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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) People of Central Falls stand up — and win

January 15, 2012

Last week you may recall there was a somewhat dyspeptic essay in this space about how people seemed to be getting too comfortable with the autocratic authority given to the Central Falls receiver. I suggested that we were giving up on democracy and learning to love Big Brother.
Well, on the very day that piece ran, the good people of Central Falls restored my faith in the public and its natural instincts to resist the iron grip of dictatorship.
Citizens thronged to Central Falls City Hall — and I do mean thronged; the Council Chamber was standing-room-only and there were more than 200 people on the street outside calling for the meeting to be shut down until everyone could get in — to vent their anger, frustration and resentment about a proposed winterlong parking ban that was to go into effect at midnight.
There were many gripes about the parking ban — people were worried what would happen to their cars in a remote lot, and afraid about walking blocks to and from their parked cars on winter nights — but there was also eloquently expressed anger about the way the ban was imposed on the receiver’s say-so alone.
Many people at the Monday meeting simply could not comprehend why the elected City Council members they were talking to were completely impotent to stop the ban, or even force the receiver to be at the meeting to explain himself.
I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the terrific movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” where King Arthur and a companion trot (without horses, of course) up to a peasant couple digging into the ground with their hands. Arthur informs them: “I am your king.” The woman replies, “Well I didn't vote for you.”
“You don't vote for kings,” Arthur responds imperiously. “Well how'd you become king then?” the woman asks. Arthur says “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king.”
The man interrupts him to say, “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony … You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you … If I went 'round saying I was Emperor, just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away.”
OK, enough of that, but if you haven’t seen the movie, you should put it in your Netflix queue.
The point is, the very American idea of “No taxation without representation” is very much alive, in Central Falls at least, and that is a healthy thing. If one man (or woman) tries to assert total autocratic authority, even over a tiny and broke square-mile city, there will be pushback. That is heartening.
It should also be said that Receiver Robert Flanders made the right call in rescinding the parking ban the very next day. According to spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger, there was consultation with Gov. Lincoln Chafee, but Flanders made the final decision.
Let’s face it: Flanders didn’t have to give in. Nobody voted for him and nobody could vote him out. He could have stuck by his guns and there wouldn’t have been anything anybody could do about it. But he heard the voice of the people and he responded accordingly. Good for him.
I almost wish he hadn’t, because that would have given Sen. Betty Crowley more ammunition in her effort to amend the receivership law so that the receiver has power over financial issues only, and quality of life issues (like parking bans) are left in the hands of the elected council and mayor where they belong. The General Assembly should pass Crowley’s bill tomorrow (although I don’t think it’s been introduced yet).
That ameliorates somewhat (but not fully) the contemptible arrogance of whoever in the receiver’s office was responsible for giving the order to keep the City Hall doors locked for more than 45 minutes Monday evening while scores of citizens who had shown up to participate in their government huddled outside shivering in the sub-freezing (the temperature was about 30 degrees) cold. There were elderly people out there, infirm people walking with canes, and there was no good reason to keep them outside in that weather. The only reason I can think of for that action is that it was designed to discourage people from petitioning their government for a redress of grievances and frustrate them into going home.
Flanders was not there that night so he can not be personally blamed. Flanders has shown himself to be a good and decent man and I like to think the doors would not have stayed locked if he had been there. But whoever was responsible (and I almost never say this) should be fired immediately and publicly.
A government of the people, by the people and for the people should NEVER act like that.

Speaking of which, the trial of Lincoln police officer Edward Krawetz for kicking a seated, handcuffed woman in the head at Twin River finished up last week and the judge is expected to issue a decision a week from today.
Why on earth it could possibly take him that long is a mystery. Does he need to look up how to spell g-u-i-l-t-y?
Krawetz’ contention that he was “defending myself” doesn’t pass the laugh test. If you don’t believe me, try a little experiment: have someone tie your hands behind your back and sit down really, really low, like on a curbstone. Now, by pivoting on your backside, try to kick a person standing next to you with any effectiveness. Not easy is it? Almost impossible, in fact. Now try doing it when you are really drunk, like the woman Krawetz kicked was. Doesn’t make it any easier, huh?
If Krawetz felt so endangered by her weak kick at him that he felt the need to defend himself, how was she supposed to defend herself from his much harder kick sitting on a curbstone with her hands cuffed behind her back? If he wanted to keep himself from being kicked, taking a half-step backwards would have done the trick; he would have been out of range.
Too many cops work too hard helping too many people in bad situations for their profession to be blemished by one violent bully.
The most striking thing about the video — which anyone who watches TV news has seen 6,000 times in the past couple of weeks — is just how nonchalant Krawetz is. He is just standing there going about his business when the handcuffed woman swings her leg around at him. He then applies his foot to her temple, sending her slumping to the pavement, and very calmly goes back to what he was doing. The other cop on the scene had to rush over and attend to the woman. You might almost get the impression that this might not have been the first time Krawetz kicked someone in the head, although, to be fair, there is no evidence of that.
John Harwood (yes, the former House speaker) is a smart lawyer, smart enough that he was never going to let a jury of Krawetz’ peers watch that video and then pass judgment on his client. Emotion was not going to be with the defense on this one, so Harwood opted for a trial before a judge where a technical legal argument just might win the day.
Let’s hope not.

We’re starting to run out of space here, but I couldn’t let this week go by without giving a few huzzahs to Jessica Ahlquist, the brave and principled young girl from Cranston West High School who stood up for herself and her beliefs by going to court to get a prayer banner removed from the walls of her school, where more than five decades of settled constitutional law determined that it doesn’t belong.
It could not have been easy for a teenager to stand in the face of all the peer-group and community pressure and stick up for herself, but Ahlquist did it over a very long period of time and she did it with grace and strength. She should be very proud of herself, and the students and teachers at her school and the rest of the Cranston community should be proud of her as well.
Ahlquist didn’t vandalize the banner; she didn’t rip it off the wall herself. She did what people are supposed to do in this country when they feel wronged — she took her case to court to be decided by a judge.
Now she is under vile and vicious attack by her schoolmates who are apparently not being properly taught about the American system of justice and by some ignorant adults in her community who should know better and ought to be ashamed of themselves.
I know it is hard for her to think this way now, but Ahlquist should consider the ignorant and bullying attacks being leveled against her as vindication of her long struggle. The visceral, violent and ugly emotional response touched off by her court suit and victory is PRECISELY why church and state should never be mixed in the first place.
Religion is a good and wonderful thing. It has a very valuable place in people’s churches, in their homes and in their hearts. But when you try to force it into the public square, the public schools or city halls and state houses, where people have different and sometimes conflicting beliefs that they are all equally entitled to, or, as in Ahlquist’s case, no belief at all, then it only causes trouble. Every time.

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