Editorial: Worcester civility in a time of ‘chaos and turmoil’

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At the May 31 City Council meeting councilors adopted an order submitted by Mayor Joseph M. Petty requesting that City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. develop a policy for having a police presence “when appropriate” at public meetings.

He did so in response to an incident at the May 25 meeting of the Public Health and Human Services Committee, details of which Telegram & Gazette columnist Dianne Williamson recounts here and can be seen here (beginning at the 1:28 mark).

The next day Augustus went on the record to address the proliferation of panhandlers on city streets in light of last year’s ruling that the city’s ordinance against panhandling violated the right of free speech.

“People should not give money to panhandlers,” Augustus said in a Telegram & Gazette article on June 1. “There are a number of very worthy charities that are available to folks, and they can make sure that their money is going to what good-hearted people hope for, which is providing housing, providing healthcare and providing food for people who truly need it.”

It is convenient to view these events independently, to assume they are not related.

We do not believe this is true.

We believe these events offer a window into the changing nature of civil society, the rules of etiquette that govern how people interact. Those have been evolving, or rather devolving, for generations. The list of things that are “simply not done” in polite society gets shorter and shorter.

We feign surprise at each transgression of normative behavior, but we shouldn’t. Insolence is defined generationally: that which shocked the Greatest Generation as it raised the Baby Boomers would now be considered tame.

The discussion of Petty’s item last week quickly moved from safety to decorum. Petty himself said, “I’m tired of the disrespect we get on a regular basis. It’s not going to happen anymore. … It sets a negative tone.”

Councilors Sarai Rivera, Michael T. Gaffney, Morris A. Bergman, Khrystian E. King and Konstantina B. Lukes also spoke, echoing Petty’s calls for civility, noting disagreements are quick to devolve into personal attacks and threats. This is as true as it is unfortunate.

Panhandling is another case in point.

Giving to panhandlers carries with it, at least partially, a measure of trust that the person who says they are in need truly must be if they would go to the extreme of standing on a street corner to ask strangers for money.

When Augustus said, “Giving folks handouts at intersections is not helping them, and it’s not helping the city,” it was an allusion (or admission) that many folks believe at least some of the panhandlers are not who they portray.

What these events have in common is they demonstrate a disconnect between how we expect, and desire, people to act and how they really do.

Be it at a contentious City Council meeting or on a Park Avenue street corner, there is sure to be a problem whenever expectation and reality collide.

The call for police at all public meetings should be heeded. We should be grateful the need was recognized before a tragedy occurred while we lament the fact that sooner or later the need will most likely and unfortunately arise.

At the same time, attempts to enforce a code of civility are Sisyphean at best, damaging at worst, if such steps include excluding public comment at public hearings.

The city manager’s call to stop giving money to panhandlers is also worthwhile advice, although we acknowledge that while we imagine some will stop holding out their hands others will find alternative means, perhaps unlawful, to find money.

In the end, we believe Lukes said it best when she said at last week’s City Council meeting, “It’s because we’re living in a time of chaos and turmoil that this is going to be expected. It’s going to flow to City Council meetings.

“That need [for security] has been escalated, and I don’t think it was just a subcommittee meeting that has forced the issue. It’s been ongoing and it was going to escalate until something forced us to admit that the world is changing and we have to change with it.”

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