The world’s a bully and hope is the lunch money
Another post about Worcester for what it’s worth
Happy Memorial Day, everyone! Three mass shootings in two weeks and Congress just went on their customary vacation to commemorate the occasion same as they do every year. Just a little recess to adequately remember all the troops who fought and died for all our uniquely American freedoms, like the freedom to think ‘Is this trip to the grocery store going to be my last?’ or ‘Will my daughter come home from school today?’ or ‘Will the police do anything at all to help me if I am held hostage by a lone gunman?’
Obviously Congress wasn’t going to do anything about the lone gunman problem; this is not our first rodeo and we all know that. But it is a nice little extra fuck you on the way out the door. ‘So sad about those poor little kids but the Catskills really are so lovely in spring and the maids have already prepared the house for our stay. Toodles!’
When you live behind the various curtain walls of gated communities, private schools, private security, personal servants, personal drivers etc. that someone in Congress lives behind, the thought of getting ‘lone-gunmanned’ might not seem all that real. The world in which that fear is real is one you have gated yourself away from. There are several grocery stores in Worcester, for instance, that fit the qualifications for a target that the Buffalo shooter laid out in his manifesto. They just weren’t within driving distance. No one in Congress would ever go to any of those grocery stores, of course. But I do. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you do.
If there’s some kid in let’s just say Spencer whose mind has been poisoned in the same way by the rhetoric of white supremacy on forums like 4chan and he’s reading the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto and with the intent to copy his playbook, then that shooting happens in Worcester as a matter of certainty. Worcester’s surrounded by those same sorts of towns the shooter grew up in. Same sets of conditions at work there. Same environment which allows an alienated and suicidal young man to turn into a monster.
All we can do is hope it doesn’t happen to us, that it’s rare as a lightning strike, as our lives are closed in on every day by an ambient tapestry of random killers and random deaths, each one revealing another wrinkle in the apathy of the powers that be toward the situation. This time we got to learn that the ‘good guys with a gun’ won’t do what they’ve been telling us that ‘good guys with a gun’ will do. If just one of those cops on the scene in Texas had chosen to be the hero they fashion themselves as and actually put his life on the line—if they had acted like the brave troops we’re increasingly made to perceive them as, the ones we’re ostensibly honoring today—it could have at least distracted the shooter a moment. It could have diminished the death toll. But the cops didn’t do that, they chose to make sure the slaughter happened in an orderly fashion. They tased, tackled and pepper-sprayed the parents who took issue to the orderliness. This time we really got to see how totally useless the cops are in these situations. We’ve known for years, since at least Sandy Hook, that the federal government will not take the necessary steps to curb this uniquely American violence. We’ve known since Columbine that there’s a sickness in our society which creates the necessary conditions for it. Now we know that the ‘thin blue line’ will not rise to the occasion to confront it. Every time this happens, we get to learn in a new way that there is no driver at the wheel.
What’s the point, you know? I set out on Tuesday night to write a post about the Worcester City Council meeting. And meanwhile like the rest of America I was mainlining the trickle of new information coming out of Texas, the picture it painted becoming more tragic and infuriating.
In the six days since, I’ve toiled with the piece, just thinking how is anyone supposed to care about this shit? How are you supposed to be interested in the positive long term effects of an inclusionary zoning policy in Worcester, Massachusetts when a little girl in Texas covered herself in her dead friend’s blood to hide among the corpses from the man who wanted to kill her while parents outside screamed for the cops to do something—anything—and they didn’t? The blood of 19 little children soaking into a classroom floor for an hour while the good guys with guns held an orderly perimeter. How are you supposed to think about anything else? How are you supposed to ponder other problems when this one goes unsolved? And you know you’re powerless to solve it? And you know the people with the power to solve it refuse to?
