it though? Is that the main goal?
Here in these HRC minutes we have a city official describing the Quality of Life Team’s “main goal” a bit differently. It has other concerns outside the unhoused, they say. There’s overgrown grass, trash, discarded furniture. All of it objectively “blight” and addressed by the same team who “lend a hand” to the unhoused. All things that impact the keeping up of appearances. Things that look bad. Things we’d rather not see. Things which inform whether or not a place is “nice.” Homeless encampments are a thing among things in this context. An artifact—inanimate as it is unseemly. A blight. And like all blight it must be eradicated. And that’s the purpose of the Quality of Life Team. The Anti-Blight Corps. But unlike the other blight, this blight is a home for human beings. The blight is human beings. Nevertheless the blight is eradicated.
Odds and Ends
How are we liking this multi-topic format? As much as I enjoy “going long” I think I’d like to do more posts this way.
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The main event of the City Council meeting next Tuesday is the tussle over inclusionary zoning. Read up on my last post if you haven’t to get primed for what is sure to be a frustrating and stupid affair.
Say farewell to one of the worst holdovers of the Binienda years! Rob Pezzella has left the building. As the “School Safety Director” Pezzella was responsible for a number of terrible things including the ALICE school shooter drills and the “strong relationship” with the WPD which amounted to narcing on “the bad kids” so the cops could more efficiently feed the school to prison pipeline. In a farewell feature in the Telegram, Pezzella was lauded as a committed public servant who will be missed.
In about a month I’ll be hitting the road with Born Without Bones for a short weekend trip around the northeast.
There’s a Worcester show! April 27 at Ralph’s Rock Diner. Tickets here. I expect it’ll sell out and I’m positive it’ll be a ripping good time.
Finished Jeff Sharlet’s “The Undertow” this morning. Cannot recommend that book enough. It made me want to be a better writer and reach into the darkness for more human stories. When I finally get around to the idea I’ve been kicking around about putting together a sort of “Worcester Sucks syllabus” (for some sort of lecture series or book club or seminar or workshop to be determined), The Undertow will surely be on it.