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See Something, Say Something #14

By The Shoestring

For Better or For Morse

On August 7th, the UMass Amherst Daily Collegian reported on a letter sent by the UMass College Democrats to Alex Morse banning him from future events over his pursuit of members of the group as sexual partners. The story went on to create a buzz around several other news outlets, and several high profile public figures came to Morse’s defense, including The Intercept founder Glenn Greenwald. Morse apologized to the College Democrats and did not deny that he had had relations with undergraduate students, but shortly thereafter publicly affirmed that he “will not apologize for being openly gay, for being a young person and for going on consensual dates.” The Intercept then published a series of articles documenting efforts by high ranking members of the UMass Amherst College Democrats and state-level party officials to use the story to influence the election in favor of Morse’s opponent, incumbent and centrist Democrat Richard Neal, who Morse is challenging from the left in the state’s September 1st primary.

Several things are troubling about this series of events. First and foremost, some of the most vociferous defenses of Morse in the Twittersphere willfully misinterpreted the College Democrats’ initial statement, before information regarding the conspiracy against Morse was available. Critics accused the College Democrats of homophobia for playing into tropes of homosexual perversity, and mocked the premise that Morse, an elected official and nationally watched progressive challenger to one of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress, was in a position of power that would influence students’ decision whether or not to date or have sex with him. Greenwald constructed a particularly tall straw man around the idea that the College Democrats suggested age gaps were not permissible in sexual relationships: in fact, the statement said nothing of the sort, but that did not stop Greenwald from mocking the language of “survivors” of abuse (again, neither word ever used by College Dems) via the examples of Chasten Buttigieg and Emmanuel Macron, both of whom are significantly younger than their spouses.

News outlets and political groups both supporting and condemning Morse alike made huge leaps from the language of the College Democrats’ statement and presented the story in confrontational terms. Complementing The Intercept’s “Attack” are Common Dreams’ “smear campaign” and WAMC’s “misconduct allegations.” Conversely, Sunrise Movement Western Mass wrote in a statement, “we believe the students that came forward about the inappropriate nature of Alex’s actions—as we believe all survivors”—still a major departure from the College Democrats’ messaging. “There is no justice without survivor justice,” they said. 

After The Intercept’s coverage of the scandal, Morse’s defenders began to push a narrative of vindication. Though titled “College Democrat at Center of Attack on Alex Morse Hoped to Launch Career Through Richard Neal,” the story limits its scope to Morse’s congressional campaign, leaving out the other seven years he has been an elected official in the area. In a Jacobin piece titled “The Left Needs to Stop Falling for Absurd Sex Panics,” Liza Featherstone writes: “no one ever came forward as a ‘survivor’ of any of Morse’s heinous acts of Instagramming, but in one case, according to the College Democrats’ letter, a young man hooked up with Morse and found out later that Morse was the mayor and felt weird about that. (This would appear to be a comically ineffective use of his ‘status.’)”

The only thing darkly comical about this scandal is how many supposedly progressive pundits and outlets showed how willing they are to sideline young people attempting to express boundaries around intimacy with an elected official (well, that and the fact that apparently some College Democrats are just as shady as their counterparts in Congress). The fact that a student felt uncomfortable after learning that his hookup was a mayor shows at the very least that Morse hadn’t much considered the implications of his role in the community to his sex life, which his comments to WAMC confirm. Unfortunately, the structure of our society allows for scummy powerbrokers and powerbrokers-in-training to take advantage of the language and timing of the setting of boundaries, which based on The Intercept’s own reporting, at least some of its writers approached out of genuine concern. The nature of the reporting and its authors’ and publisher’s public statements have actually made it less likely that we will ever know if any other students did have uncomfortable encounters with Morse, not that they owe anyone those stories. What incentive would such students have to come forward now that the most vocal of the progressive commentariat have shown they’re not willing to have a mature discussion about sexual boundaries? With the exception of WAMC, one of few local outlets on the scene, I have not found any coverage of the issue that actually engages with the possibility of a power dynamic between students and elected officials—in fact, Morse himself seems to be the most charitable on this front in his revised apology.