The futility of it all has been making an especially strong case of late. The evidence is bountiful. The logic is sound. To abandon hope and tune out may very well be the correct decision and I wouldn’t blame anyone for making it. But if I made that decision, if I surrendered the belief that a better world was possible, I know I wouldn’t make it very long. So I’m in a bind here. If you’re reading this, it’s possible you are too. If survival depends on a horizon in the imagination, it’s a matter of self preservation to maintain it, regardless of what the body of evidence suggests. And the funny thing about hope is it’s always technically there, like there’s some sort of subconscious pilot light situation happening in just about everyone, I imagine, but if you want to actually feel it, you gotta put the work in. I guess if anything that’s what I’m really doing here: working to keep hope alive with silly little words on this silly little subject matter and believing if I do a good enough job the effort might rub off on someone. No one reading this has the power to solve this country’s myriad problems, but everyone reading this has the power to make Worcester a better place. The city might be the last center of power in our society over which regular people have any real agency. So as it looks more and more like the horizon in America is artificial, it’s real here in Worcester.
The world’s a bully and hope is the lunch money and you gotta find a way to say ‘fuck you, buddy, I’m eating lunch today’ despite knowing the food sucks and you’re gonna get hit for it. So here’s what I wrote on Tuesday night. It’s about the Worcester City Council. It doesn’t matter but it does.
A dominant theme here on ‘Worcester Sucks’ since the last municipal election is the two general modus operandi emerging on this new City Council: In one, a fledgling progressive bloc tries to see if the Council is capable of being at all useful. In the other, a conservative old guard responds to this experiment by throwing a slow-rolling hissy fit. The theme was illustrated quite neatly by two moments at this week’s meeting.
The first was small and seemingly insignificant. It would take a careful observer to even catch it. Councilor Donna Colorio (Team Hissy Fit) quietly delayed a vote on a resolution in support of trans rights put forward by Councilor Thu Nguyen. It was a sketchy, smarmy little move, but much context is needed to understand just how sketchy and smarmy.
The second moment? A surprisingly good one! Rare indeed! And more significant by orders of magnitude than the first. A proposal to adopt an inclusionary zoning policy passed by the Council with surprisingly little opposition. Not one opposing vote and now it’s on to subcommittee review. Should it actually be adopted, it would be a real step toward addressing the city’s affordable housing problem. It won’t solve it, of course. It’s nothing crazy. But it’s useful. A positive outcome in the whole usefulness experiment. Just how useful requires I endeavor the Sisyphean task of writing about zoning in a compelling way. Can I do it? We’ll see. But for now, let’s go back to Colorio and trans rights.
At the beginning of every meeting, especially lately, Mayor Joe Petty has taken to announcing which agenda items will be “held.” When an item is “held” it means it will be pushed to the next week’s meeting, to be taken up at the end. As Petty announced the holds this week, and there were quite a few, he very quickly said that Colorio would like to hold “item 11.a.” It was a tiny remark taking less than a second in a meeting that went almost three hours. Couldn’t blame anyone tuning in for missing it, and I suppose if anything my job around here is not missing stuff like this. If you want a string of quotes from various councilors on the issue du jour, the Telegram still manages to do a competent job of that most of the time. If you want to hone in on an insignificant little moment to a weirdly intense degree then come out the other side with a richer understanding of the city’s political reality? You’re only getting that here, baby!
Sorry for plug, but hey, a man’s gotta eat.
So anyway, the item Colorio held had to do with trans rights—about enshrining and protecting those rights—amid a national political climate which is rapidly descending into a psychotic hostility toward them. I’ll spare you any argument in defense of trans people because if you’re not among the choir I’d be preaching to, close the fuckin tab, bud. Get outta here. You suck, and that’s that.
Nguyen put it on the agenda to accompany the resolution the School Committee already passed. The request is simple: that the State Legislature enshrine into law the right of trans people to exist as they are, in keeping with the 19 other states which have already done it or are in the process of doing it.
In a sane society we wouldn’t need to say something like that but we don’t live in a sane society we live in the United States of America. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a war on. Abortion, gender identity, sexuality… they’re just different fronts. Roe is merely a strategic target. These people are not going to stop until the capital is sacked—until the state has full coercive power over its citizens’ bodies and what they do with them—until they decide parameters for acceptable personhood—they create the box and what happens to those caught outside it—until autonomy over oneself is protected only in the framework they allow. ‘Family values’ at the point of a gun. A transparently fascist project, rapidly gaining legal standing.
