By Em Quiles
Our City leaders are nodding their heads but are they really hearing what we are saying? It is not about a statue. It is not about a mural. It is about who is being heard when talking about creating real change. It is about paying attention to the root of what’s fueling the cries that are coming from the streets. The world, the nation, the Worcester community, is calling for systemic change and racial justice. But like Malcolm X said “Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out, much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
“They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
The conversations that have arisen in the last few weeks aren’t necessarily new, they are just being amplified. As always, our elected government carries on without hearing the voices of the constituents it serves. It’s like we say in Spanish me pica aquí y me rascas allá (it itches me here and you’re scratching over there). Despite numerous calls for reallocating funds away from the already enlarged Worcester Police Department’s budget in efforts to reform our police, our City Council is looking to increase their budget with a bodycam program that has been proven to be ineffective, citing the need for accountability. However, we don’t need research to tell us how useless they are, because we have all seen countless videos of clear cut wrongdoing from police who end up not being held accountable.
Then we have elected officials, like City Councilor Kate Toomey who is an At-Large Councilor, meaning she is elected to represent everyone in the City of Worcester, yet she stands idle when members of our police force and their supporters threaten vandalism in public forums against the Black Lives Matter mural we recently painted. There is a history of contemptuous relationships between police departments and communities of color. When police officers and their supporters threaten vandalism against the BLM mural, they also threaten violence on our communities of color. Why? Because it’s not just a mural. It is not just some paint on the ground, but its importance reaches beyond aesthetics. This is a statement from our art community in solidarity with Black lives using a platform that artists know best. This mural has profound importance to our community because we let the world know, and each other, that Black Lives Matter in Worcester, Massachusetts. Black artists. Black fathers. Black children. Black mothers. Black leaders. Black voices. The community showed up and poured their hearts out into this project, and many of us are being seen as a result. When we demand our government to issue public statements denouncing vandalism against our mural and they fail to do so, then they fail to hear us, again. We are taking note of the silence.
While we are talking about the roots of systemic issues, Christopher Columbus and his legacy represented by a statue comes into question. City Councilor Sarai Rivera, who represents District 4, petitioned for the statue of Columbus that is erected in front of Union Station be removed. This prompted a slew of calls from the Italian community, including School Committee member Dianna Biancheria, asking for Italian heritage to be preserved and for the statue to remain. Biancheria called in to the City Council meeting to say this wasn’t the right time to be talking about removing the statue. City Council agreed, yet again, as they voted to keep the statue in place. Aside from the fact that Biancheria is part of the same School Committee responsible for the colossal failure to our students during this pandemic, why is she under the impression that this is solely about Italian heritage? And when will it ever be the right time to talk about Christopher Columbus’ supposed legacy, including its accuracy and its impact on this country’s white supremacist culture?
Christopher Columbus’s supposed legacy isn’t solely a matter of Italian heritage, but his impact became a Puerto Rican matter as well when he raped, pillaged, murdered, and committed countless crimes against my Taino ancestors in lands he did not discover. Columbus made it our business when he invaded Puerto Rico and colonized our island, and the United States made it our business when they made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens and colonized us as well. The Puerto Rican community has to be included in this conversation and continuing to exclude us from these conversations is an assault on OUR community and an insult to OUR heritage.
Our leaders are collectively failing us by not hearing us. Worse, they are insulting us by nodding their heads and pretending they are. There should be no space at a decision-making table for elected officials who remain silent when it matters. The knife remains unseen and untouched. It is time we yank the knife out ourselves.