Editorial Note: This opinion article contains unredacted quotes which use racist and homophobic slurs. It is important to not obscure the issue at hand.
As the saying goes, “There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary solution.”
During City Council meetings, if a resident would like to weigh in about the issues facing the council, they can make a public comment. They have three minutes to offer their two cents. If they’re present in council chambers, they can just walk up to the podium; if they’re not at City Hall, they can log in to the Zoom stream of the meeting and speak through their microphone remotely. A necessity in the era of pandemic-induced quarantines, this latter option has remained largely unmodified to the present day, and allows anyone from the comfort of their home a captive audience of Portland’s government.
Here is a selection of the sorts of comments which have been heard over Zoom by the Council over the past several months:
“Fuck Israel, fuck kikes, and mostly fuck faggots.”
“Fuck niggers, fuck Jews.”
“Councilor Zarro is a kike faggot.”
“April Fournier is a lazy faggot ass.”
This is only a snippet of what’s been said recently. Not only are these comments hateful, they are frequently ridiculous and time-wasting. Callers identifying themselves as “Hank Hill” and speaking in that cartoon Texan’s accent, “Bill Clinton” and “Samuel Hyde” have also buzzed in, and a posse of Family Guy character impersonators take turns in sneaking in slurs to Portland’s proceedings. There’s also the callers who talk like a caricature of left-liberal activists before suddenly shifting gears and shouting “nigger” and “kike” as many times as they can before being muted.
These trolls aren’t new, but they seem to be increasing in number and getting savvier with their tricks. Portland isn’t the only city afflicted with such trolls; these internet-dwellers organize on platforms like Discord and KiwiFarms with the intention of harassing particular cities. Needless to say, they’re mostly not locals, and this used to be more obvious when they would call in using phone numbers with out-of-state area codes.
These comments have spurred a broad discussion on how best to respond to these patent abuses of the system, and I would like to propose a simple one – stop taking public comments by Zoom. Not only is it the only way to effectively deal with these trolls, but it is long past time to bring this contingency measure to a close. The shrillest evils are obvious, but it’s worth having a deep conversation about the subtler drawbacks that this regimen has engendered.
The repellent comments recounted above are impossible to defend, and there’s no need to linger on this juvenile bigotry. No one worth engaging with sticks up for these clear abuses. “But,” some say, “do we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater?” Perhaps there is some way for Zoom comments to be maintained while picking out the bad apples? Such is the motivation behind measures taken by cities like Burlington, Vermont, where in order to speak over Zoom, one must sign up ahead of time.
Using the handsome default Google Forms template, would-be commenters in Burlington’s meetings must provide their name, email address, residential address, ward (district,) etc. You’re also prompted to summarize your comments, and indicate which agenda item (if any) you plan to speak to.
An earnest effort, one which surely deters some trolls, but to be frank, this falls far short of a “solution.” Already, these trolls use real residential addresses and open their comments with statements meant to appear relevant. If there continues to be a coordinated effort to harass Portland’s public meetings, then this step will do very little to deter it. Other ideas, such as allowing Zoom comments only for specific agenda items (reserving the general comment period for in-person only,) stumble on the same basic problem: these men are liars.
But we shouldn’t consider this a successful hostage-taking effort by bigoted trolls, on the contrary – we should bring Zoom comments to an end anyway.
More Problems Than Trolls
The live broadcasting of meetings to the public by Zoom, and their subsequent availability in video recordings, is an unalloyed good. The ability to comment remotely, however, has always had significant drawbacks. This pandemic-era necessity has overstayed its welcome.
The quotidian annoyances engendered by Zoom comments are obvious and well-known. Technical problems and user error (“Can you hear me? You need to unmute yourself,”) are an endemic headache and major time-sink. Mistakes on the part of elected officials and staff can result in people having expected to be able to speak on Zoom, but then to not be given the opportunity. Zoom comments are slow, frustrating, and difficult, but this alone would be a poor justification for ending them.
More importantly, Zoom comments depersonalize the issues. Anyone who has ever engaged with internet discourse knows the depths of the vitriol which characterizes it. Behind the mask of anonymity, even quasi-anonymity, we are prone to give into our basest instincts to simplify and vilify. Even on forums where users post under their real names and faces, it’s far easier to be cruel if all you see is text on a screen. But local politics is unique – we’re all neighbors.
When talking about the issues online, we can freely insult and belittle one another. But when we’re sat down in front of one another, though we may still deeply disagree, we cannot help but acknowledge the humanity of our interlocutors. Behind screens, we are capable of saying things that we would simply never say in-person… and if we were to, then we would be treated appropriately.
A Petty Ringleader
This brings us to the odd man out in this drama – Richard Levi Ward. My fellow Parkside resident, alleged deliverer of anti-Semitic flysheets by scooter, and habitual candidate for whatever-office-happens-to-be-open. Here at the Townsman, we try not to give attention to those who so obviously seek it. Ward has been on a long political journey, and he’s finally found a working strategy to regularly be the center of attention: Being a vitriolic far-right provocateur. How much he relishes this meager spotlight is made abundantly clear by his cutesy introductory catchphrase, (one that you can easily imagine him rehearsing in his bathroom mirror,) “It is I, the infamous Richard Ward.”