So excuse me if I take issue with Colorio or any other of my city councilors even hinting they might take issue with a resolution affirming a trans person’s right to autonomy. If you’re not comfortable signing your name to that notion—honestly, if you even have to think about it—fuck you. No compromise. Not now, not ever. You value free will or you don’t. That simple.
So why did Colorio hold this resolution? She didn’t give a reason and doesn’t have to give a reason. The body’s rules allow every councilor the right to hold an item without a vote or explanation. They just say “I want to hold this” and that’s that. At the next meeting, they can try to hold it again, but on the second hold they need a certain number of votes. I suppose the spirit of the rule is to allow a councilor to take some more time to research or it gives the council a way to call it if the meeting is going so late they can’t conceivably get to the matter. The rule makes sense and should be an innocuous little bit of procedure. But this is the Worcester City Council. Petty grievances are its dominant concern. Some councilors, Colorio included, have found a new tool in the “hold” toward this end. Because they can only understand their role through the lens of petty grievance, they probably took it as such when Nguyen held the drone proposal. Nguyen held the drone item because they wanted more and better information from the police and a hold would give them more time to do so. A good use of the procedure! But as I’ve covered before the conservatives either couldn’t or wouldn’t engage with the substance of the debate (it wasn’t a petty grievance after all) and decided to take it as a personal attack.
So in that context, we can ask ourselves why Colorio would hold the trans rights resolution on steadier footing. It could well be that it was a simple act of retaliation move. You hold cop toy, I hold trans rights. This is the most generous reading of the situation, because it doesn’t necessarily rely on Colorio having a problem with trans people. She could have simply been looking to further her petty grievance against Nguyen, and the anti-trans impression it left was just an unfortunate byproduct. If that’s the case, it’s still sketchy, but in a par-for-the-course sort of way.
But another reading is that Colorio takes issue with the substance of the resolution, a scenario that’s both troubling and entirely possible. Colorio is the council’s token Republican. When she says “my constituents,” as she has taken to doing lately, she’s talking about Jim Polito and whatever weirdos are currently staffing the Republican city committee, not her actual legal constituency, which as an at-large councilor is everyone in the city. And that begs the question of whether they’re going to make a stink of this. I can sort of see a lane for them to say they take issue with the “sanctuary” terminology as “sanctuary city” is one of the dozen terms implanted in the Fox News Brain to trigger reflexive and directionless anger. But the substance of the order is that trans people are entitled to “their natural rights and blessing of life” and is that something Colorio is really prepared to publicly take issue with? It’s entirely possible. She may well be willing to take the recent national wave of anti-trans hysteria—codified in terms like “parental rights” and “grooming”—to the City Council floor. We’ll find out next week. I really hope she doesn’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she did. In the event she does, it would be heartening to see the rest of the council come together, if only on this very basic matter of morality, to show that we’re better than that here.
Now on to the matter of inclusionary zoning, and wait wait wait, before your eyes roll to the back of your head, this is actually good and somewhat surprisingly so. It’s a policy that would require housing developments of a certain size to include affordable units. For years, almost all of the new developments in Worcester have been either “luxury” or “market rate,” which are more or less the same designation. It means they’re considerably more expensive than what the average Worcester renter could afford. Meanwhile, as we saw quite tragically in the Gage Street fire last week, renters on the lower end of the spectrum are forced into an aging and increasingly dangerous housing stock. We need new construction, rehabilitation and most importantly, more available units on the lower end. But all of our new construction has been… not that. The opposite of that, in fact.
So this inclusionary zoning policy is headed toward a subcommittee review and public hearing which will likely take place over the summer then if all goes well it will come back to the full council for adoption. Chief Development Officer Peter Dunn told the Council the city will be filing for some zoning changes which will make it easier to build affordable units, which is great. That’s what we really need to be looking at. But they’ll also be looking at provisions which allow developers to buy their way out of actually building affordable units by giving money to the city’s new Affordable Housing Trust Fund. That’s not so ideal, but it’s not nothing.
