“I’m not going to sit here and be held hostage by the whims of those who want a change that in my opinion becomes discriminatory in nature from the very outset,” said Councilmember Brien, objecting to Kithes’ amendment. “We’re saying it’s got to be two of this race and two of this ethnicity – This is supposed to be a board that is meant to try to cross the racial divide, [yet] we automatically set it up along racial lines. And that’s an issue for me.”
On Monday, Woonsocket City Councilmember James Cournoyer introduced a resolution “establishing a City Council advisory board to review ordinances, policies, procedures and practices to identify, if any, those that employ or support racism and /or bias.”
The resolution passed unanimously on a 7-0 vote, but getting to that vote was a bit of a roller coaster.
15 minutes before the start of the Woonsocket City Council meeting the Watch Coalition (Woonsocket Alliance to Champion Hope) an organization of “concerned community members who got together to address the violence, racism, and discrimination in the city of Woonsocket,” sent an email expressing concerns about the resolution.
Here is the Watch Coalition Facebook post outlining their concerns:
A resolution has been proposed by members of the Woonsocket City Council to establish a “Racist Policies Review Advisory Board.” This board would be responsible for reviewing every ordinance, policy, procedure, and practice of the city of Woonsocket to determine if racism or any other form of oppression is present. While this Advisory Board may be an opportunity for us to be frank about oppression in Woonsocket, the lack of detail in the resolution as written leaves much room for the board to be dangerously ineffective.
According to the resolution, the board would be approved by the City Council. Every member of Woonsocket’s City Council is White; all but 1 is a man; only 1 is a member of the LGBT+ community. Given that the City Council is largely composed of people who do not experience most of the forms of oppression that the Advisory Board is tasked with finding, it is doubtful that they are in the best position to approve of the board’s composition. Without clearer stipulations regarding the composition and assembly of the Advisory Board, this resolution puts far too much power in the hands of people who are not equipped to use it effectively. It is vitally important that the Advisory Board reflects the demographic backgrounds of the people who experience the forms of oppression that the board is expected to investigate, and who possess the expertise to understand and recognize oppression.
While we do not believe that it is impossible for people outside of an identity group to recognize injustices faced by that group, we cannot ignore the fact that members of City Council have openly denied, minimized, and ridiculed the existence of oppression. How can the people of Woonsocket trust that this board will be assembled in good faith and will consist of people who will make a genuine effort to explore possible injustices in Woonsocket? Without amendments to this resolution, and legitimate efforts to assemble a diverse board of people with experience and expertise in social marginalization, we cannot in good faith support Resolution 20 R 60 as it is currently written. For this reason, the WATCH Coalition asks that the Woonsocket City Council tables the vote on Resolution 20 R 60 until the next scheduled meeting. We would like to use this time to work together with the members of City Council to revise this resolution to the satisfaction of the community.
As a result of this letter, Woonsocket City Councilmember Alex Kithes moved to table the resolution. The majority of the City Council squelched that idea on a vote of 5-2.
Asked to respond to the Watch Coalition email, Councilmember Cournoyer said that “I’m not entirely clear what their concerns are.”
“I do take issue with their comment that ‘we cannot ignore the fact that members of City Council have openly denied, minimized, and ridiculed the existence of oppression.’ I’m not sure what that’s all about,” added Cournoyer.
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Cournoyer accused the Watch Coalition of making impossible demands, and called it cynical to address the concerns expressed in an email 15 minutes before the start of the meeting.
Councilmember David Soucy proposed an amendment removing the second clause of the resolution. It reads:
“WHEREAS, there have been suggestions by certain parties within the City that the City employs “racist policies” that need to be ended without having identified the alleged problematic policies;”
“I think we should get rid of it and keep it nice and positive,” said Soucy.
“I guess I don’t know what the issue is,” said Cournoyer. “It’s a statement of fact.” Cournoyer said he has sent “numerous emails” to “these people” asking for a list of racist policies “so we can start to fix this stuff and it’s been difficult to get the list, any list.”
