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The Outrage Machine and Political Payback

For most of the day, during a thirteen-hour stint standing outside the polling place on Saturday, budget #2 supporter and Town Council member Joseph Sousa left an obviously fake rifle with a military-style helmet hanging on the top of it leaning against a replica military motorcycle, causing nobody any alarm (including the town’s police chief).  A number of people did stop and admire the display, some taking pictures of it, and a few even asking for and receiving permission to sit on the bike.

Late in the day, somebody called the police, who came and asked Sousa to put the prop — a dummy gun for drills — away.  He complied, and that was that.

Now an officer of the local big-government progressive PAC Tiverton 1st is trying to make an issue of it, and (once again) reporter Tom Killin Dalglish has obliged in making Tiverton 1st outrage a front-page story, titled “Sousa slammed for bringing gun replica to high school” (not online).  The episode is reminiscent of the campaign in 2012, during which I was running for school committee and, with the help of the Sakonnet Times, Tiverton 1st treasurer Deborah Janick made a show of taking offense at something I’d written on Twitter.

This time, it’s Tiverton 1st co-coordinator (and high school drama teacher) Gloria Crist, who says she intends to call for Sousa’s immediate resignation from the Town Council.  Overheating the rhetoric, Crist says the display “could be seen as voter intimidation,” and notes that a student could be suspended for a year for doing something similar.

Even putting aside the fact that Sousa is not a student, but a grown man (who has served in the military), Crist’s assertion is questionable.  The state law that she cites refers to federal law for definitions, and that federal code refers to “replicas” only in the context of antique guns.  Whether an entirely green piece of plastic in the shape of a rifle counts would be for the superintendent and, if appealed, a court to decide — although school policy is broader than the law.

It’s past time for a return of civility, neighborliness, and adult perspective to Tiverton politics.

Across from Sousa’s display, Tiverton 1st-endorsed Town Council President Denise deMedeiros sat with others, including School Committee Chairwoman Sally Black, smoking cigarettes.  Throughout the day, student athletes passed by on their way to practice, and if any of them were caught smoking, they’d be running afoul of school policy, too, up to suspension from sports and mandatory tobacco rehab.  Indeed, according to both state law and town ordinance (Section 50-5), if deMedeiros was within 25 feet of the corner of the building, her smoking was illegal.  Town employees helping out at the polls had been told that they had to go completely off school property for smoke breaks.

But school was not in session, and the great majority of people passing by, that day, were doing so to participate in the civic process.  Multiple people on both sides of the vote had no problem approaching me to tell me what they thought of the alternate budget (some more civilly than others).  No doubt more would have felt comfortable discussing the relevant issues if we were a community in which neighbors raised concerns with each other, rather using the police as go-betweens and trying to invent scandals in the local paper.

Civic participation shouldn’t be a fearful tiptoe through the process, lest we trigger any rhetorical outrage landmines.  It should feel like an interaction with your neighbors, and maybe, just maybe, we ought to be able to have a little fun with it.

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Justin Katz

Justin Katz is a writer and researcher focusing on Rhode Island policy and politics. For more about Justin, see our About page. justin@justinkatz.com (401) 835-7156.

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