Courting 36 Court: Chris Pohner’s Online Commentariat…
UPDATED 4:41PM: To include comment from Mayor Sarno, reference to Pohner’s comments to The Republican, and clarification about “bathroom bills.”
SPRINGFIELD—In 2016, after decades of trying, momentum was building to enforce the city’s residency ordinance. Most of the city’s bargaining units had accepted compliance. Applying it to public safety unions, however, was complicated by the right to interest arbitration. The rhetoric hit a boiling point as some residency supporters insisted the district fire chiefs were already obligated to live in the city.
Lawsuits were filed and Council allies called for these chiefs to move to the city or lose their jobs. Some suggested, in comments posted to a Masslive story, that the district fire chiefs give back some salary to waive the residency requirement. One commenter suggested a 10% cut might merit a waiver. A reply comment, linked to a Springfield resident and now-Council candidate Chris Pohner, suggested an alternative figure with a flourish of colorful language.
“I’m sure most would give 5% to stay out of Mudville.” A Masslive commenter called “firebird” wrote that on March 31, 2016. “Firebird” was connected to Pohner through Internet archives that indicate the screen name operated under a user called “cpohner.” Firebird also speaks in the first person about events in Pohner’s life.
Pohner’s digital trail extends to Facebook. Using his own profile, he made explicit and degrading comments about gays, seemingly menaced transgender people, and called former First Lady Michelle Obama a “tranny.”
Masslive recently purged old comments, including firebird’s. However, WMassP&I has reviewed screenshots of firebird’s comment library. Most are anodyne remarks on crime, the Fire Department and general news. Some are dehumanizing in various ways, but, in isolation not bigoted. Others, like the Mudville comment, veer into outright racism.
Pohner, a retired city firefighter, placed fifth in Springfield’s September 10 preliminary election. An at-large Council seat has opened due to Timothy Ryan’s decision to seek the open Ward 6 seat instead of reelection at-large.
Pohner’s promising position was something of a surprise. Though he has had mailers, signs and a TV ad, other first-time candidates have had these and gained no traction.
Observers, note, however, he has a large family, firefighter support, and Mayor Domenic Sarno’s backing. Although the mayor does not command a machine as in Springfields past, Sarno has lent time and energy to Pohner’s bid, including an appearance at a September fundraising in Liberty Heights.
A spokesperson for Sarno did not immediately return a request for comment Monday night before publication. However, on Tuesday, the mayor released a statement that called the comments “disgusting and totally unacceptable.”
“There is no place in our society for this hateful rhetoric,” the statement continued. “Based upon this turn of events, I certainly would not support any candidate, who partakes in this type of activity.”
Notably, Pohner’s campaign has little social media presence aside from a few campaign events distributed via his personal page. However, that same Facebook account is where some of his most controversial commentary is located.
For example, Pohner’s comments about Michelle Obama appeared on the temporary Facebook photo a user posted in early 2017. It was clearly a lament about the impending departure of the Obamas.
In deference to the privacy settings of non-public figures, WMassP&I has not named other Facebook users in this story.
Pohner responded to the photo by commenting, innocuously enough, “sickening.” The remark did nothing more than register his opinion, to which he is entitled. While the poster disagreed, there was no escalation. (The poster ostensibly supports Pohner and has assisted his campaign on Facebook).
Others chimed in, however, in with clear laments about Obama’s successor. Then Pohner turned to the now-former First Lady.
“[H]obama looks like a tranny,” Pohner wrote.
In another thread on the same photo, Pohner continued his critique of the 44th president in no earth-shattering ways and without resorting to problematic attacks. He caps his critique of the former president with “Obama sucks and so does his tranny wife.”
Pohner did not reply to a late Monday afternoon email offering an opportunity to comment on his Facebook activity and firebird’s comments. On Tuesday, after this story was published, Pohner confirmed to The Republican that he was firebird and that this was his Facebook account. However, he denied writing the remarks and gave conflicting accounts as to the provenance and disposition of these comments.
The statements about Michelle Obama wade through misogyny and transphobia, but his comments also segue into graphic and demeaning remarks about gay people.
Homophobia is not entirely new territory for Pohner, but the Facebook comment was an escalation from things firebird, the Masslive commenter linked to Pohner, had posted.
On September 26, 2015, firebird made a comment about then-Council President Michael Fenton’s objection to jersey barriers near MGM’s worksite.
“What does Fenton know about construction, outside of his favorite village people singer,” firebird wrote on September 28, 2015.
Fenton, to date Springfield’s only LGBTQ Council President, was born several years after The Village People peaked. The disco-era group’s shtick was its hyper-masculine gay personas, among them a sole construction worker.
Fenton declined to comment.
These remarks, and another one about “being the tough guy in a gay bar” can be dismissed as, at worst, gauche or stereotypical. Certainly, the Village People frequently manifest as a pop culture reference, including in this blog—if not to belittle LGBTQ people. Firebird also wrote a positive comment about now-retired Springfield Police Detective Michael Carney. Carney faced discrimination in the department for being gay, although the story firebird commented on was not about that.