Public officials should not be exempt from being called in to consider the impacts of their actions on others—if they were, most of these pundits would be out a job. Featherstone’s piece does not name one other “absurd sex panic” the left has fallen for, because from the AIDS epidemic, to the advent of birth control and legal abortions, to fearing black men’s sexual agency at home and abroad during the first half of the twentieth century, sex panics have been the dominion of the reactionaries; likening to this history a group of young people who, with at least some earnest souls among them, sought to communicate sexual boundaries to an elected politician, is shameful. —Brian Zayatz

A Tale of Two Murals

On July 23, following earlier reporting of Springfield’s plans to paint a Black Lives Matter mural in front of City Hall, MassLive reported that an “Unofficial Black Lives Matter mural” recently painted at the behest of local organizers would be removed by the city later that week. This lede would seem to prompt numerous journalistic questions—such as, who should be able to claim official sanction over a mural representing a people’s movement dedicated to ending racist state violence? Or, is it not possible to have two murals in one downtown metropolitan area? But the article never actually addressed these questions, nor did it make much effort to pose any questions. Instead readers were largely left to fend for themselves against the finely-tuned verbiage of Springfield’s slick neoliberal mayor, Domenic Sarno. “After members of my staff met with a group of Black Lives Matter activists who were responsible for the mural painted in front of Old First Church, they mutually decided that the mural would be removed due to the fact that proper procedures must be followed concerning murals of this type,” Sarno said in a statement quoted without critique from MassLive. The true mutuality of this decision would seem questionable solely based on the power dynamics inherently at play when the city’s executive summons the city’s black organizers under the implied threat of law. The mutuality of the exchange was also outright refuted by at least one of the organizers present at the meeting.

The article goes on to strike a truly strange imbalance; vacillating between a vaguely human interest-y section which highlights snippets of decontextualized, feel-good mutual aid happenings on the ground, and the distinctly more paternal tones of still more Official Narrative. The article closes with Sarno again touting “proper procedure” (the article doesn’t mention that the city’s permit office was closed at the time of the initial mural painting according to organizers), followed by an unnamed official from City Hall assuring the public that “no criminal charges will be brought against the artists or organizers,” and a brief mention that the Nathan Bill’s Restaurant will be funding the entire $6500 cost for the new mural. There is more than a little to unpack here.

For starters, newfound humanitarian philanthropist restaurant Nathan Bill’s has long been known as a haven for police and racists alike. An ugly brawl outside the establishment in April of 2015 led to 13 current or former officers being charged for participating in or helping to cover up the violence. More recently the establishment made national news headlines for its racist and absurdly lengthy dress code. After weeks of local public pressure, national outcry and a meeting with Springfield’s NAACP chapter, the establishment’s dress code, which had existed unchanged for the past 7 years, was retired. The decision to repeal the dress code was made public within days of the city’s decision to erase the original BLM mural, which was also within days of the restaurant’s announcement that it would pick up the tab for the new “official” mural.

Curiously, the location of the original BLM mural is only mentioned in passing in the article, with Sarno alluding to the historic location as a reason the mural there had to be erased. Not mentioned at all is the $55 million construction project happening at the location, which speculators in government and the private sector alike have been publicly salivating over for years. MGM and Peter Picknelly, one of Massachusetts’ foremost gun-peddlers and real estate barons, are predictably two of the key players here, while city councilor and chair of the council’s casino committee Michael Fenton tellingly called the project a “golden goose” in 2019 (he did not elaborate on for whom). The project will provide 59 units of market rate housing—meaning that as much can be charged as the market can bear—while the ground floor will be filled with commercial ventures. Also present will be 15 “workforce” units which will likely be slightly less pricey than market rate but still out of the price range for many Springfieldians

In this context it is clear that the location of the mural was quite intentional as was the city’s effort to remove it as quickly as possible. In reporting this story as a depoliticized “both sides” narrative but failing to acknowledge how one side, the allied capital of the corporate/politician class, has the power to continually control the official narrative and living conditions of the city’s most systemically disenfranchised inhabitants, MassLive creates a false equivalency between survival and profit. Like the “official” mural, this has the effect of obscuring the many reasons organizers in Springfield organize. As one organizer The Shoestring spoke with said of the new mural and the process of gentrifying Court Square, “Not only will our cities kill us physically but also metaphorically. They’ll kill any evidence of us being there.” Rather than substantively addressing this history of erasure, MassLive and Sarno seem content to center the new mural as a “similar project” to the earlier community-lead project; and more egregious still, as a somehow legitimate extension of the BLM movement. —HG

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