Still, despite his qualms, Cournoyer supported Soucy’s amendment and it passed 7-0.
Council Vice President Jon Brien said that the Council should not accept last minute motions to table from local groups, because it sets a bad precedent.
Undeterred, Councilmember Kithes announced that he had just been sent a series of proposed amendments to the resolution, and was going to make them. It is important to not that had the resolution been tabled, constructive meetings between members of the City Council and the Watch Coalition could have made for better legislation, but because the City Council decided to ignore public input and forge ahead, Kithes was forced to interpret the Watch Coalition’s ideas on the fly, to the impatience of most of his fellow councilmembers.
Kithes proposed an amendment that would mandate that at least two members be Black, two members be Latinx, two members be Asian and two members be indigenous, as well as at least two LGBTQ+ members and at least two women.
Councilmember John Ward objected to having the criteria of the board be so predetermined, and indicated that contrary to the Watch Coalition email, the all white, mostly male City Council had the “sensibility” and “intellect” to recognize the need to appoint members to the committee reflective of the population of Woonsocket.
“I’m not going to sit here and be held hostage by the whims of those who want a change that in my opinion becomes discriminatory in nature from the very outset,” said Councilmember Brien, objecting to Kithes’ amendment. “We’re saying it’s got top be two of this race and two of this ethnicity – This is supposed to be a board that is meant to try to cross the racial divide, [yet] we automatically set it up along racial lines. And that’s an issue for me.
“I would say that this amendment is just folly, and I actually find it to be insulting,” continued Brien. Brien went on to complain that no matter how good and well intentioned this board is, there will always be people to tear it down. “No matter what happen, it will never be good enough, unless those who say the loudest that it’s not good enough. And I’m not going to be held hostage in this way.”
Woonsocket City Councilmember Denise Sierra thanked Brien for taking a lot of her words out of her mouth. Sierra said that things like race, gender or sexual preference would never be considered for appointees to the zoning board, so why to this board?
Kithes countered that Zoning Board appointees should understand the issues of zoning, and that appointees to the Racist Policies Review Advisory Board should understand racism.
Council President Daniel Gendron then accused Kithes, an elected Representative, that he wasn’t doing his job properly by representing the views of the Watch Coalition. “You didn’t make the amendment because you thought it was a good idea,” said Gendron, “You made the amendment because it was texted to you.”
Councilmember Cournoyer agreed with Brien as well, saying, “I am not going to start setting … quotas or preconditions and so forth. Let’s see who steps up and wants to participate. I don’t want to handcuff us. We might get some fabulous people that don’t meet Councilman Kithes’ specific identities, and then what do we do?”
Kithes was undeterred.
“I want to call out the hypocrisy of praising budgetary amendments that were submitted five minutes after the meeting had started, and criticizing amendments from the public – from the people this [council] would claim to be helping – criticizing them for [sending their concerns] a few minutes before the meeting when they only had a few days after the agenda was publicized to try to make a very bad resolution, through a very complicated set of adjustments, better,” said Kithes.
“So that’s hugely hypocritical of all councilmembers who did say that, continued Kithes. “I apologize if my bringing it up triggered anybody, I’m very sorry about that – I’m going to apologize for the fact that I brought it up triggered a bunch of my fellow councilpeople to the point where they’re not going to support an obviously good amendment…”
Council President Gendron went berserk. It has to be seen to be believed.
The resolution passed 7-0.
At the same meeting , the Woonsocket City Council decided not to approve an application from a local youth group seeking to hold a Black Lives Matter event at River Island Park.
It was decided by the City Council, under the advice of Woonsocket’s legal counsel John DeSimone, that approving the application would violate Governor Gina Raimondo‘s executive order banning groups of 25 or more. In the application, Jaliyah Joseph writes, “To ensure that people are still following social distancing rules, we are encouraging everyone to bring a blanket or a lawn chair to stay away from others, as well as some sort of face covering.”