Discover more from Worcester Sucks and I Love It
This city is a garden and you are a weed
We can't allow the cops to use a drone this way
Slowly and then all at once I fell into a wicked head cold this week as the weather got freakishly warmer and warmer and at the same time I was out in that heat landscaping. So I’m fuckin tired. It’s lovely out, but I feel so weak and bad I am binding myself to the proverbial writer’s desk until I slowly wrestle something serviceable out of this dumb little brain of mine.
My various social media feeds give the impression everyone’s a little sick lately. They’ve either got COVID, something that may as well be COVID despite test results that say otherwise (where I’m at), or they’re just taking a look around at, you know… all of it and feeling a touch of the Something’s Gotta Give Blues (also where I’m at).
You don’t need me to tell you about the state of the world and if you do, maybe just skip the following paragraph. Picture I’m Billy Madison you just told me you want to know about current events and I’m shaking your chubby little cheeks and I’m going “don’t you ever say that.”
But uhhhhh yeah, the unaccountable and undemocratic institution with total power over the laws of this land has seemingly reached the end goal of its decades-long march toward religious authoritarianism and there’s nothing we can do about it. Meanwhile a company which prioritized stock buybacks over the maintenance of its production facilities set in motion a nation-wide baby formula shortage. The country’s most popular TV station has since seized on this entirely avoidable supply chain problem to craft a remarkably transparent white nationalist replacement narrative made possible by the existing resentment among its viewership of desperate migrants. And on the other side of the pond, an Israeli sniper shot and killed a beloved Palestinian journalist and then Israeli police in riot gear followed it up by beating the men carrying her casket. A classic one-two punch! Major news organizations decided to call this a “clash.” Just another clash among all the other clashes over there. And you’re supposed to read that and go aw jeez what a shame why can’t they just get along then move on.
Amid all this I finally finished reading “From Hell” for the first time. It’s a brilliant Alan Moore comic which posits that Jack The Ripper birthed the modern world—that he was a serial killer but also the inception point of an arc in the fourth dimension bending the world toward the whim of an irascible evil. An evil which lies in power dynamics forged by empire and maintained by capital. Jack the Ripper killed five women over the course of several weeks, and back in 1888 that was shocking international news. Now in America we have a Jack the Ripper just about weekly. Yesterday a man opened fire in a grocery store in Buffalo and killed 10 people. I’m thinking this one gets a three-day national news cycle. Maybe a week. If you take Jack the Ripper as the inciting incident of a chain reaction of violence, like a feedback loop oscillating faster and faster over time, and the Buffalo shooting as just the latest manifestation of it… I mean, I’ve heard crazier things. Like the whole bump stocks prognosis. Remember that?
So against that backdrop I’ve found it a bit challenging to write about the goings on in our fair little city on seven hills, despite there being a few very worthy topics. The bulk of this post deals with the ongoing drone issue, but first, let’s begin with a general statement about Worcester which may well be the finest ever written.
What a perfectly encapsulating little turn of phrase. It’s from artist John Lurie’s autobiography. If you’ve seen his wonderfully weird HBO show “Painting with John” it makes a hell of a lot of sense that he spent his formative years here. A true freakazoid in the Worcester tradition.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the quote was unearthed by Mike Benedetti, another true Worcester freakazoid and a person whose respect I will probably chase in vain for the rest of my life. Please love me, Mike. I’m not so bad. Also check out Worcester Meeting News, his extremely handy and well-crafted newsletter dedicated to previewing the City Council meetings.
So anyway, let’s play God and take a little peek under that dome, shall we?
The Council finally took up the drone issue Tuesday and it was about as frustrating a conversation as you might expect. I think I’ve pretty well covered the range of opinions among councilors so I won’t get into the back-and-forth in any painful detail. All you really need to know is that the majority of the council does not appear interested in seriously interrogating the very real civil liberty and transparency concerns around police drone use and are instead content to smear the councilors who dare to raise them. The centrist councilors made vague overtures to “coming together” and the right flank carried on treating the progressives like their examination of the drone proposal is some outrageous personal affront to them, the cops and God.
So long story short after an unproductive conversation on Tuesday the drone proposal is going to another public safety subcommittee hearing, though we don’t know when. It doesn’t appear one has been scheduled yet, which is somewhat surprising given subcommittee chairwoman Kate Toomey’s past practice of calling meetings with haste when they stand between the cops and a new toy.
