Providence City Council Finance Committee meeting besieged by racist trolls

But lost in the discussion is the Providence City Council’s rush to pass a budget that doesn’t take into account voices in the community that seek to reallocate funds from the police to public services such as education and housing… Tuesday evening’s Providence City Council Finance Committee meeting quickly devolved into chaos as trolls invaded and derailed the meeting with

Rhode Island News: Providence City Council Finance Committee meeting besieged by racist trolls

June 10, 2020, 9:59 am

By Steve Ahlquist

But lost in the discussion is the Providence City Council’s rush to pass a budget that doesn’t take into account voices in the community that seek to reallocate funds from the police to public services such as education and housing…

Tuesday evening’s Providence City Council Finance Committee meeting quickly devolved into chaos as trolls invaded and derailed the meeting with racist, homophobic and misogynist language.

The meeting conducted via Zoom, allowing people to testify anonymously if they chose to, since there was no attempt made to verify that the names provided by those wishing to testify were accurate.

Racist, homophobic and misogynistic language has been removed from the video of the hearing below, but is otherwise complete:

2020-06-09 PVD City Council Committee fiasco

The Zoom meeting link was changed hours before the meeting started to accommodate what was thought to be a large amount of people wishing to testify. The larger than normal interest in a budget hearing comes in response to the murder of George Floyd and a push nationwide to defund police departments.

The Formerly Incarcerated Union, for instance, points out that the Providence Police Department currently has a budget of over $88 million, while Providence’s Department of Human Services works on $1 million.

The way the system works is that those watching the meeting live on Zoom can avail themselves of a “hand up” feature. This allows the City Clerk to know that you want to speak, and gets you into the queue.

The first caller identified himself as Timothy Simmons, and immediately launched into profanity, racist and misogynist language.

“I guess that’s it for that,” said Providence City Councilmember John Igliozzi (Ward 7), who chairs the committee.

The second caller, identifying himself as Jack Lanza, also launched into profanity and racist language.

“Thank you Sir,” said Igliozzi. “Next we have Kathy Johnson.”

“I believe that we should defund the police,” said Johnson, making the first real comment of the evening from an actual Providence resident. “We should be putting more money towards Providence Public Schools who are currently facing a state takeover and having a $4M cut in their personnel budget that is cutting staff that we desperately need right now.”

The next speaker identified himself as Peter Munoz of 101 Lester Avenue. “Munoz” was also a troll.

“Brian Paterson” was next, and claimed to be from Tennessee. City Clerk Shawn Selleck questioned whether he should be allowed to speak, but Chair Igliozzi decided to allow it. Paterson almost immediately launched into racist language.

At this point, City Councilor Pedro Espinal (Ward 10) interrupted, asking Chair Igliozzi to re-emphasize what the purpose of the meeting was, “so that people don’t get confused.”

“I think we have,” said Igliozzi. “We told them it’s on the budget, and it’s a public hearing.”

“And it’s a great opportunity to express whatever difference they have with the way the budget is being handled,” said Espinal. “But to take it to that level is really just a waste of time.”

“I recognize that Councilman Espinal. We have to keep rolling along and [hear from] everybody who has their hand up at this time.”

Igliozzi then asked the public to be respectful and use appropriate language.

City Councilmember David Salvatore (Ward 14) then asked that the City Clerk cut off speakers who engage in hateful or unproductive speech.

Espinal then asked if the committee had the right to terminate this portion of the hearing.

The City Solicitor then said that the meeting had to continue, but “of the five calls that you’ve taken, all were inappropriate and filled with hate and racist language, so I think at some point we could conclude the meeting if this behavior continues.”

This was not true. The comments of the third caller, Kathy Johnson, were appropriate and on point.

“I think that we’ve had enough,” said City Councilmember Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3). “In addition to the comments, the racist, antifeminist comments, there’s also comments in the Q and A that are incredibly offensive and inappropriate. So I think with everything that’s been happening throughout our nation and within our communities, this is an awful time to have to deal with this. I really don’t want to hear the n-word again and I don’t want to see another comment from a racist person being posted.

“None of us deserve this. I understand we are public officials. We sign up for this. But I think we have to take a stand when people are behaving in this manner, for us to shut it down.”

“Councilwoman,” said Igliozzi, “I think we’re all in agreement that the language being used so far has been extremely inappropriate and unfair to everybody in this process. I agree with you wholeheartedly.

“It’s sad that instead of having constructive conversations on ideas about the proposed budget, folks are choosing to use this as a forum for hate speech and inappropriate language.

“But we’re going to attempt to do our part,” continued Igliozzi. “If people use inappropriate language the clerk will mute and I’ll move onto the next person.”

