Nothing to see here

The City Council says police violence is fine so long as it's tidy

With the night off my kitchen job I decided to check in on my good friends in the Worcester City Council and was surprised, to say the least, to catch a pointed little item from Councilor Kate Toomey, who it is important to remember is the chairwoman of the public safety subcommittee and also—as she will continue to remind you at any chance given—a proud member of a “law enforcement family.”

This is how it reads on the agenda:

“Request  City  Manager  work  with  the  Chief  of  Police  and  the  Acting  Commissioner  of Public  Works  and  Parks  to  establish  an  emergency  team  and  protocol  for  the  Department of  Public  Works  and  Parks  to  provide  immediate  remediation  of  remnants  of  less than lethal munitions after an incident.”

Hm!

“Less-than-lethal” munitions were of course used most notably in the police department’s force march of demonstrators down Main Street at the tail end of a Black Lives Matter demonstration in June. I was there and saw with my own eyes some of the “less-than-lethal” weapons used. They involved smoke grenades, guns that shoot balls full of pepper spray and at least two sponge-tipped bullets, a close relative to the rubber bullet which cops have used to blind and otherwise injure demonstrators across the country. The “less-than-lethal” weapons accompanied other tactics like rhythmically marching and shoving batons in a line formation while chanting “move back” and also pushing people to the ground if they get close enough to you.

This is a more full account of what I saw, from an old WoMag article

I wasn’t there for the whole thing, so I can’t say with any certainty what in the police’s official narrative did or didn’t happen. I arrived at 10:25 p.m., well after the “full video” the police department released. What I can tell you is I heard the popping sound of gunshots and the thick smell of pepper spray as I turned the corner of Main and Woodland, reemerging from my car where I hurriedly charged my phone. If it’s not recorded, it didn’t happen, I remember thinking. What I can tell you is that volunteers cleaning up the scene the day after found at least two eXact iMpact™ 40mm Standard Range Sponge Round casings. These are sponge bullets, a sibling of the often-talked-about rubber bullet. This did not make its way into the police department’s official account. No, the police said they used “less lethal measures including smoke grenades and pepperball rounds.”  

It’s really, really important to note that without the work of community organizers who went down to the scene the next day to clean up, we would have no idea the cops used sponge-tipped bullets, and that very well may be why Toomey put the order on. We still don’t know what other “less-than-lethal” weapons they used or had ready to use. As you’ll notice in the last line of the passage above, the cops were careful in their wording. They shot some stuff at the protesters ~including~ smoke grenades and pepperball rounds. The word including does a whole lot of heavy lifting there should the cops ever be put in a position to defend the use of other, unlisted tactics. 

Organizers found these pepperball round casings.

And these sponge-tip bullet casings.

And there’s other fishy stuff like this. 

So now, Councilor Toomey is trying to get a policy in place that makes it so as soon as the cops are done violently dispersing a crowd, the DPW comes right in and picks up the mess they made.  

It’s just like that, except when a horse takes a shit the worst that can happen is you step in it and you go awwww phooey like an old-timey chicken farmer, and when a cop drops a sponge-tipped bullet casing on the ground, it means it was fired with the intent of injuring if not permanently maiming someone. Over the past few months we’ve all watched a lot of footage of cops around the country aiming rubber bullet guns to the heads of demonstrators. Like this particularly nightmarish one. 

We’ve all heard the stories of people losing eyes. We’ve heard stories of fractured skulls. This, from USA Today.

The past two months have been especially telling, with dozens maimed or hurt amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations: Photographer Linda Tirado, 37, lost an eye after being hit by a foam projectile in Minneapolis. Brandon Saenz, 26, lost an eye and several teeth after being hit with a “sponge round” in Dallas. Leslie Furcron, 59, was placed in a medically induced coma after she was shot between the eyes with a “bean bag” round in La Mesa, California. And, in Portland, Oregon, 26-year-old Donavan La Bella suffered facial and skull fractures when he was shot by a federal officer with a less lethal round.

In the days and weeks after this thoroughly excessive demonstration of the police state, City Hall circled the wagons around the police department. The cops were praised for their “tremendous restraint” and there were no serious inquiries into the tactics the cops employed. As it happened on their doorstep and several students were arrested, Clark University commissioned an investigation by an extremely City Hall-connected lawyer in Michael Angelini who made vague overtures to inappropriate behavior but was mostly like yeah it was all chill.

