This is kinda-sorta another installment of “Dregs of the Ballot” except, well, this one’s an incumbent. But what an incumbent he is.
Chris Viens is running for another term on the Waterbury Selectboard, where he currently serves as vice chair — having resigned as chair in November 2020 after suggesting, at a public event, that maybe we should segregate the police so we could, you know, have Black cops police Black people and white cops watch over The Rest Of Us.
I mean, that’d take care of the whole Black Lives Matter problem, wouldn’t it?
(Pay no attention to Memphis.)
All right, you might be thinking, he made one gaffe and took responsibility. That’s settled.
Well, except for two things. First, it’s not the only questionable thing he’s said. And two, his resignation announcement was an absolute disasterpiece of self-pity and blame shifting that, to my ears, was far worse than his original segregate-the-police remark. And although it’s more than two years old, it warrants a trip down Memory Lane.
Now the good people of Waterbury can make up their own minds on Town Meeting Day, but I’ll just note that there are three candidates on the ballot for two selectboard seats and Viens is the only one I know of who’s said some truly ignorant things in public spaces.
Let’s go back to July of 2020, less than two months after the murder of George Floyd. The Waterbury Area Anti-Racism Committee asked the selectboard for permission to hang a racial justice banner in a high-visibility space usually devoted to community event announcements. Approval was granted without the support of Chris Viens. His explanation:
“I don’t want people out there to be offended by feeling that they’re not included in this issue. I’m talking about Asian people or people of other ethnicities.”
Oh, uh-huh, sure, not racist at all. No, he was concerned about the delicate sensibilities of “other ethnicities,” by which he means anyone who isn’t white, I guess?
This is the kind of language used by people who don’t like BLM but know they have to conceal it somehow.
That same year, Viens ran for House as an independent. (He finished a very distant third behind Democratic incumbents Theresa Wood and Tom Stevens.) During the campaign, he appeared on a candidates’ forum on WDEV Radio where he made his “segregate the police” comment.
Community reaction was spirited and varied. At the selectboard’s November 2 meeting, Viens stepped down as chair. Not surprising, but he did it in a rather striking way.
The meeting, chaired (initially) by Viens, was conducted via Zoom. Speaking from home, with his wife LeeAnne sitting directly behind him looking like she was bored to tears throughout, Viens read a statement that took nearly 10 minutes to read. It was what your granddad would have called a doozy. He cast blame in every possible direction while depicting himself as the pure-hearted victim of a vicious backlash.
Viens began by thanking those who had expressed support before turning on the “bullies” who criticized his language. In fact, he said his “bad choice of words” happened because he was distracted by an angry BLM supporter at a meeting.
He defended his opposition to the banner out of concern for “possible graffiti, destruction and division.” His preference for an inclusive, “all lives matter” type of message was meant to prevent conflict and division. He hinted that “unrest was the goal” of those advocating for the BLM banner, and added “All I can say is that unrest was not caused by me.”
That’s one way of looking at it.
Next we got the sob story. Viens, a building contractor, said he was very skilled in his trade but “I can’t read very good. I clearly don’t express myself well.” He posited that if he were a child today, he’d have been diagnosed with a learning disability.
So, unspoken message, criticizing his public statements is tantamount to ridiculing the disabled? I guess?
Then came the Good Old Days pitch. “Even only a few years ago I probably could have made these same mistakes” and the response would have been civil. Cancel culture, it’s out of control.
It gets worse.
I’m sorry you think that the fact that my wife and I were raised in this area and were taught by our families that we should treat everyone equally, no matter who they are, makes us racist and ignorant. …We also will feel quite comfortable walking ta straight line down the middle and believing that every person matters, no matter who they are. There is no need to carry signs, hold rallies, paint things, hang banners, preach or fight with your neighbors if you just practice being a good person to everyone.
See, the only real racists are the anti-racists, not salt-of-the-earth types like Viens.
He declined to leave the selectboard entirely because he represents “those who understandably don’t care to speak out.” Silent majority?
Then came a flurry of self-back-patting about “all the hours I have put in” and “all the things I have accomplished,” and the hope that “someday, someone could take the time to put those things in the headlines so that when my grandkids Google grandpa’s name, they won’t think all I am is an ignorant racist.”
He then characterized himself as a “redneck that has accomplished some things.” He tried to head off potential criticism by defining “redneck” as “working-class person from a rural area,” and attributed any misunderstandings to the “We [rednecks] just have our own way of talking” excuse.
See, the problem is, you don’t get to unilaterally define words in the common parlance. They accrue meanings over time. They affect some people differently than others, and if you want to be inclusive and non-racist you have to account for others’ points of view. Of course, in Viens’ mind, those people are just looking for an excuse “to get this dangerous Viens guy out.” They are bad actors, and their concerns can be safely dismissed.
He closed by asking that his statement be attached to the minutes “so that my words aren’t twisted again.”
Uh, no. We don’t need to twist your words. You did that to yourself.
When you take on a position of leadership in a community, you bear an extra responsibility to choose your words wisely and seek to represent all your constituents, not just the ones who think Black Lives Matter is a bad, divisive thing.
All Viens had to do was own up to his misstatement. Admit his words were hurtful to some. Apologize fully and without reservation. Express intent to get to know the WAARC folks so he can increase his understanding and empathy.
I’m sure Viens is a fine builder, and probably a good neighbor (as long as you’re in the Redneck Club). Based on his verbal misadventures and his finger-pointing in every direction except his own, I’m not sure he’s the best choice to be an elected leader. But that’s not my call; the people of Waterbury will make up their own minds.