Yet, in January 2017 on Facebook used far more graphic and demeaning language to describe gay people. Someone protested that Pohner’s earlier comments about the First Family was disrespectful to the original poster’s Facebook wall. Pohner had a rejoinder to his interlocutors, some of which appear to identify as LGBTQ.
“Being the only normal (straight) person commenting I expect that type of pussy response, go fart out last nights load, if it is sent to me I comment,” Pohner said.
In May 2018, Pohner was dismissive of LGBTQ history in response to another Facebook user posting about an Illinois law that required the inclusion of the fight for gay rights in curriculum. Other engaged him on the subject, suggesting there was plenty to fill a course. The exchange was civil enough, though, echoing his 2017 rhetoric, he called same-sex behavior “alternative,” a “personal choice” and “avant-garde.” But he was also dismissive, and crudely so, suggesting education on LGBTQ history amounted to little more than pornography.
“Sex straight or otherwise has no place in an educational setting, no one wants to hear where you put your mouth. Stop trying to force feed your lifestyle to the general public,” he wrote.
Then the subject shifted toward transgender rights, namely “bathroom bills,” an often pejorative description for laws that bar discrimination in public accommodations (not just bathrooms) on the basis of gender identity. The term also applies to laws that require people to use toileting facilities that correspond with their gender assigned at birth.
“To close any man that walks into the ladies room behind one my daughters better have his health insurance up to date,” Pohner wrote. He did not define “any man,” but in context it was clearly a reference to transgender people.
Another user called him out for this, but Pohner never contested the characterization.
By the time of these comments, Massachusetts had outlawed transgender discrimination in public accommodations, allowing use of facilities in conformity with one’s gender identity. Assault was illegal then, too.
As with the Obama thread, Pohner was goaded here, to a point. He shrugged off a racism charge, which in context of the thread the accusation seemed gratuitous. But was it wrong?
In the seeming anonymity of the Masslive commentariat, firebird went even further.
With the comments purged, firebird links back to Pohner in two ways. Firebird’s user page, while no longer available on Masslive directly, still appears on the Internet Archive. The web address for firebird clearly references “user/cpohner.” The comments and other data from the profile are not archived due to the nature of Masslive’s site architecture. The data loads separately from the page itself and the Archive could not capture it.
However, WMassP&I was able to view some comments on Masslive in mid-September, among them the Mudville and Fenton comments, before they disappeared.
The screenshot WMassP&I obtained includes other evidence that links the screen name to Pohner. In one late August 2014 comment, firebird, writing in the first-person, recalls being charged with assault and battery in 1996. Springfield District Court records confirm that Pohner was indeed charged with that crime. Courthouse sources that date to the 1990s also recall the charge, but note that he was not convicted.
Firebird’s comments range from contempt for various subjects of news stories to arguments with other posters to incisive, if brusque analysis of the Springfield Fire Department. Among them is a reasonable defense of then-Commissioner Joseph Conant, after he was assaulted by an ex-firefighter.
As for more racially fraught comments, there is a range. Some are boilerplate talking points common among the American right. These attribute crime and lack of upward mobility to personal choices or complain about events discussing white privilege.
Yet, the comments take a viler turn. Many clearly shuffle along the spectrum of racially insensitive or racially charged. But in addition to fire chief contract Mudville comment—on the same thread, firebird tests Godwin’s Law by comparing councilors’ demand that chiefs move to the city to Hitler—many comments are outright racist with a soupçon of body-shaming.
On January 18, 2015, there was a comment on a story about a Black Lives Matter protest that shut down I-93 in Massachusetts. “Interesting, one usually sees overweight white girls driving black males around the town catering to their parasitic needs,” firebird wrote. Young white women were among the protesters.
Responding to another commenter about an attack in Springfield’s Liberty Heights neighborhood, firebird wrote, “What color was [former Libyan leader] Kadafi, what color was [former Ugandan leader] Idi Amin, no need to go back in history, this is the present and there is no denying that minorities have been spinning their wheels in the game of life, especially in Springfield.”
It is not entirely clear what prompted this firebird response, written on October 3, 2015 in reply to users islaguam and vpmzz0164. WMassP&I was not able to view this comment and its parent comments in situ on Masslive before the purge. By comparison, WMassP&I did view the Mudville comment and its parent comment attached to the chiefs article.
It is not clear whether supporters of Pohner are aware of his social media past. In his statement, Sarno said he “was not aware of these past comments or social media activity attributed to Mr. Chris Pohner.”
Yet, some, like the mayor, have experience with unearthed online comments, suggesting they should have checked Pohner’s digital closets.
In June 2017, Sarno broke off district fire chief contract talks after two district chiefs’ racially insensitive Facebook posts came to light. That August, a city cop seemingly cracked a joke about mowing down protesters after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Protester Heather Heyer was murdered in the carnage. Sarno implemented a social media policy shortly after that. It was eventually incorporated into several collective bargaining contracts.
“The affirmation of mutual respect is the key ingredient here,” Sarno said in a statement to The Republican announcing the social media policy in 2017. “We are all public servants/officials, who must be held to a higher standard in order to continue to earn the trust and respect of the community we serve and represent.”