Richie, Elizabeth, and their whole “Net of Compassion” crew do some amazing work, most visibly offering services in a series of tents along Worcester’s Main Street each Saturday. They also collaborate on “Hotel Grace,” turning the basement of St. John’s Church into a 50-bed homeless shelter any night the temperature in Worcester is expected to drop below freezing. And they are looking to do more. If you are curious about helping the down-and-out in our city, getting involved with Net of Compassion is a great way to start.
Long-time Mustard Seed soup kitchen director Donna Domiziano is back at her post-Mustard Seed apartment off Vernon Street in Worcester. She’s in a wheelchair, mostly healed up after a fall, now doing lots of physical therapy in hopes of being able to get into and out of the chair by herself. At that point, she’ll have an easier time riding in cars, and will get back to visiting soup kitchens and homeless shelters, helping out and cheering up the many down-and-out Worcesterites she befriended during her 30 years living and working at the Seed.
She’s drawing parallels between her current situation and other unexpected setbacks in her life, times when she refused to give up, instead praying for God’s grace and knowing that, sooner or later, she’d see a new way forward. Totally inspiring, this lady, you should pay her a visit.
Thus read the front page of the Worcester Telegram, October 19, 1924.
There was a KKK in Worcester, and a weird one. It’s worth explaining how the Worcester Klan ended up being a half-Swedish organization that directed its hatred towards Irish and Italians, not blacks.
The first version of the KKK or “First Klan,” was a racist terrorist group formed in the wake of the Civil War. It died out in the 1880s. Then, in 1915, the smash pro-Klan film “Birth of a Nation” inspired a rebirth of the movement, the “Second Klan.” It really took off in 1920 when it adopted aspects of multilevel marketing, with some Klan recruiters getting rich and Klansmen buying lots of crap from the national organization like helmets and even robes—DIY Klan gear was frowned upon.
The KKK had a whole menu of hatred to choose from, whether anti-Mormon, anti-semitic, anti-black, anti-immigrant, or anti-Catholic. Worcester Klansmen were especially interested in these last two. A boom in immigration from Catholic areas like Ireland and Italy was putting pressure on the labor market. (Immigrants were a huge part of Worcester in the 20s, when only 70% of the population was native-born.) Klan membership was a way to push back. (The Worcester Klan was a little more upscale than you might think, consisting of many fewer “unskilled and menial workers” and many more “semi-skilled and skilled” workers than Worcester overall. And it was vastly more white collar than Worcester’s immigrant population.) While most Klan groups were hostile to immigrants in general, the Worcester Klan had great success recruiting among first- and second-generation Swedish immigrants. The Swedes were among the more established immigrant groups in the city, and the Klan saw Nordic peoples as being a lot better than those dirty mongrels from Southern or Eastern Europe, and on that basis an alliance was built. Worcester was comparatively very Swedish, percentage-wise the second-most Swedish city in the US (behind Minneapolis). In Kevin Hickey’s 1981 paper “The Immigrant Klan,” he estimates there were 4000 Klan members in greater Worcester in 1924, and that half were Swedish (whereas 10% of Worcesterites were Swedes). George N. Jeppson, a high-ranking executive (he would eventually be president) at the Norton Company, one of the city’s largest employers, was a big Swedish booster and had been recruiting Swedish employees for decades. So it came to be that 30% of Worcester-area Klansmen were Norton-employed Swedes, and 60% of Worcester-area Klansmen worked at Norton. The Worcester Klan even went rogue and changed one of the questions on the official KKK membership form from “Were your parents born in the United States of America?” to “Are you a Nordic American?” (Questions like “Are you a Gentile or Jew?”, “Are you of the white race or a colored race?”, and “Do you believe in White Supremacy?” remained unchanged.)
The only parts he left stand were the City redefining “traffic island” and a couple other similarly minor changes to Worcester ordinances.
Ever since the Supreme Court vacated a previous ruling upholding the ordinances, I think we all figured that the time-and-place restrictions, which set up hundreds of areas in the city where you couldn’t ask for help, were probably unconstitutional. I didn’t think the judge would also rule against the traffic safety portion, which says that if a policeman tells you to stop standing around on a traffic island or in the road, you have to get moving. (He technically also struck down the part that deals with actual aggressive behavior, but as he notes there are many other laws against that sort of bad behavior.)
