Council establishes board targeting ‘racist policies,’ but some question intent

Council establishes board targeting ‘racist policies,’ but some question intent

Isaiah Figueroa, left, and Dewayne Hill, both from Woonsocket, lead the march from Market Square at last week’s youth-led Black Lives Matter protest. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)

WOONSOCKET – Conversations around race and the government response to racism have grown increasingly tense in recent weeks, and Woonsocket is no exception.

On Monday, the City Council voted to establish a “Racist Policies Review Advisory Board” tasked with identifying discriminatory practices in city government. The board would be made up of individuals appointed by the council, including at least two recommended by Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt.

Councilor James Cournoyer, who drafted the legislation, said the measure was an effort to take action in response to recent calls for change. The text of the resolution refers to the “demonstrations and protests (that) have recently swept across the country, state and the city of Woonsocket, driven, in part, by concerns of institutional racism.”

On Monday, however, members of the community who have spoken out against racism at recent protests raised concerns that the measure falls short of its stated goal. Shortly before the start of the meeting, the Woonsocket Alliance to Champion Hope (WATCH) Coalition, a group that has helped organize two protests in the city in recent weeks, addressed a statement to city councilors and on their Facebook page that “the lack of detail in the resolution as written leaves much room for the board to be dangerously ineffective.”

“Every member of Woonsocket’s City Council is white; all but one is a man; only one is a member of the LGBT+ community,” the statement said. “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.”

The group also said members of the City Council “have openly denied, minimized and ridiculed the existence of oppression.” The group asked councilors to table the resolution and work with them to revise it “to the satisfaction of the community.”

The comments drew a quick response from Cournoyer and other members of the council who criticized the group for sending their feedback at the last minute. Cournoyer said he took issue with the group’s comments about ridiculing oppression and defended the measure as a “good faith effort” to end racist policies.

“They’ve created an impossible definition that no matter what we do, it’s not going to be right,” he said.

As the meeting went on, Councilor Alex Kithes, who has previously been at odds with other councilors in matters dealing with race, proposed an amendment he said came directly from members of the coalition. The change, governing the makeup of the board, would set the membership at 10 and require that the board include at least two black members, two Asian members, two Hispanic members and two indigenous/Native American members, as well as at least two women and two members of the LGBTQ community.

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The proposal sparked a heated exchange between Kithes and the measure’s sponsors. Councilor John Ward said the change would effectively take the decision out of the hands of the council, making the board similar to any other citizen-organized committee.

“So basically, the old white guys can’t be trusted,” he said.

Councilor Jon Brien said the change would set the board up along racial lines.

“I am not going to sit here and be held hostage by the whims of those that want a change that in my opinion, becomes discriminatory by the very outset,” he said.

Councilor Denise Sierra agreed with Brien and said she was insulted by the attempt to change the measure at the last minute.

“I trust my white male peers to be able to put a group of 10 or 11 people on this board,” she said. “I work with them day in and day out, I am the minority on the council, and I trust their ability to see through race, to see through gender, to see through sexual preference or orientation.”

The exchange came to a head when Kithes attempted to interrupt comments by Council President Daniel Gendron, who issued a sharp rebuke in response.

“Councilman Kithes, please don’t lecture me on what is a good amendment,” said Gendron “It is a terrible amendment, because you yourself could not verbalize it in a way that we could understand it.”

Councilor David Soucy voted against the change, but he, like Kithes, raised concerns over the language in Cournoyer’s original draft. At his urging, councilors agreed to remove a paragraph in the original measure that referred to “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.”

“You may not feel it, but there is a tone that I think is accusing others of doing something,” he said.

Councilors ultimately voted 7-0 to approve the resolution, with Kithes telling The Breeze the following day he thought it was better to have “a bad attempt at this than no attempt at all.”

The argument came on the heels of back-to-back protests in the city in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Last Friday, organizers of a youth-led protest called out city officials, including several members of the City Council and Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, for not participating in the protest and demanded the reallocation of police funds to human services programs.

In a statement released last Monday night, members of the WATCH Coalition apologized for not sending their feedback sooner and said their goal was greater transparency and consistency in how the board is to be assaembled.