At the meeting, whenever it happens, we’re expecting the discussion to center around a policy governing the department’s use of drones—how, when and why—with a particular focus on how they will be used on the city’s unhoused population. Importantly, and through the great work of Councilor Thu Nguyen, the council sent an order to the city manager demanding that the police department submit a “comprehensive and civil liberties focused policy” regulating use of drones before the manager approves a purchase. The 7–4 vote happened amid a confusing flurry of argument and procedural squabbles, but it happened, and it secured an important point of leverage.
Though it’s good Nguyen’s order snuck through, I wouldn’t say we’re going into this next meeting primed for a healthy conversation. The WPD top brass and other City Hall officials have been extremely unhelpful in a way that’s sort of difficult to articulate. Police Chief Steven Sargent, Deputy Chief Paul Saucier, City Manager Ed Augustus and City Solicitor Mike Traynor have all over the past month said so many different things in so many different ways that the council can’t even come to a consensus on what exactly they’re arguing about. A spurious legal opinion issued by Traynor even calls into question the ability of the council to do anything at all to stop the purchase. I’d highly suggest reading Nicole Apostola’s most recent post for great analysis on Traynor’s legal opinion and where exactly this drone money is coming from.
Councilors Nguyen, Etel Haxhiaj and Khrystian King have all made it very clear that they want to see a policy which curtails the department’s use of drones in dealing with the unhoused, and that they wouldn’t support a drone purchase until such a policy exists. But it doesn’t appear the rest of the council even understands what they’re asking for. Mayor Joe Petty betrayed a fundamental confusion when he said at one point during the meeting that no one has been discussing the policy.
Other councilors seemed to interpret criticism of the department’s draft policy as a belief that the department had not authored a policy at all. Either in bad faith, an impressive display of ignorance, or a little of both, they gleefully got up in front of everyone and in so many words said au contraire ye naysayers, I hold in my hand the very draft policy which you say does not exist!
Councilor Kate Toomey even read from the draft policy at length, as if to demonstrate that the mere presence of the document—the fact that words were written—should put an end to any issue anyone could have. “I wonder if people have actually even read it,” she said. Councilor Donna Colorio followed Toomey’s embarrassing display with a quite lawyerly cross examination of the mayor and manager. She asked how long ago the police department’s draft policy had been filed for review, though she and everyone else who pays attention knew that the answer was April 26. Still, she said “Ok, so if anybody—anybody!—wanted to look at the policy that was proposed, that was accessible almost two weeks ago. Is that correct?” Augustus said yes. “I just want to make sure we’re all understanding there is a policy,” she said. The line of questioning betrayed that she really thought, or at least presented that she thought, that critics of the drone acquisition were merely under the false impression that the WPD had not authored a policy. If they just read the policy, she seemed to think, their fears would be promptly assuaged.
Toomey and Colorio proved the most glaring examples but they weren’t the only ones who seemed entirely incapable of comprehending the critiques made by the progressives. Haxhiaj especially presented a thorough and easily digestible case against using drone technology on the unhoused in the way the department has proposed. It was measured, respectful and clear. The request was simple: put it in writing that you won’t do things that everyone close to the issue agrees will make things worse. Just update the policy. Say you won’t use the drones to target the unhoused.
But Toomey et al. chose to ignore the substance of Haxhiaj’s comments and instead invented a fictional premise against which to argue. One that made the concerns of progressives out to be a failure to understand the process. And I’m sure this tracked with supporters of theirs who don’t pay close attention. Those crazy liberals don’t even read the agenda!
But how are you supposed to work with that? How are you supposed to “come together,” as an extremely despondent and tired-looking Sean Rose asked of the council? You can’t hash out policy differences with someone who either can’t or won’t understand your position. It’s a dead end. And it speaks to an extremely low mental bar that they felt comfortable going there. It’s embarrassing, really. Makes me almost miss a guy like Mike Gaffney, you know? Say what you want about the tenets of Mike Gaffney; at least he had an ethos.
And to be clear, this concern over how the police will employ drones on the homeless is not pulled from some vapor. It’s not wild speculation. Sargent made it very clear in his initial report, filed April 5, that the device would use infrared heat mapping technology to help the cops find homeless encampments. Augustus then, in a subsequent public meeting, confirmed it. He said we’re not going to use drones just to break up camps. We’re going to offer services too. Do some “outreach.”