In striking down the first part of the ordinances, the judge writes:
…I find that the entirety of Ordinance 9-16 fails because it is not the least restrictive means available to protect the public and therefore, does not satisfy strict scrutiny. While I find that none of the provisions of Ordinance 9-16 can withstand strict scrutiny as written, the City and other municipalities have raised some legitimate concerns regarding aggressive panhandlers and public safety. Post Reed, municipalities must go back to the drafting board and craft solutions which recognize an individuals to continue to solicit in accordance with their rights under the First Amendment, while at the same time, ensuring that their conduct does not threaten their own safety, or that of those being solicited. In doing so, they must define with particularity the threat to public safety they seek to address, and then enact laws that precisely and narrowly restrict only that conduct which would constitute such a threat.
In striking down the traffic safety portion, he writes, quoting extensively from a ruling on a similar case in Maine:
The City can point to specific medians and traffic islands as to which a pedestrian use should be prohibited in the interest of public safety (the traffic islands and/or medians in Kelly, Newton and Washington Squares come to mind). However, on this record, it has not established the need for the “sweeping ban … it chose.” “ ‘In short, the City has not shown that it seriously undertook to address the problem with less intrusive tools readily available to it.’ Instead, it ‘sacrific[ed] speech for efficiency,’ and, in doing so, failed to observe the ‘close fit between ends and means’ that narrow tailoring demands.”
It’s coming up on 2 years since Worcester passed its latest ordinance against begging.
I didn’t see any kids fundraising for little league over the summer. There still seem to be plenty of scruffy men with signs panhandling cars. I’m hoping we will soon get a report on the overall effects of the law.
The NYT today has a good roundup of the legal situation with the ordinance. The case may end up in front of the US Supreme Court.
A city ordinance enacted last year banned “aggressive begging,” but it used an idiosyncratic definition of what counts as aggressive. It encompasses any begging — including silently asking for spare change with a cup or a sign — as long as it is within 20 feet of a bank, bus stop, pay phone, theater, outdoor cafe or anywhere people are waiting in line.
The Supreme Courthas said that asking for money is speech protected by the First Amendment. But in June, the federal appeals court in Boston rejected a challenge to the 20-foot buffer zones, saying they were justified by the unease that panhandling can cause.
A week later, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that had established 35-foot buffer zones around the state’s abortion clinics, including one in Worcester. The court said the law, which banned counseling, protests and other speech near the clinics, violated the First Amendment.
There was a tension between the two decisions, and lawyers for the plaintiffs in the begging case asked the appeals court to reconsider its ruling in light of the abortion case. The appeals court turned them down.
I appreciate the paper of record validating that our law is “idiosyncratic.”
We were made aware that there would be a peaceful protest focusing on poverty and the panhandling ordinance. Based on the communication that we received from Saint Francis & Therese Catholic Worker, we know that the protesters are well aware of the ordinance and we gave them latitude to peacefully conduct their protest.
Our approach to panhandling has been stated publicly. Our focus has been on education and gaining voluntary compliance. If enforcement action is necessary, we will take it . . . But we will not make arrests for the sake of making arrests.
Today, between 1:00 PM and 2:00 PM there were 21 calls for service throughout the city. None of these calls were regarding panhandling. During this time period, we directed our limited resources where they were most needed. We used discretion to monitor the protest, and our decisions were made in the best interest of the entire community.
In an act of civil disobedience against Worcester’s new anti-panhandling ordinances, three Worcester residents today begged for money on the median in Lincoln Square, directly across from police headquarters. The event was held on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, which Christians mark with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Gordon Davis, a blind anti-discrimination advocate, held a bucket reading BLIND and represented the disabled. Scott Schaeffer-Duffy, a Catholic Worker who has housed the homeless in Worcester for decades, was dressed as St. Francis, himself a beggar. Robert Peters, a long-time Buddhist meditator, dressed in the robes he wears as a lay Buddhist.
At least four people called the police to complain. According to the supporters demonstrating legally on the nearby sidewalk, the only police response was one officer giving the thumbs-up when he drove by.
In a statement, Chief Gemme said that “Today, between 1 and 2 p.m. there were 21 calls for service throughout the city. None of these calls were regarding panhandling.” (I’m not sure what the difference is between a call for service and these calls. Maybe there were 21 911 issues?)
None of the beggars was arrested, cited, or warned. “This is a victory for Worcester,” said Schaeffer-Duffy.