Politics has long been the realm of theater kids, but it’s novel to see it from the far-right.
We try not to give attention to such attention-seekers, but on occasion we must. Though he clearly plays a part in goading on the garden-variety trolls who call in only to scream racial slurs and homophobic insults, Ward himself is not of the same type. He is not anonymous, he does not (mostly) use slurs, he does live in Portland, he does not obscure his intentions, in fact he rather resembles a typical Zoom commenter – woodenly reading from a prewritten script to get across some ideological point. The difference between him and someone calling in from the Sierra Club or the DSA is that he’s reading talking points from The Daily Stormer instead of Slate or Jacobin.
And in so doing, Ward presents a unique challenge for the attempts to regulate Zoom comments. By any reasonable metric, Ward is a legitimate commenter. His worldview may be that of a sad misanthrope, but he follows the perfect letter of the law, and one wonders if he even has the gut flora to do otherwise. How do we stop him?
That’s a trivial question. We use the same tool available to human societies since we emerged from the mists of prehistory – shame. If Ward is so confident in his own standing that he will come down to City Hall and stiffly recite his tone-deaf dispatches at the podium in council chambers where we can all see his face, by all means let him do so. But something tells me that he won’t. Behind a screen he, and those like him, wear a safety blanket. As we’ve done since the days of Puritan meeting-houses, let’s invite him out to the public square! I’m sure he’ll uncover some buried reservoirs of shame within himself, and stay home.
But it’s not just for the extreme cases, like Richard, that this mechanism is important. Even for those who fall far short of his extremism, Zoom comments enable people to say things with such cruelty, such lack of nuance, that were they present in council chambers I have a hard time believing they would conduct themselves similarly. In addition, in-person comments are typically much more informed and serious than the frivolous, tribalistic remarks which not infrequently come in on Zoom.
The objection most commonly heard in response to recommendations, like mine, to end Zoom comments is that it would be to do away with an important accessibility feature. There are those who are disabled and can’t make it to Council Meetings, and there are those too busy to dedicate hours of their Monday evenings; Zoom comments have allowed such persons to become involved with local politics in ways they never could before, so the claim goes.
Let’s get some perspective. Zoom comments were conceived and implemented around the country as a temporary measure in response to a once-in-a-century pandemic which brought public life screeching to a halt. Reverting to the norm of four years ago is not reversing some civil rights milestone. Besides, being able to access and use a computer is itself an accessibility issue. As with so much in modern discourse, the genuine disabilities of a small minority are used as a cudgel by a larger, less scrupulous group. The vast majority of people who take advantage of Zoom comments are perfectly capable of attending City Council meetings, they simply would prefer to call in from home than schlep out to City Hall. A reasonable preference! But not one that we must suffer an endless stream of compromises to accommodate.
Nevertheless, there are those who would be genuinely, if narrowly, deprived by removing Zoom comments. However, even for these folks, the loss is less than meets the eye. One product of the Zoom comment regimen is that there are simply far more public comments than ever before, since the effort required to make one has dropped so precipitously. An unavoidable corollary is that individual public comments are less impactful than ever. We have, essentially, witnessed a great inflationary effect on public comments. By reverting to in-person comments only, we can reverse this value trend and make comment periods meaningful again.
And luckily, spoken public comments are just one way to make an impact on local politics… and plainly speaking, not the most effective of them. A call or email to one’s representative Councilors, a written public comment using cited sources, an opinion column or letter to the editor, or a post on social media urging others to speak up – all of these are things that anyone can do without needing to attend the actual meeting. What’s more, all of these have at least as much potential (arguably much more potential) to make a difference than yet another Zoom comment on the pile.
Time to End the Clown Show
Of course, most Zoom commenters are serious, sincere, and motivated entirely by the desire to make Portland a better place. Those who would like to continue having the option of giving their thoughts to the assembled Council from the comfort of their couch have every right to disagree. But the pandemic is over. We must not continue down this road of putting screens all over every facet of human life and governance. Despite the ongoing, interlocking crises facing Portland, in many ways we are very lucky to have reclaimed much normality from the days of the great arch-crisis: COVID-19.
It will doubtlessly be said that the desire to end Zoom public comments is motivated by some obscure partisan interest. That the Chamber of Commerce is backing it to silence DSA members, or that the DSA is backing it to silence busy business owners, or some other equally uncharitable claim. But the ideological spread of in-person and Zoom comments has been, in my observations, remarkably even. Liberals, socialists, conservatives, environmentalists, libertarians, and any other stripes have plenty of representatives who call in by Zoom, and plenty who come in-person. The vulgar bigots alone are an online-only phenomenon.
It’s far from a panacea, but by ending Zoom comments we can make City Council meetings more productive, dignified, efficient, respectful, speedy, and informed. It’s finally time to call curtains on this show. It’s gone on long enough.
Ashley D. Keenan – Ashley is an editor of The Portland Townsman, writer on urbanism, local small business-owner, and Maine native. Her work primarily covers the national housing crisis, building sustainable and livable cities, responsible market economics, and New England culture and history. She lives in Portland with her fiancé and can be personally reached at email@example.com.