For years, more progressive councilors like Khrystian King and Etel Haxhiaj have been pushing for an inclusionary zoning policy, and the demands have gone unmet. So it was surprising to see City Manager Ed Augustus file this proposal on his way out the door. His last day is tomorrow after all, and that agenda last week was pretty much his last. It was also surprising to see the entire council be on board with it. Even more conservative councilors like George Russell and Candy Mero-Carlson spoke in support of the idea while being otherwise nebulously angry in their comments. The Chamber of Commerce isn’t raising a stink either. All of this suggests that Augustus got all the city’s power brokers on board before throwing what looks like a bone, and a rare one indeed, to the council’s progressive wing. It’s a good thing and we should treat it as such. Kudos to Augustus for doing this on his way out the door. But it does beg the question ‘why?’ in a big way. Augustus and the powers that be have been much more willing to malign the progressives than capitulate to their policy visions. More than that his administration has been one geared toward facilitating developers at all costs, not imposing restrictions which make development harder. To my mind I think our questions will be answered if we see Mayor Joe Petty touting inclusionary zoning in his upcoming run for State Senate. Throughout Augustus’ tenure, Petty was the best cheerleader you could ask for. In his last inaugural address, Petty played up affordable housing as a marquee issue. So it would track that this was a little political gift on the way out the door. After all, Augustus won’t be the person in charge of implementing the policy. That’s a headache for the next guy.
But in this case, I think it’s more important that we have a nice little sausage than that we really interrogate how it was made. And if it weren’t for everyone screaming about the affordable housing problem for the last half decade, it likely wouldn’t be a priority for Petty.
Now we just have to figure out how to advance this dynamic toward something that would really start making a dent in the problem, like abolishing single family zoning. Haxhiaj did sneak the idea into her remarks last week. And while the pitchforks would come out if someone were to propose it now, you could have said the same about inclusionary zoning five years ago. In a couple years time we could be looking at a similar situation—at a mayor who sees the idea as a path toward electoral victory. But we only get there by pushing these people every day to do better, by illustrating the reality of the problem and building a base of people invested in solving it.
In short, we maintain belief in a horizon and we work toward it.
Thank you as always for reading! Please consider a paid subscription so I can keep writing.
The two year anniversary of ‘Worcester Sucks’ is coming up in just a few weeks and I am continually blown away that this project has been so successful for so long and it is all thanks to the people who offer a small amount of money every month to make it happen!
More on this later in the week, but the reign of Augustus does end tomorrow. Eric Batista steps into the top job on Wednesday and it remains to be seen whether this situation is permanent or not, and also what the hell the city is going to do about its chief diversity officer problem. Lest we forget, Batista was named the acting chief diversity officer shortly before he was named the acting city manager and we don’t really have a solid plan here! This is what Batista told the municipal operations subcommittee last week, per Neal McNamara over at the Patch.
At Wednesday's city council Municipal and Legislative Operations Committee, Batista told councilors Khrystian King, George Russell and Sean Rose that he would hire a temporary assistant city manager who would also take on the diversity and equity role. A permanent chief diversity officer will likely come later, he said.
It’s possible we’ll get some news on that front tomorrow, as the council reviews the Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s department budget in finance committee. We’ll see.
Friend of the newsletter Andrew Quemere brought the absolute heat with this post today on police both nationally and locally. Highly suggest giving it a read.
There’s a few fun little tidbits on the Worcester Police Department!
This year, a man filed a lawsuit against Worcester detectives who tried to pin a 2020 murder on him even after he was excluded by DNA evidence, forcing him to spend five months in prison. If it weren’t for DNA testing, he’d probably still be in prison.
In 2016, Worcester spent $2.1 million to settle a lawsuit by a teen mother who spent three years in prison because detectives coerced her into confessing to murdering her own baby even though the baby wasn’t murdered at all. Inventing a crime and “solving” it by psychologically torturing a grieving girl is certainly one way to get your clearance rate up.
As a closing note I quite enjoyed Mike Benedetti’s recent post “The Many Anniversaries of Worcester,” in which I learned, among other things, that the Nipmuc burned Worcester to the ground at least twice? Third time’s the charm!