Haxhiaj, Nguyen and King have all made it very clear over the past month that they think this would only make the situation worse. I agree. Civil liberty and medical experts testified at the last subcommittee hearing that they agree. Who wouldn’t? It’s transparently dystopian. I mean put yourself in an unhoused person’s shoes for five seconds. How would it not feel like you’re being stalked and hunted, more than you already are? And then put yourself in the shoes of someone who is earnestly trying to help the unhoused, someone whose work relies on earning and maintaining trust, and you are now in the eyes of the people you’re trying to help on the same team as the drone tracking them down like some low-grade Eye of Sauron.
The key demand everyone’s been making—quite clearly, mind you—is that the police put a policy in place that prevents the cops from using a drone to flush out the unhoused. The police, so far, have not offered such a policy. They filed a policy with the council a few weeks ago, but not one which addresses the councilors’ concerns. Not at all.
One moment during the meeting Tuesday stood out as a clear encapsulation of the dismissive attitude toward these concerns held by the cops and their pet councilors. Councilor George Russell called Chief Sargent to the podium to ask a couple questions.
“Chief, do you have any intention of using this drone for following unhoused folks in the community?” Russell asked. “Is that your intention with this at all?”
“Absolutely not,” Sargent said.
“Would you have any problem including that verbiage in your draft policy, if it’s not already in the draft, specifically?” Russell asked.
“We would certainly put language in there that would protect against that,” said Sargent.
This is a hard statement to take at face value for a number of reasons.
First, this is a guy who’s said—on record! in public! multiple times!—that he’s never seen any racism in the Worcester Police Department. That statement alone demonstrates Sargent is a man wholly comfortable making, um, bold assertions. He’s totally fine with publicly saying something that someone might theoretically allege is nothing but a flat out fucking lie (and if you’re Sargent’s lawyer, let me be clear, this is a theoretical person, certainly not me, and they’re theoretically alleging something in a hypothetical situation).
Second, it’s spelled out plainly in the chief’s initial report that they very much intend to use the drone to find homeless encampments. With that in mind, Russell let Sargent off big time. The obvious follow-up question here was “What changed between now and a month ago when you said very clearly in a public report that this is exactly how you intend to use the drone?” And then the obvious follow-up on the follow-up is “then why haven’t you updated the policy?”
I mean… come on. Five weeks ago, Sargent told the council a drone would be “of assistance to the City’s Quality of Life Team when searching for homeless encampments.” And now he says to the same exact people that his department would “absolutely not” use a drone that way, as if the thought never crossed his mind, and we’re supposed to trust that?
Third, the existing draft policy which the cops filed with the council on April 26 has a wonky carveout which allows for basically any drone use they can conjure in contravention of any expectation of privacy. It’s a similar little workaround as exists in the city’s facial recognition ban, which I covered in my last post on the subject. This policy is loosey goosey, baby! In the “privacy” section of the report, the cops say they won’t use the drone to surveil where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy” unless one of three things happen: they get a warrant, they get permission from the property owner, or the situation falls under several “exigent circumstances.” One of those circumstances they call “search and rescue.”
In Sargent’s initial report, on April 5, he outlines what the police would consider a “search and rescue” operation, and guess what buddy, that includes searching for homeless encampments. So, as the draft policy currently stands, the cops can just deem an expedition to hunt the woods for unhoused people as an “exigent circumstance” and go on their merry way in perfect compliance with the policy.
Let’s focus on these two sentences:
“This type of technology allows for the possibility of searching wooded areas for lost children, elderly or any vulnerable persons needing help. (A drone) would be of assistance to the City’s Quality of Life Team when searching for homeless encampments.”
A couple key distinctions here! For starters, a lost child is, you know… lost. They can by definition be found. There is a place to which they can return—their return would constitute a rescue. However, when someone is not lost there is no presumed return. There’s no situation necessitating a rescue. Imposing the framework of a rescue on someone who is not lost denies that person the respect of having any free will or agency. So with that in mind it speaks volumes that Sargent would conflate a lost child with a homeless encampment in the way he did. Moreover it says a lot about how we as a society perceive the unhoused—how little credence we give to the idea of their personal autonomy, how much humanity we deny them.
