Good Guys // Bad Guys

When dealing with human beings it's important to remember that absolutes, terms like "good" and "bad," or "helpful" and "unhelpful," "collaborative" and "uncooperative" are unlikely to have unambiguous application. The truth lies in a gray space. None of us our perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't assume the best of each other -- at least so long as this helps us do right by the city we live in, and by the members of our community.... 

When dealing with human beings it's important to remember that absolutes, terms like "good" and "bad," or "helpful" and "unhelpful," "collaborative" and "uncooperative" are unlikely to have unambiguous application. The truth lies in a gray space. None of us our perfect, but that doesn't mean we can't assume the best of each other -- at least so long as this helps us do right by the city we live in, and by the members of our community.... 

Over the past month or so, I've been in touch with several Common Council members, the Chief of the SBPD, and the mayor and his office. I've also been working closely with some leaders in our community who have asked, over and over, for the city to take action on issues that are entrenched in our city, and that constrain or even wholly oppress the constitutional rights of large portions of residents in our city. These requests have been reasonable, actionable, and concrete. For instance, a few weeks back, some of us sent an email to the mayor's office, common council members, and the clerk's office. We asked that $50,000 in the SBPD budget that was already being set aside for "ongoing education" and training (I was told that this would include things like "implicit bias training") be spent to bring in a group from Chicago who does just this sort of thing, in the context of broader needs assessments. 

We were told that residents weren't allowed to decide where (specifically) money in the city's budget got spent. Confusing, since that's literally our money...

Still, we backed off. Asked if we could set up a residents advisory committee or board who would make a recommendation on how that money should be spent, or who could comment on the particular ways in which that money was spent. 

This is nothing new. In fact, the formation of such an oversight committee was part of a resolution passed in the Common Council years ago.

But the administration still didn't like this idea. They refused, and refused to meet to discuss other options -- other ways of building resident-based accountability mechanisms into the way that SBPD spends taxpayer money.  

Essentially they ghosted us. 

So we proposed a new meeting. A dialogue focused on big picture goals. A place where we could get all the relevant parties in the same room (the mayor's office, CC, SBPD, concerned residents) simply to dialogue about the problems of city is facing. The proposal was made in the spirit of the mayor's own pronouncement: "I knew this was going to be tough, but that's why the community needed it. I'm not naïve — I know one conversation isn't going to solve everything, but at least we've started the conversation."

Perhaps naively, we assumed that this conversation was one the mayor was interested in continuing. 

 

When we sent the proposal, we gave two weeks notice, and opened up a poll that listed times between something like 7am and 8pm for an entire week. We said that we'd be willing to meet wherever it made most sense for us all to get together.

 

But the administration was worried. They demanded "proof" that all parties to the dialogue were "acting in good faith" -- they said that they believed that some (including yours truly) had it out for the administration, and just wanted to embarrass the mayor and his staff. 

The meeting never happened. 

I tell this story, because there are so many reasons why it's problematic.

Some included on the list have been opposed to some of the policies of the administration, some have been vocal and outspoken about issues that they saw as deeply important for our community. But -- so far as I know -- none of those included had made any personal attacks on the mayor or his administration, at least not publicly, not in print. It seems that this administration is unable to distinguish disagreement and criticism from bad-faith attempts to undermine the administration. This is an astonishing (and dangerous) shortcoming of the current administration.

Several times during the email exchanges, the phrase "good guys and bad guys" was used. Good guys and bad guys. "We'll work with good guys," we were told, "but not with the bad guys."  Two thoughts here:

 Firstly: The odd thing is, I never told the mayor that I wouldn't meet with him until he proved to me that he was more interested in South Bend than in his own political career...I mean this honestly. He said in an email that his time is just too scarce to meet with our group. I could have pointed out that an easy fix for this would be to stop taking long weekends to Washington D. C. To fundraise for the establishment. I could have asked him to justify those trips (and that time out of South Bend) in terms of concern for our city.  

But I didn't. 

Because I don't need people to prove themselves to me before I sit down to listen to them. I don't need a guarantee of intentions and good faith before I sit down to listen to what they have to say. 

