The Whole Foods meeting was a success, until the police shut it down.
It is rare to see such debate happen anymore. We live in a digital age where most dialogue happens behind anonymous user names, Internet chatter and Twitter. At the Curley school last Thursday, we saw open microphone orations both passionate and nervous, a true sign of public participation. Both sides of the Whole Foods debate have adopted colors: yellow is pro-Whole Foods and powder blue is anti-Whole Foods. Almost everyone held signs, cheered, jeered and spoke their mind. There were boisterous shouts and hushed discussion over comments and questions by both residents and Whole Foods representatives. And most importantly, there were also hundreds of calm, but passionate, debates between neighbors. I imagine what happened at the Curley school resembled Town Hall meetings 200 years ago. In era when digital debate is the norm, it is refreshing, social and healthy to have such discourse. What we learned is that a “community” is not the people that look and think like each other, but that a “community” is a group of people that live and work with each other, and clearly do not all have the same views.
I was fine with the cheering and jeering and sign-waving; I dare say proud of it. Eloquent or ugly, this is who we are in JP. By the end of the night, I spoke with dozens of neighbors in yellow and powder blue. I whispered comments and opinions back and forth with strangers sitting around me. And none of it was because of Facebook. It was because we all wanted to debate in public.
There were only two negatives I found at the event. The first was that the police arrested three people for unveiling signage, and then shut down the event. It is quite clear the police were out of touch in dealing with public debate. What could the police have been thinking to decide that one sign was unacceptable while hundreds of others were acceptable? After the arrests, the police shut down the event, stifling our ability to finish off the evening’s debate. The police sent a message that if speech and assembly are not polite and calm, then we should all go home and flame people on the Internet instead of interacting in social dialogue.
The other negative is Whole Foods’ decision to no longer to engage in public forums, but instead hold a series of small private meetings with local groups. This is as offensive and antisocial as the police arresting residents for raising signs. There is nothing wrong with choosing a position and speaking out on it amongst your neighbors. If Whole Foods wants to be a part of the community, they need to engage the community, a community which wears colors, holds signs, speaks in several languages, and cares enough to pack auditoriums to voice its opinion. Next time, instead of paying for police details, Whole Foods should spend its money on translators and skilled facilitators.
Jamey Lionette, Jamaica Plain