Sunday, May 6, 2007

Domenic Sarno: the man who would be mayor

Ah, Domenic Sarno…God loves him, his family loves him, he would have the city love him (at least enough to vote him in as mayor) but when I think about him, my mouth twists to the side.
I asked in an earlier post: how is Dom Sarno like President Bush? One answer: he can’t admit a mistake.
Now, poor people, including poor activists, can’t ever get very close to the seat of power in this city, so other people might have even better examples of Dom’s inability to own up—or maybe even examples that contradict my own experience—but here’s how he looks from the Arise side.
On August 17, 2006, Arise members and a number of homeless people attended a Civil Rights subcommittee of Springfield City Council, chaired by Domenic Sarno; the topic was homelessness. We thought that the meeting was about the civil rights of homeless people; it turned out to be about the civil rights of our housed citizens who don't like to be asked for money by poor people, or see them sleeping in doorways, etc.
At the end of Sarno's opening remarks, he said (I’m paraphrasing, seeing as the City Council does not keep verbatim transcripts) "Lastly, I have heard some disturbing information, if it is true-- that Arise is getting people from Northampton to come to Springfield, pretend they are homeless, and take pictures of the police."

I protested that this was untrue-- we have our own members who are really homeless, we don't need to get people to pretend. Sarno cut me off and said that his info was credible and that he’d gotten it from Police Commissioner, Edward Flynn (also present at the meeting).
Attempts to hold Flynn’s office accountable for this misinformation were fruitless (another post).
In October, I met with Bernie Glassman of the Zen Peacemakers, who was interested in doing “something” for the homeless. He mentioned that a dozen people from his organization had slept on the streets for a week over the summer, so they could find out what homelessness in Springfield was all about. I’d actually already heard about this from my sister Liz, who works at the Warming Place, because some homeless people had had to sleep on the floor the night that the Peacemakers, in disguise as homeless people, had turned up at the shelter. Suddenly it hit me, and I told the story of Sarno’s remarks to Glassman.
“I’ll bet it was you and your crew that Flynn reported as Arise members to Councilor Sarno,” I said.
“I’ll bet it was,” he said with a smile.
The following month, on November 17, Dom held a special subcommittee meeting to introduce the Zen Peacemakers to the Springfield community—they seem to have really hit it off. I attended the meeting, and before it actually began I thought, What a perfect time for Dom to acknowledge that it wasn’t Arise members out on the street, it was the Peacemakers, and to offer us a public apology for his misinformation. I put my thoughts in a quick note and went up to the rail to hand it to him. He was taken aback by my handing him a note—he was already pumping my hand and thanking me for coming when I slipped it to him—and I saw him read it as a video presentation about the Peacemaker’s work in Brooklyn was being prepared.
Dom stood up to open the meeting, and began by saying, “Before we actually begin, there’s something I’d like to tell you…”
Here it comes! I thought.
Well, what he actually said eludes me now, but as you might guess, it was not an acknowledgement of his error. I think the twist in my mouth that occurs whenever Dom Sarno is mentioned began at that moment.
A small affront, to be sure, in the grand scheme of things, but one that tells me much.
I have had many differences with Mayor Ryan about how he is working to solve the homeless problem in Springfield, but at least he’s trying.
Sarno’s solutions, on the other hand, range from wanting to put skunk-scented spray in empty buildings to discourage the homeless from sleeping in them to criminalizing shopping carts and panhandling.
It’s going to be an interesting mayoral campaign.

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