Words matter

That’s true for this editor but it’s also true for local community groups working to address quality-of-life issues

As the editor of a community newspaper, getting emails or phone calls from readers upset with something published in these pages is part of the job. In the five years I’ve sat at the helm, I’ve irked a wide cross-section of Chico and beyond.

Seriously, name a group—liberals, conservatives, politicians of all stripes, Christians, atheists, tea partiers, peaceniks, the local cops’ union, city management … I could go on—and chances are they’ve cursed my name at one point or another.

But I don’t piss people off for the sake of pissing them off. If you make it into an editorial in these pages or this column—whether it’s for praise or, well, something else—you’ve earned it.

Which brings me to last Friday (March 30), when I got an email from a member of Chico First, a local citizens’ group, who was upset about something I’d written in an editorial. That was followed by a phone call from another member regarding the same complaint—that I’d labeled their group’s name as having been inspired by the Ku Klux Klan.

I don’t believe Chico First took its name from that hate group’s propaganda, and it’s not what I meant to imply, but when I reviewed what I’d written I can see how that might be the takeaway. What I was trying to impart was that, for some folks, the name Chico First conjures the term America First, which, in addition to having been adopted as policy by President Trump, is associated with a World War II-era isolationist group (read: antisemitism) and the KKK decades earlier in the form of that group’s slogan.

Basically, I was trying to tell the local group that it may want to consider losing that handle. To put it another way, words matter. And that goes for me, too, which is why I’ve taken to this space to correct the record. I’m sorry that I offended those folks, and I’ve amended the editorial to clarify things.

What’s unfortunate is that, for some Chico Firsters, that single sentence was the only takeaway in the editorial.

The data about the increase in Chico’s homeless population didn’t resonate. Nor did the fact that the federal government (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) penalized our region for criminalizing homelessness—as a result of the City Council’s adoption of the sit/lie and protection of public property ordinances—by cutting $50,000 in annual grant funding to local service providers. That’s a big deal, as that amount of money can make or break a local program.

In other words, efforts to codify similar policies would take our community another step backward on addressing homelessness. I hope Chico First’s members realize this, though, from what I’ve seen, I’m doubtful.

In a letter to the editor this week, a Chico Firster denies that the group is lobbying the city to prohibit food giveaways at City Plaza, which counters his public statements to the City Council calling for “the need to end the abuse of our City Plaza and other parks as a distribution and gathering point for ad hoc charitable services.”

While some have chided me for not knowing enough about the group to comment, they should be aware I didn’t write about it in a vacuum. I joined the group’s public Facebook page months ago. There, among other things, I have seen comments that demonize homeless people go unchecked despite a purported goal of providing a forum for “civil discourse that is safe, respectful, and constructive.” Obviously, I’ve also paid attention when its members speak at city meetings.

At the same time, I’ve had conversations that lead me to believe there are members with whom I’ll find common ground. For my part, I’m trying to keep an open mind.