A generous interpretation of this perception would allow for the framework of a lost child in need of rescuing. It carries a certain well-meaning Christian ideal. A lost soul in need of salvation. But its logic still necessarily relies on a fundamental denial of personhood. And i’d say this is the most generous perception of the unhoused that most people can muster.
Call me a cynic all you want, but I believe the majority of people—especially those in municipal government and even more especially in the police department—perceive the unhoused through a similar though much darker framework: that of an intractable nuisance. It’s not so much that their humanity is belittled, as it is in the framework of a lost child. It’s irrelevant. It’s not a factor. Life must be made difficult for these things lest they overrun our streets. If we do any better of a job than other cities, if we treat these people more like people, we’ll be overrun. Word will catch on. It’ll spread to Boston or Springfield or Providence that we’re just a little less cruel than they are. And we can’t have that. You know, it’s a balancing act. So yes, we try to get them help. We’ll offer services. But only ever with a caveat. Only ever couched in the threat of displacement and the violence implied in resisting displacement. We say ‘You’d better take us up on these services because the cops are going to show up in a week whether you do or you don’t and if your stuff is still here? Right in the trash, bud.’ Of course the services offered are nothing near a guaranteed permanent shelter. This is America after all and housing is a market. A free market, mind you. And as such you have the freedom to not have housing. You just can’t exercise that freedom here, specifically. Or anywhere else. So the best we can offer is a couple nights in a temporary shelter with a nightmarish reputation. Maybe even a housing voucher! And if you’re extra lucky you can even use it! But in this economy? With these rental vacancy rates? Hoo boy. Open question. And yes, this might all sound like a bad deal to you, Mr. Unhoused Person, and I get it! I certainly understand. But we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have. And if that’s not good enough, pal? If none of these services are actually going to help you? That doesn’t change the fact you have a week until the cops come in, and trust me, Mr. Unhoused, they’re not going to be as nice about it as I am. What you really have to understand is this city is a garden, Mr. Unhoused Person, and make no mistake, you are a weed.
And so the unhoused are shuffled from camp to camp around the city under the threat of inevitable and forcible displacement. Each time it happens and the cops are finally called in to clean house, someone living at the camp might lose contact with the doctor they were seeing or the people who would bring food down on occasion or they might lose their tent and all their clothes and have to bunk up with a friend while they try to get back the modest amount of freedom and autonomy they had. A tent and their own clothes. From square zero to an even more desperate zero.
However nice a face you put on it—even fully accepting at face value that all the services offered ahead of displacement are in good faith and toward the earnest aim of lifting someone out of a desperate situation—this is a cruel process. It is a process which necessarily strips its targets of their humanity. I don’t think it would take living through more than one camp eviction for any of you to intuitively understand that the people doing the evicting value the ground you happen to be on more than they value your life.
A drone would only help to streamline the process. Hasten its cruelty. Make the violence inherent in it more efficient. More damaging to the target.
The city has already proven itself a plenty competent gardner. It doesn’t need a drone to help it pull any more weeds.
Well that escalated quickly. If you enjoy reading my work please consider a paid subscription and if you’ve already done that let me say thank you for the millionth time! I am beyond grateful you’ve made it possible for me to live off this thing for as long as I have.
In case you missed it, I recorded a great little interview with our newly appointed Superintendent Rachel Monarrez. Check it out over on the Worcester’s Good But Hurts Patreon page or on the podcast apps! I’ve got some other interviews in the works that I think you’ll enjoy.
What I am going to enjoy personally is the Worcester Public Library fundraising event coming up this weekend in which they’re transforming the stacks at the main branch into a mini golf course and there’s beers too. It’s called Mini Golf After Dark and it takes place on Friday night 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Redemption Rock is bringing the beers and the Worcester Regional Food Hub is serving food and there’s also a wine element courtesy Decanted Wine Trucks. It’s $50 a head which is a lot but it’s a fundraiser after all and the library deserves a little money now and again I think we can all agree.
I quite enjoyed this op-ed in Worcester Magazine about how shitty our roads are and how our driving is somehow even worse. This line in particular:
“I want to love Worcester, but until you challenge yourself and those in power to make this city safe and traversable it will never be a destination, just a stopover.”
And that seems like a decent enough note to end on. Til next time!