On Sept. 18, the City Council’s Ordinance Committee held the last in a long series of hearings to determine the policies that shall govern the city’s recreational cannabis sales. These hearings were conducted over the course of several months, with many meetings lasting several hours, and scores of impassioned Cambridge residents (and those seeking to do business in Cambridge) coming out to testify. The closer we came towards the finish line, many of us were alarmed to see civility and common decency sacrificed by those who sought to win at all costs, and the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar unquestionably poisoned our public discourse.
Cambridge sought to establish policies that would give women and minorities, who have historically been locked out of the ground floor of lucrative new industries, the first opportunities to establish a foothold in selling cannabis and, therefore, the greatest opportunities for significant financial rewards. I put forward a plan that I felt would help us achieve this goal; two of my fellow councilors put forward a different plan that they felt would achieve the goal. In my three decades as an elected policy maker, I’ve always held the view that you craft the best policy you can, you make your best case, and then let the chips fall where they may. On Sept. 18, my plan came up short on votes, and while I still feel that it was the more viable plan, I accept that we fell short and now the city must move forward.
However, I remain deeply troubled by how this process unfolded in recent months. Those with deep pockets sent out mailers all across the city attempting to influence public sentiment, playing on peoples’ passions, fears, and prejudices, and ultimately pitting neighbor against neighbor. Some of these mailings were anonymous fliers seemingly supporting my plan, and were designed to give the false impression that they were mailed either by me or by the city (neither case is true). Other mailings, sent out by those opposing my plan, went so far as to brand my proposal as the “Slave Amendment” – grotesquely equating my proposal for how the city might regulate a new business with the nightmarish practice of buying, selling, raping, beating, torturing, and literally working other human beings to death. The mailing that stated that “the Simmons Amendment = the Slave Amendment” is, without a doubt, the most personally offensive, disgusting smear I have ever seen in almost 30 years of public service. Those who were behind this unconscionable tactic – some of whom I’ve known, grown up with, worked with, supported, and socialized with for decades – should be absolutely ashamed of themselves.
As a proud Black woman, as someone who has fought for civil rights and social justice dating back to my work as executive director of the Civic Unity Committee in 1980 – I am deeply saddened that anyone’s greed would lead them to stoop this low. And I am beyond concerned by any lingering negativity these cheap tactics may have left upon our community.
Those who promoted the “Slave Amendment” narrative and unleashed such vitriol and negativity into our community can be pleased that they ultimately prevailed in the City Council, and they and their allies will soon be reaping the financial rewards from the burgeoning cannabis industry. Yet there is an old Biblical verse, Matthew 16:26, that asks: “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Our national politics have already shown us that those who have no decency and no sense of shame can go far in winning legislative battles and working the system to line their pockets. My question to my fellow Cambridge residents is: do we really want to bring the politics of smears and personal destruction to the public debates that shape our community? I accept that I shall sometimes lose important legislative battles – one cannot win every debate – but I fear for our community if the new template for our important public deliberations will now include the kinds of vicious personal smears and cowardly, deceptive mailings that we just witnessed in the debate around cannabis.
So long as I am serving in public office, I will continue to stand tall and work hard on behalf of the people of Cambridge – and my great hope is that we will all take a moment, reflect upon this just-concluded legislative battle, and we will decide conclusively that the politics of smears and negativity have no place in our public discussions going forward.
E. Denise Simmons is a longtime Cambridge city councilor.