Repetitive calls for unity, compassion, and empathy for others are uttered daily by our most prominent leaders in the United States. We are experiencing levels of hyper-polarization, incivility, and distrust in one and another, and our government, at rates like never before.
However, this partisanship is not occurring solely with federal politics and politicians. Although most city and municipal government officials are nonpartisan, there is still a striking amount of division at the local level.
East Providence, Rhode Island is the home of the “Townies”. Citizens of East Providence flaunt their Townie pride nearly everywhere, everywhere but the local facebook discourse group. The group has a little over one thousand members. Of these one thousand members, there are just about twenty extremely active ones.
Two weeks ago, I attended the city council meeting that discussed the proposed budget for this fiscal year. The council opened the floor up for discussion to constituents for their questions and concerns. The room was relatively empty besides a well-known member of the Facebook group that was in attendance. I immediately recognized them as they began to argue with three out of the five members of the council, one of which is the council president. The disagreement became heated, with the council members and this particular resident raising their voices disagreeing on whether or not the dispatchers for the police department should be moved to a new location. The mayor, although not on the council and perhaps not in his best interest, decided to interject. A verbal fight then broke out between the resident and the mayor.
This behavior isn’t new. There is a clear history between the most vocal members of this group and the mayor/council. These citizens have extreme disdain for the Mayor of East Providence. They call him offensive names such as “The Malasada” (the mayor is of Portuguese descent and a malasada is a type of Portuguese bread) and have even changed their profile pictures to a graphic stating “one and done” referring to his term as Mayor.
The issue stems from a movement of mobilized citizens whose goal is to keep a local golf course a greenspace. The course recently went out of business and a local developer has made plans to purchase this space to turn it into an office park and apartment buildings. The mayor and a majority of the council had no opposition to this plan.
Members of the Facebook group were outraged. They fear that they will lose green space, that new unwanted citizens will move to the city, and traffic and construction will be disruptive to their daily lives. Back in July, a city council meeting took place that allowed residents to voice their concerns. Unshockingly, the meeting was absolute mayhem. Residents and council members screamed at one another and the conversation that took place in the group after the meeting was alarming. To these concerned residents, it seems their elected officials don’t care enough about the impact on their livelihood. Their minds have been made up since day one and residents are disappointed.
Any citywide affair that has occurred since then has led to heated debates in the Facebook group. Members absolutely refuse to see the council and mayor’s point of view and vice versa. However, not all of the discourteousness is from the members of the group. Although he does not directly interact on the Facebook page itself, the mayor himself has posted statements disparaging the members on his official city Facebook page. The petty behavior on both sides is absolutely out of control.
That is why it was almost expected that there was so much rage on a Tuesday night in the East Providence City Hall over moving emergency dispatchers into a new building. The group members were concerned moving dispatchers would be more costly (it did indicate so on the budget) and that it was a useless decision. The council and mayor ensured that it would not affect the taxpayers (coming from the COVID-19 grants) and that the move was simply for logistical purposes. Neither side would listen to one another and naturally, took to their Facebook accounts to complain. Sound familiar?
I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone when we log on to social media and see posts from people we follow about “Sleepy Joe Biden” or how “All Trump supporters are bigots”. This sort of behavior with our national officials has almost become expected. What we are not so used to is the bashing and hatred at a level so close to home. These local officials are our friends, family, and neighbors.
The council and mayor have had their fair share of ups and downs thus far in their terms. In this situation, it is a case of the silent majority, not minority, as most of the community does not engage in this online misbehavior. However, it is fundamental that unhappy citizens have the opportunity to convey their concerns and discomfort in their local government and feel like they are being heard.
Right now it seems almost impossible to have civil discourse with each other when it comes to politics. However, it hurts even more when we make nonpartisan issues, such as moving emergency dispatchers, so deeply personal. Will we ever get the point of civil conversation at a local level again? It may be that hyperpolarization at a federal level has trickled down and drowned out our chances of understanding our neighbors.