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Tim Steller's opinion: Mayor turned minor issue into major blowup
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Tim Steller's opinion: Mayor turned minor issue into major blowup

For years, police officers in departments like Tucson’s have been learning de-escalation.

They learn to slow down their response to agitated people, to respond proportionally, to lower the temperature of a confrontation, not raise it. Sometimes they fail at it, as we saw in the case of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez, and we demand they do better. But it’s a valuable skill to have — and not just for police officers.

In this volatile era especially, with President Trump’s itchy Twitter finger constantly threatening escalation, it’s important for politicians to put de-escalation to work for the better of the communities they serve. Politicians such as Tucson’s new mayor, Regina Romero, for example.

On Thursday at 4:32 p.m., Romero posted on Twitter a statement about a situation that nobody in the general public had heard of. Some local citizens wanted to paint a blue line down the street on South Stone Avenue in front of the Tucson Police Department as a gesture of support for police. Romero announced she was asking City Manager Mike Ortega to reverse his decision to approve it.

In the process, she also accused a previously unknown Tucson resident of being a white supremacist and dragged City Council members and officials into a conflict.

There are various reasons why the blue line is a questionable idea, in my view, but it came after people painted “Black Lives Matter” on North Stone Avenue, and after Romero had a Black Lives Matter banner hung from the top of City Hall. You can’t turn the streets and City Hall into a canvas for political views but say only certain views are acceptable.

In her tweet Romero didn’t name the man who requested the permit, but said, “Requests from white supremacists have no place on our City streets.” And in answer to a tweet by KOLD anchor Dan Marries, she posted a picture of a Facebook post by the man who made the request, Tim Cesolini, indirectly naming him as the suspected white supremacist in the process.

“Today, my office was made aware of a request made by an individual with known ties to white supremacists ideology to paint a ‘thin blue line’ in front of TPD Headquarters,” she said in the opening sentence. She later referred to Cesolini as a “known white supremacist sympathizer.”

“I unequivocally disavow this effort that serves to incite and divide our community and minimizes the Black Lives Matter movement,” Romero said.

Her statement, though, served to further incite and divide the community.

Racist Facebook memes

The evidence for Cesolini being a white supremacist came in the form of two Facebook posts. One is a meme showing two photos, a man flying a rainbow flag in the top one, and a pickup truck flying the Confederate battle flag on the bottom. The words say, “If you can fly yours, I can fly mine.”

The other is a meme showing black people carrying merchandise outside of a store in a flood. The words say: “Did you see all the looting by those evil white supremacists?”

Both memes are racist, in my opinion. But since when do city employees go trolling through citizens’ social-media posts to find a reason to deny them a permit? And also, how is it helpful to label Cesolini a white supremacist?

The implication of the label is a Nazi or KKK member, like the small group of white supremacists who did a Nazi salute last month during a counter protest of a Black Lives Matter demonstration last month. Someone has also been putting up posters near the UA campus advocating violence against African Americans. No evidence has emerged that Cesolini is anything like those people.

“This is wrong — calling me a white supremacist, slandering my name,” Cesolini told me.

The blue-line idea, he said, “was nothing to do with race. This was nothing to do with anything other than supporting Tucson police.”

Cesolini and Ross Kaplowitch started a Facebook page called Tucson Back the Blue Line in an effort to support local police, they told me. They wanted to paint the blue line in response to the fierce criticisms of police that have swept the country and Tucson lately.

The blue line is a controversial symbol, in part because some white supremacists have adopted it, but also because of what the “thin blue line” traditionally means: That the police are the thin blue line protecting law-abiding citizens from anarchy. It’s a polarizing view of the police role in society that many people are fighting against.

But then again, not everybody in Tucson likes the Black Lives Matter movement or slogan. And it’s their right not to.

“Mrs. Romero has chosen to attack us, with the most gross slander, and once again further division in our community,” Ross Kaplowitch said in a written statement.

Mayor uses bully pulpit

In an interview, Romero defended her posting about the permit and her using the “white supremacist” label. She said she heard about the racist memes Cesolini had posted in the morning and still had not got the permit canceled by the time she made the post in the afternoon.

She also said she wanted to get the permit canceled urgently because the painting was to happen after 8 p.m. Thursday night. I don’t know where she got that understanding, but it was never the plan of Cesolini and Kaplowitch. They always planned to paint the line the morning of Sunday, July 5, and the permit even says so.

“I was not going to sit around and let this happen,” Romero said. “I don’t know why this has become a story about me when I’m trying to take a stand on something that is divisive.”

“It has everything to do with a racist individual asking to use city of Tucson resources,” she said, noting that barricades and other city resources would be required. Considering that she had the time and urgency of the matter wrong, I think Romero should re-consider her use of the mayor’s bully pulpit.

In the announcement, Romero also subtly called out Ward 4 council member Nikki Lee, pointing out that her office brought the original request to the attention of the city manager. In response, Lee said that all her office did was pass on a constituent request to the city administration — something City Council offices do routinely.

“Unfortunately, in doing my job of being a responsive local government official and escalating constituent concerns/questions, I have been accused of supporting white supremacists and white supremacy organizations,” Lee said in a written statement. “I am disgusted at this allegation, and equally disgusted at the continued tactics at play to divide our community for the sole purpose of pushing political agendas forward.”

City attorney weighs in

By 5 p.m. Thursday, City Attorney Mike Rankin had considered the issue and told the manager no permit should be issued for any painting on city streets. A little after 5 p.m., on the eve of a three-day weekend, City Rankin sent the council an email arguing that the earlier “Black Lives Matter” painting shouldn’t have been allowed either.

“We should not consider or grant any permits authorizing people to paint or otherwise mark our streets (or a permit to close the street for that work) for the purpose of conveying a message, regardless of the content of the proposed message. Doing so would open up our streets as a public forum for this purpose, and the award or denial of a permit request could not be based on the content of the message or the identity of the applicant/speaker. It is my opinion and advice that this would be an untenable situation that could quickly run out of control.”

Of course, we’re seeing conflict go out of control now, thought it didn’t have to be that way. With her afternoon post, Mayor Romero blew up a relatively small issue into a big mess, dividing the City Council and government, for no good reason.

The city would be better served if the mayor did what she wants the police to do — de-escalate.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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