I guess you could say I just give them the "benefit of the doubt."

Secondly: As someone who was officially labeled a "bad guy," let me see if I can shed a bit of light on why someone might be awarded this label. ..

We live in a representative democracy. That means something to me. It means that I get to vote for people who I believe will represent me and my interests, as well as those of the community, in their policy and legislation making, executive decision-making. It also means that when I feel like those elected to represent me are failing at this job in any way, I -- along with all the members of my community -- am entitled to hold them accountable. 

Now, ideally, elected officials will be sensitive to these considerations. They'll make it easy for residents to provide feedback, they'll responsibly gather data and information from those feedback mechanisms, and they will justify their action, at least partly, in terms of that feedback. 

In short: they answer to us. They work for us.

But the mayor doesn't seem to appreciate this model. For whatever reason (maybe because he spent too much time in the UK? A joke...), he seems to think that his election (and then re-election) was tantamount to a coronation. He seems to think that he is the king, and that we are (and ought to be) his loyal subjects. 

That's not the world we live in. 

And to be perfectly honest, being treated like it is the world we live in is a bit crazy making. 

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During the Elbel campaign, we sought simple meetings with elected officials and their representatives. The Common Council was (for the most part) open to such meetings. They were professional and responsive. The parks board and the parks department were a bit more difficult to get a hold of, but that was -- in large part -- because they are unelected; because they answer to the mayor. 

The mayor was impossible to get a hold of.  

I reached out to him first thing when we started the campaign and received no response. I reached out mid-campaign. No response. After gross procedural irregularities were made public (e.g. our group's presentation had been scrubbed from the minutes of the park's board meeting) -- the mayor finally answered an email and agreed to meet the very next day.

At this meeting, he made it clear that he had no intention of keeping Elbel. No intention of running it as a municipal golf course. No intention of looking into options like turning it into a nature preserve. He just didn't care. 

So we left that meeting and put some more pressure on. Eventually, the Council and the Park's Board forced him to withdraw (unhappily). Nowadays, Elbel sits in a precarious position, run by the city, but under constant threat and with no safe-guards in place. 

I mention this to illustrate something. The mayor and his administration has a pattern of behavior. They ignore residents who disagree (in any way) with their chosen course of action. They try and distract them, divide them, create increasingly obscure and ineffective processes so that those who want to be a part of the process are cut out entirely. 

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It's easy to see why this behavior might frustrate someone. When a resident -- exhausted and exasperated -- realizes that the structures are set up against her, when she realizes that the mayor doesn't care to represent her interests or the interests of her community, and decides not to show up for bullshit committee meetings that changed locations at the last second and that will be moderated through three channels of ineffective and unelected officials, or worse: when she decides to speak out against the unfair way in which local political power is being wielded against her...

She turns into a "bad guy."

Someone with whom the mayor is unwilling to engage. 

Someone with "behavior problems" who needs to "prove to the administration" that she is worthy of engaging with them directly. 

That's oppressive. 

It's enough to make someone want to disengage. To give up on the whole system. Amazingly, though, not everyone has.

 

There are those who fight passionately for justice in our city. 

There are those who resist the powers that be; who refuse to be kept down.

There are those in South Bend who care enough to fight against the pattern of abuses and injustices that the mayor and other city officials have allowed to stand (or who actively ensure that they do). 

 

Many of these folks are several steps beyond "polite." They aren't interested in "proving themselves" to the mayor, if that means proving that they won't challenge or disagree with his approach to the things in the city they have much greater stake in than does he. Like the mayor (and every other human on planet earth) these folks aren't perfect. They make mistakes, they make rash judgments and sometimes lash out in anger or pain on Facebook (I'm looking at me here...) -- but being a flawed human person doesn't mean you lose your right to engage. It doesn't mean that it's okay for the administration to capitalize on those flaws to discredit, undercut, and dismiss people like us.

So I guess these are the kinds of folks the administration wants to label "bad guys." I guess I'm among them.

You know what? I couldn't care less what the mayor wants to call us.

I couldn't, at this point, care any less about what the mayor wants...