This is the hardest that report goes. 

"Arrests are not polite events, but they should involve only those actions which accomplish them. Even in the situation described in this report, that standard applies. Actions taken during the arrests of the Clark students did not meet that standard."

Now, four months later, after no substantive discussion on police use-of-force tactics, Toomey puts on this order about how to clean up after the cops. And it went through without a word. Instead of explaining the intent of the order, which is customary, Toomey simply said “as it reads.” When a councilor says that, they basically mean “this does not warrant any further explanation.” The mayor then brought it to a roll call vote, and it went through unanimously without any discussion. No one wanted to touch that one! 

It could have been used as an opportunity to discuss police tactics against demonstrators. It could have been used as a moment to address just how excessive a show of force it was that night. It could have been used as an opportunity to discuss how the police arrived at such tactics, and where they learned them (the answer is Israel, by the way, something I’m saving for a full post). 

But not a single councilor decided to use the moment as one for interrogation, and the item went through quietly. Innocuous as a routine budget transfer.

With everything going on in the world right now, with the thoroughly depressing election and the pandemic that rages on unabated and the narcissist looking for his last big fuck you before he gets dragged out of office, this is small potatoes and I’ll readily admit that. But the way the cops handled that small group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators that night is the biggest and most gruesome display of the police state that’s happened in this city, at least in recent memory, so excuse my reluctance to let it go. It was a dry run, if you will. A way to test out some new toys.

After months of deliberate inaction on the subject, this order from Toomey sends a clear message to the cops. It says we know this is going to happen again and we know you’re going to handle it the same way so what we need to do is focus on tidying up afterwards because it sort of looks bad when you leave all those shell casings and canisters everywhere. Like no, definitely keep using them, but it’s a bad look to just leave ‘em on the ground after but we’ll take care of it. We’ll even have the DPW do it you don’t even have to worry about it.

The fact that Kate Toomey is chairwoman of the public safety subcommittee in the first place also sends a clear message to the cops. She often touts her law enforcement roots (her grandfather and great grandfather were Worcester cops) and she’s just one familial degree separated from Tom Daley, the former head of the patrolman’s union in Worcester. She would never do anything to run afoul the cops, and their support is likely what makes her a top vote-earner in every election. Any package of reforms or proposals or anything related to oversight of the cops has to go through her subcommittee where she can be the biggest brick wall she wants to be and she’s already doing a good job of it.

The way city officials have handled this incident has been far-and-away the most disillusioning and disheartening thing I’ve seen in my time covering Worcester. The Ed Augustus Jr. administration is simply uninterested in interrogating, let alone reforming, the police department. That’s the bottom line. The demands of Black Lives Matter be damned. They’re just not going to touch it and they don’t have to because we cannot force them to. At least not now. 

The municipal elections next November are coming up fast. It’s time to get to work.

~/~ 

One good thing did happen at the City Council meeting last night though. The board unanimously approved an order from Councilor Khrystian King to permanently display the Nipmuc Nation flag, and also let Cheryll Holley, chief of the Nipmuc Nation Hassanamisco Reservation, pick the location. Mayor Joe Petty said “this is pretty cool” to cap off the conversation. So hopefully this goes through and we can have a little bit of mainstream conversation about the need to recognize whose land it is that we’re on. 

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I haven’t written about the election and I don’t really want to because that’s not my beat but I think this meme captures my feelings on it pretty perfectly. 

It’s not for nothing that Bad Orange Man Gone Now, but Trump is just a symptom of a uniquely American disease and our decades-long rightward drift will continue well after Trump dies but hopefully he dies on a toilet that would be nice. Biden is a terrible politician and he is also a war criminal and he will be dealing with a GOP that over the past few months has strengthened its vice grip on every meaningful lever of power in Washington. It’s what the kids are calling “not good” and I am terrified and we do not have the framework for a meaningful opposition party. What we have is a political machine that is content to lose every time so long as it can sustain itself. 

I’ll leave you with this. 

Saturday was a depressing day for me.