Igliozzi also said he wanted to give people waiting who wanted to speak a chance to do so.

The next person identified himself as “Ocana” and he immediately said that the “tax levy will be used for hookers and cocaine.”

Councilmember Salvatore interrupted again, recommending that the Finance Committee seek guidance from the Governor’s office, the Department of Health and the Mayor’s office and the City Council, to move forward with a traditional public hearing.

The reason that meetings can now be held online in Rhode Island is because Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo amended the Open Meetings Act via executive order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is absolutely ridiculous,” said Salvatore. “No one should be subjected to this language… I understand that time is of the essence, and I appreciate that…”

“It is not fair to the public and to this Council to have to sit through this hate after everything that we’ve been through,” continued Igliozzi. “This is completely unacceptable. My recommendation is to shut this down and let’s come up with a better solution.”

“Duly noted,” said Igliozzi.

The next caller was former Ward 2 City Councilmember Samual Zurier, who remained on point and delivered his testimony.

Nico Page then testified. Their comments were about the recent protests and the need for defunding the police. Page read comments from Charlotte Abotsi and Black and Pink Providence.

Page was interrupted by a homophobic comment from somewhere, but continued on.

Page asked the city council to imagine what the city could be like if funds for the police were used for low-income public housing, education and resources for formerly incarcerated individuals. Page also made the point that body cameras and more training only allocates more funding to the police, not less.

The very next caller was a troll. The person pretended to advocate for reallocating funds from the police to social programs, but quickly pivoted to inappropriate language.

Councilmember LaFortune echoed Salvatore’s call to end the meeting.

“Councilwoman, this is not a free-for-all, hang on a second,” said Iglozzi, plowing ahead.

The next caller, “Jackson Larson” used racist language.

“I have heard the calls. I recommend that we shut it down, either reschedule or rethink how we proceed,” said someone Igliozzi identified as the City Solicitor.

“I’m going to keep on with the public hearing,” said Igliozzi. “It’s imperative that I get – we get through this so that we get to the meeting at the rise so I can get to the levy and move it out of committee. So unfortunately, sometimes for the greater good, we have to soldier on through trying circumstances.

“I’m concerned that the levy will be in jeopardy – that the ability of the council to get it up and out and vote on it – and we’ll lose more time on this. It takes many days to post a public hearing – and that puts the tax levy in jeopardy. I ask my council colleagues to bear with this matter, but the public hearing is still moving forward at this time.

“The timetable and financial health of the city will be in jeopardy if I reschedule this public hearing.”

“Chair, with all due respect, we’re giving people a platform to perpetuate hate, and racism and antisemitism” said Councilmember LaFortune. “I understand trying to keep this moving, but how much do we and the members of the public have to hear this? This is out of control.”

“Councilwoman, this is not discourse,” said Igliozzi, putting his foot down. “This is a public hearing. I’m sorry. I recognize your concern but at this time I am not going to jeopardize this city’s tax structure and it’s ability to get the tax bills out.

“Unfortunately, we have folks who do not want to participate in a respectful manner. Whether we do it tonight, tomorrow or a month from now, we will have the same, similar individuals looking to disrupt the process.

“So I ask all my council colleagues, if you are not recognized, you do not have the right to jump in. We’re in the middle of a public hearing.”

The next caller was Lisa Bishop. She was not going to speak, but given what she heard on the call, wanted to speak up for the idea of reallocating funding from the police. “We’ve spent the last 30 minutes listening to terrible language,” said Bishop. “I hope the committee challenges themselves” to look at the budget and make better decision. “This is a real opportunity for Providence to put itself on the map and to do the right thing… that we do not accept police brutality and that we are going to reallocate some of that funding that’s going to the police force, and maybe overfunded the police force, and put it towards things that really help our community.”

After this call, Igliozzi pretended that no other members of the public wanted to speak.

“I see that there are no longer any hands up, there are no more individuals who wish to speak at this time,” said Igliozzi. Then he ended the meeting.

In truth, over a dozen people confirmed via Twitter that they were indeed waiting for their turn to speak. Public outcry was swift.

City Council President Sabina Matos (Ward 15) issued the following statement:

“In an effort to ensure transparency and accessible government, a few individuals took advantage of the anonymity of remote participation and used it as an opportunity to spew hatred.

“I will be discussing a rescheduling of the public hearing with Chairman Igliozzi to ensure that: 1) we thoroughly screen for participants who actually want to speak about the City’s budget and 2) allow everyone who wants to participate the opportunity to do so.

“Please know that you have our deepest apologies for the racist, anti-semetic, homophobic, and misogynistic language that was used by these callers.

“Your voice matters and it will be heard.”