By Cara Lisa Berg Powers
James Baldwin shared this critical advice for moments like these. While symbolic gestures and verbal commitments abound, tangible policy changes are too far between. This is NOT a criticism of art or symbols. As a longtime arts educator, I am passionate about the power that arts, messages, and symbols have to transform our belief about what is possible. So as a Worcester resident, I am so excited by the beautiful Black Lives Matter mural that was painted yesterday. Honestly, seeing the way that the mural and the project of painting it has inspired and brought people, especially Black people in our community joy, respite, and togetherness is overwhelming. And it’s definitely impactful. If it wasn’t, so many of our local news site comment sections wouldn’t be filled with threats to destroy it.
I also know that many of the volunteers, organizers, and artists are also demanding structural change. So I think it’s important for us to contextualize symbolism in a larger conversation, and talk about who symbols are for and why they matter. Symbols in lieu of action are not only insufficient, they are harmful. So it troubled me greatly to see so many people, like Mayor Petty, posting this morning how proud they are of Worcester when Worcester leaders like Petty and others who have the power to create substantive change have failed to do so, and even told us we are wrong for demanding it.
Worcester is different, they claim. As Councilor Kate Toomey did this morning in a comment on a Facebook post discussing the mural- “it clearly was a collaborative effort, which makes Worcester different.” Councilor Toomey, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, spoke about Black Lives Matter at the June 3 City Council meeting, “racism is here. It doesn’t go away easily. But it does go away through communication, working together, being open and truly listening to people.” How can anyone believe her commitment to that, though? When she publicly thanked Senator Michael Moore for being one of only 7 State Senators to vote against a bill calling for police accountability; when she listened to a speaker at the recent Back the Blue rally espouse conspiracy theories about video editing in tapes of police brutality. This, while being an active member of a Facebook group connected to the Police Union that spent most of the last few days discussing ways to deface this mural and their erroneous belief that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization. A group in which one member, a police officer, publicly tried to doxx a Black community member just a few weeks ago.
As Chair of the Public Safety Committee, Councilor Toomey held an item pertaining to the 2019 body camera pilot at the February meeting, since there was not report yet. As of the May meeting, there was still no report on the pilot. Reporting from Worcester Patch this week looked at some of the preliminary information available from the pilot– that of at least 23 use of force incidents recorded among the 20 officers wearing body cameras during the six month pilot, video of only 3 incidents were released. This certainly calls into question the likelihood that this reform can do anything to increase transparency or improve police accountability.
But Councilors are digging in anyway. Nevermind the fact that several studies point to the very mixed results of body worn cameras, and serious concerns about accessibility to and storage of footage. There is no consensus that body worn cameras reduce use of force, and little hope that it can create the kind of transparency sought by activists. Still, according to the Telegram & Gazette on July 1, “City Councilors are dismayed that budget lacks funding for police body cams.” Which is weird, right? Because they APPROVED the budget. How are they dismayed like 5 days later? Again, I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do… even if I guess you don’t? So to recap- in addition to the fact that body cameras were asked for all the way back in 2015 and were piloted finally last year and we still haven’t seen any of the results from this pilot except that they’re making it very difficult to see footage, and we know from national studies that it is not the solution we once thought- it’s critical that this program be fully scaled up to the tune of 3 million dollars you could have literally voted on in a budget just a few weeks ago but now need to find from some other, less funded part of the city budget? Are we getting all that? But Mayor Petty is still very proud of Worcester for a Black Lives Matter mural he showed up to take a picture next to.
Well I am not proud of Worcester, at least not the city structure in any way. I am proud of our community. I am proud of the artists, and supporters, and organizers, and restaurants, and REC Worcester. I am so thankful to be in community with Shades, and Creative Hub, and StART on the Street, and the Worcester Caribbean American Carnival, and Legendary Legacies, and Pa’lante, and all of the amazing groups and people who came out yesterday to support and help and feed and bring joy. And these are the things that make families like me and my friends, that the Council claims so much to want to “attract” here want to raise our families here. Things like StART, and Juneteenth, and Carnival, and Worcide DIY (RIP), and Pow Wow, and the annual Regional Environmental Council plant sale, art shows, cultural festivals, Worcester World Cup- all things that the city barely if AT ALL supports in any substantive way. In fact, many of these events have to hold a huge line item for required police details.
Again, I cannot believe what they say- that they love and support these things, things they are always ready to take pictures at- because I see what they do- not invest anything in these kind of grassroots efforts that make Worcester who we are. Yes, a City Councilor was one of the organizers of this mural, but it was funded by private donations. The Pow Wow murals that all of the politicians campaign at (myself fully included when I ran last year) are not funded by the city. Even REC Worcester, which is actually part of the city, barely gets any city funding- the amazing work that the Division of Youth Opportunities does is all made possible with only $990,786- and $791,358 of that is grants. So while REC Worcester is mentioned several times in the narrative of the City budget as an accomplishment, and provides services to thousands of city youth, the entire Division receives less than $200,000 of city dollars.
One local artist told me that they’re not sure Worcester deserves a Black Lives Matter mural. Our city’s leadership certainly doesn’t. I’m so thankful that there are so many amazing people here though, that believe in the Worcester we’re all part of, and are willing to keep fighting for a city that makes those words true. The artists, activists, and youth deserve this mural. I hope our city leadership is finally willing to DO something to earn it. We’re all watching.