Editorial: Worcester must continue the dialogue against hatred

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Could it happen here? Of course, the answer’s yes. Orlando is like places across America: diverse, free, lively, striving — and always vulnerable to the unpredictable and the horrible.

Worcester — like Orlando, Newtown, San Bernardino, Charleston, indeed any community — is filled with good people, but also those who tilt toward unstable, enraged or misguided, and could become dangerous. And it has its share of guns, not all of which belong to good people.

For two months last spring and summer, though, our city brought out an unusual weapon: the power of listening.

It needs to stay sharp. The city should revive the community dialogues on race, and make them a regular event.

Worcester’s seven community dialogues showed us as a city with a lot to say and hear, and with much at stake. They were a somewhat well-attended and productive first step toward building the kind of Worcester we want.

Designed to focus on race relations, the public sessions explored problems of various forms. In fact, a spate of shootings in Worcester last summer turned much of the discussion away from race, to crime.

The talks, which were facilitated by local, state and federal officials, touched on topics such as employment, housing, the media, community policing, violence, the immigrant experience, poverty and prejudice.

The tenor of these proceedings was of a community eager to meet and talk. They tapped a perhaps surprising passion for improving the city we share.

We can read news and stories of all kinds, scroll social-media minutiae, and watch live coverage of troubles around the globe. But there is nothing like face-to-face discussions among people who call the same place home, know the city’s good sides and faults, and have similar desires. Virtually any topic takes on extra importance, because by talking and planning together we can do something about it.

As a city of many ethnicities, there there is no denying the importance and open-endedness of the conversation on race. Diversity can be a source of strength as well as struggle.

As the Sun said six months ago, we urge a resumption of these dialogues. They were, in our view, a successful beginning. They sparked some small changes, and pointed out several general themes for the city to work on.

They also generated something powerful but less tangible: the beginning of momentum. The community rose to these seven occasions. There was a genuine desire to be there, speak and listen.

The dialogues were, in short, a good idea. They ought to continue, laying the foundation for ongoing understanding and a community that serves everyone better.

We propose quarterly sessions, moderated by local leaders. Eventually, the dialogues needn’t focus on race alone, but could be expanded to foster tolerance and assistance for other groups such as the LGBT community, Muslims, refugees, the disabled or elderly, the addicted or poor.

We also urge any who have participated in the dialogues or may get involved in the future to not be satisfied with a good talk. Action is needed, change is a must.

The mass murder a week ago at a gay gathering spot in Orlando reminded everyone that hatred, intolerance or other deranged inspiration harbored in the dark can lash out in the most horrifying way. One individual armed with a firearm — in this case a legally obtained assault rifle — can, and did, mow down innocent, peaceful people in seconds.

For the victims and their loved ones, these shattering and far-too-frequent mass shootings undo years of progress on acceptance and understanding. For the rest of us, they should strengthen the resolve to find wise and effective solutions. Common-sense gun control legislation that considers public safety more than political convenience, for instance.

The immediate shock and heartbreak rightfully stir renewed calls for stricter gun regulations. Vice President Biden said the White House believes an assault-weapons ban is necessary.

Stronger gun laws and enforcement — along with other measures, ranging from the gun buyback programs held in Worcester [there is one Saturday, June 25, at the Belmont AME Zion Church] and elsewhere, to vigilance and cooperation by counterterrorism offices around the world — are essential.

But there is no telling what — misunderstandings, crimes, tragedies — might be prevented from talking. Regular community discussions about race and other issues that drive people apart, as difficult as these topics can be, build the bridges that most people crave.

The talks Worcester engaged in last year weren’t aimed at preventing major attacks. Here as elsewhere, a massive hate crime such as what happened in Orlando remains a remote possibility.

The dialogues instead aimed at the small-but-constant cuts that impact people daily because of race or other differences. Through our open ears and minds, such talks give us the building blocks to do better.

Ultimately, a fairer, less tense and more tolerant city is a safer one.

The city has seven community dialogues on race under its belt. It’s not enough.

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