Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Power: not for the people

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Monday night, I joined around 40 people in a small room on the third floor of the Fayetteville City Hall for an emergency meeting of the Fayetteville Housing Authority. The issues facing the housing commissioners are complicated but boil down to the fact that many residents are living in terrible conditions with major plumbing problems and no air conditioning while the breaks are being put on a plan to sell Willow Heights, a public housing unit in downtown Fayetteville. The unit would be sold to an investor without taking any bids or getting an appraisal on what seems to be some of the most valuable property in the area in order to relocate the residents to a yet-unbuilt addition to an apartment complex in south Fayetteville. This plan is in direct contradiction to the housing authority's stated goal to avoid concentrating poverty. The community is rightfully concerned.

I was disappointed by the attitude of some of the commissioners toward the citizens who came to speak, including public housing residents, advocates for veterans and the homeless, and people who are concerned about their neighbors. First, we were subjected to a discussion about limiting public comment or not allowing it at all. Then the crowd was given a lecture about all the other opportunities we had to speak up at previous meetings, some of which were held during the day when people were at work. This was all after we watched two commissioners interrupt and belittle a third commissioner for her opinions. Eventually audience comments were allowed, but it's almost as if the goal of the entire thing was to discourage public participation. Well, the people were not having it. Within minutes a live video of the meeting was streaming on social media, and an audience member passed around a piece of paper collecting names and email addresses in order to form a grassroots group right then and there. A large number in attendance offered the commissioners their opinions about the current living conditions and the long-term plans for housing.

At least we were given the chance to speak. The same was not true for those who attended the Legislative Joint Performance Review Committee in Little Rock earlier in the day. The committee was to review the recommendations from Governor Hutchinson's School Safety Commission. Because joint legislative meetings aren't live-streamed, and I was three hours away in Fayetteville, I did my best to follow the meeting on social media thanks to the media present and the members of Moms Demand Action who were denied the chance to offer their input to the legislative committee.

While the legislators, including Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado), prohibited public comment from teachers, parents and other concerned citizens, they did hear from their pro-gun "experts," John Lott and Ed Monk. Lott, known for creating fake social media accounts in order to offer support and praise for himself online, has been accused of falsifying a survey, manipulating statistics and flat-out lying. Monk claims in his PowerPoint presentation that stopping an active shooter doesn't take any special training or skills. It only takes willpower. He also dismisses the valid argument that an armed teacher may shoot the wrong person. He claims that a teacher mistakenly shooting two innocent people would be better than a school shooting. What he doesn't account for is that not every mistake will be made in the prevention of an actual shooting. But logic, facts and peer-reviewed studies aren't really the forte of this crowd. Fayetteville's own GOP gun nut, Republican Rep. Charlie Collins, when asked on Twitter to point to any independent study showing arming teachers makes schools safer, tweeted out a pro-gun editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

After the legislators in Little Rock decided they didn't need to hear any input from those who traveled to the meeting except for their handpicked NRA sycophants, Garner was dismissive to the crowd. Turns out, public comments will only be allowed after the committee has already made a decision. Down with the civic process. Up with more smug paternalism.

But that's the nature of power. It likes to be held close and guarded, especially if that power is used to implement unpopular policies that have little basis in logic and reason. Like some of the commissioners at the Fayetteville Housing Authority meeting, I guess Garner and his gang figure if they ignore the concerns of constituents long enough they will give up and go away. That may have worked in the past, but it is a new day in politics. From city halls to the state Capitol, people are showing up. I've already heard of car and childcare pools forming in anticipation of the 2019 legislative session. So save up your vacation days and get your Twitter accounts ready, because regardless of how the November elections pan out, come February, we are going to need as many eyes as we can get on the Arkansas legislature. We may not be able to stop them from passing more asinine laws, but we sure can let them know we are not going away anytime soon.

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