Just the name of this board reminds me of the old canard "when was the last time you beat your wife?" And, it is not enough to review the as of yet undetermined "racist policies" but we need the reviewers to possess a certain skin tone or ethnic makeup. That's not racist, right? Judging folks by what they look like is acceptable?

If folks want their council to be comprised of various characteristics, then simply vote them to these positions. I think councilor Sierra said it best when she stated she trusts her fellow councilors. And, the general public must also trust them as they have been duly voted to their positions.

Lastly, I'd like the petitioners to point toward specific policies, ordinances, or charter provisions that are "racist." I surmise they will be unable to because, if they were "racist" then surely they would have been challenged heretofore by citizens, the ACLU, the City Council or members of the public that were victims of said racism. I suspect this initiative is nothing more than we're seeing nationwide - an attempt to thwart lawful elections.

The US system is set up to be racist in favor of White people. There are mountains of evidence from wealth disparities, to educational outcomes to health outcomes. It is impossible to truly care about the issue and not be aware of any racist policies in our country. And to keep talking about it in that way is simply trolling and aiming to further harm those affected.

As for the board itself, most people would agree that people with expertise on an issue should be the ones appointed. We want people who understand building codes to be building inspectors. Shouldn't we want people with experience with being affected by racism and recognizing racism on the racism review board? How can White people understand racism in the policies if they don't think that racist policies exist?

shouldn’t have to address Mr. Laverty’s various points as they are self-evidently false, but here goes:

---The US “system” is guided by our state laws and Constitution. There is no race exception to any law or right guaranteed by said Constitution.

---If there are “mountains of evidence” let’s see/hear them. And, “outcomes” are not evidence unless you want to cite economic hardship. I’m with you there, but economic hardship affects all on the lower rung of the socioeconomic ladder, without prejudice.

---Disagreeing with you is not “further harming” anyone. If words harm you, then you need to rethink the word harm.

---Most people would not and do not agree that a particular board should be comprised by way of a quota system. To suggest otherwise is racist. The definition of racism is: the belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.

---Lastly, I’d like anyone to point toward specific policies, ordinances, or charter provisions that are "racist." I surmise they will be unable to because, if they were "racist" then surely they would have been challenged heretofore by citizens, the ACLU, the City Council or members of the public that were victims of said racism.

Laws do not keep prejudice and racism away. C'mon now, that sounds like the White people who say "Well I've never seen racism, so it doesn't exist around me!" And of course macro outcomes are evidence. That's how systemic evidence works. If you refuse to look, not much else I can do.

Words cannot cause harm? Be careful, you're really letting that privilege show.

You used the word quota, I'd use the word expertise. Get people with the right expertise.

Lastly, racism is prejudice with institutional power. We can have prejudice without racism, we cannot have racism without prejudice. The difference is that there is power included in racism.

So by your own logic Mr. Laverty, you are not qualified to understand or speak to this issue, but yet here you are. So if we are reviewing government policies, shouldnt we want people that are experienced with government policies, by your logic? If youre saying that white people cannot understand the perspective of a black person and thus are unqualified to address these issues in society, than is not the inverse true as well? We can find racism and division in everything if you want to look hard enough through someones own point of view. If we want society to stop treating minorities as different, we need to stop demanding that minorities be treated differently. A very wise man once said that a man should be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.. seems to me that would be a better criteria to select people for this board.

Always funny when people choose to quote Martin Luther King when they think it suits them. It's really quite revealing about the content of their character.

I'm still waiting for the list of "racist" policies. Well, what are they? Yes, I'm still "talking" about it and I'm not sure any harm has come to any person due to the dialogue. And, I'm still waiting to hear how a quota system based on skin color will guarantee the selected folks are "experts." What percentage of skin color will be sufficient? Are mixed race folks eligible to be "experts" on this panel? Is there to be a litmus test administered by the government? Will genealogical charts supported by documentary evidence be necessary to prove the correct lineage? I mention these facts to expose quotas as idiotic; how can one prove that he/she has the "required" racial background to be a member of that panel? Following Mr. Laverty's argument, Elizabeth Warren would be placed on the panel as she's 1 1024th native American.