Trillo, Mattiello, the Bully Justin, and the Question of Our Day


OK. In this post, at least, I’m not going to get into the sordid details of Joe Trillo’s reported assault of the juvenile Nicholas Mattiello back in 1975.  Rather, I think the story, of itself, raises fascinating, important cultural questions:  What sort of world do we live in, and what world should we want to live in?

Let’s imagine a scenario that fits the details we know, but that might not be exactly accurate.  Thirty-something Joe Trillo is doing some work on his house when he hears some neighborhood pre-teens horsing around on a nearby property.  Whether because of the content of their shouts or simple annoyance at their noise, he rages toward the boys, using intemperate language.  Among the kids, young Nicholas Mattiello is so obnoxious that even a local cop can’t help but express his belief that he was asking for some sort of retaliation from the grownup, and that retaliation comes in the form of a few whacks on the head with a caulk gun and escalated threats about vehicular assault.

Surrounding this all is the reality that Trillo’s relationship with his adult neighbors was apparently so bad that they wanted police involvement, and even 40 years later, he’s sufficiently hostile as to go after them with accusations of fabricating evidence.

Now I’ll throw in context, as somebody who lived his childhood before The Great Change that separates Gen X from the Millennials:  This is kind of how life was.  Neighborhoods had blow-hards like the Trillo in the above narrative and punks like the hypothetical young Mattiello.  Nobody expected government authorities to moderate every dispute.  The contempt of the kids sent a signal to the blow-hards that they were behaving like adolescents, and the relatively mild assertions of adult prerogative (like the caulk gun) taught the kids that there were boundaries to their behavior beyond which a stronger adult might issue a correction.

I recall an incident when I was 10 or 11 while I was hanging around the school playground unsupervised on a Saturday with some kids in my grade.  (Yeah, we used to do that sort of thing.)  Some kids who were a year or two older than us descended like the bullies in A Christmas Story.  The lead bully shared my first name and, that day, also shared my wardrobe item of one of those poofy vests that were in fashion at the time.  We younger kids scattered.  My classmate, Matt, tried to get away by climbing a six foot chain-link fence, but bully Justin grabbed his legs.  As Matt fell down, the sharp points of the fence cut open his arm.  (It was no joke, slicing very near to his wrist.)

I had run in the other direction and spent some time wandering around the neighborhoods on that side of the school.  When I returned and saw the bullies gone, I let out a little cheer.  Seeing my slight celebration, a pair of men came up to me and asked my name. When I told them, one of them  picked me up by the collar and started shaking me, shouting.  Fortunately, some of the kids who’d run off with Matt were near enough to rush in and tell his father that I wasn’t the culprit.

I went home scared and crying and told my father, but nobody ever gave the impression that Matt’s dad assaulted me.  He was, however, conspicuously kind for the rest of my childhood, even when his son and I got into fist fights in middle school.

That’s how things were.  We worked them out.  Sometimes — apparently, as with the Trillo-Mattiello altercation — the police would be called in, mostly as a warning to a neighbor that things were going out of bounds.  As part of that process, the legal system would exercise some judgment, such that charges that might follow a person around for his or her entire life were dismissed if they weren’t too serious and everybody got out of it OK.  The idea that such charges would surface some 40 years later in a political campaign — and that people would pay attention to them — would have been laughable.

So, what sort of world do we live in, and what world should we want to live in?  It wasn’t perfect, by any stretch, but we used to live in a world in which we shared a community responsibility to guide each other, and people sometimes erred in their judgment about how to do that.  So, we included checks, balances, and allowances.  The law and social expectations were more like the ropes around a professional wrestling ring than a cage, at least when it came to this smaller interpersonal stuff.  Now, it seems that we have a very strict set of rules applied retroactively and subject to change without warning, like a fence of fluctuating and electrified barbed wire.

Again, how we used to do things needed improvement, but I’d say it was closer to the ideal than where we are now.  Unfortunately, in this case, Joe Trillo reacted to the story in a way that suggests he’s still the same guy he was back then, and therefore objectionable as a candidate.  Voters should take lessons where they find them, but culturally, we need to take lessons, too, and toning down the outrage machine would be a start.  Maybe then we can return to being a community.

  • Monique Chartier

    I agree with the assertions in this post. The conflicts of children and neighbors were and should be worked out without too much involvement of the police and without significance down the road.

    Where Joe Trillo went too far in the incident was to employ a racial epithet as a way of communicating a physical threat (if the report is accurate). I’m not comfortable repeating here, even blanked out, what he is reported to have said. But if the report is accurate, what he said went too far, even for a prior era.

  • breaker94

    I cannot believe anyone with a brain is even discussing this nonsence that happened years ago.

  • Merle The Monster

    Katz is dead wrong. After writing that he won’t write about the “sordid details “ he does anyway. The incident described in the police report from decades ago involving a current candidate for Governor is relevant today and tomorrow. The fact that the current Speaker of the RI House was also involved makes it newsworthy.
    Katz then goes on to make himself part of the story where he was a victim of bullying and then apparently vigilante violence at the hands of an adult. Katz reports that his age was 10 or 11 at the time of his incident. So Katz’s whole point to his story is to contrast how people handled incidents like the one he claims to have been involved in and how incidents are handled now. That had to be at the most 30 years ago. The incident involving Trillo and Mattiello was in 1975 which is 43 years old, virtually the same time frame but that’s not the point. In one incident a justifiedably angry father reported the fact that his son had been assaulted by an adult . In Katz ‘s story he too is sssaulted by an angry father whose vigilante retribution picked the wrong child. Katz says this angry person only stopped “shouting and shaking” him when he learned he had the wrong kid. What might have happened if he had found the other Justin or some other kid?
    Do we really want to live in neighborhoods where adults are free to exact their idea of justice and punishment on neighborhood children and have it go unreported. Just imagine how loud the howls would be from Katz if a scenario similar to his was acted out in one of his hated government school yards and the adult was a schoolteacher.
    The problem with looking backwards and imagining that life looked like a Norman Rockwell painting then is that when we are confronted with troubling allegations that arise after years have passed and we tend to want to wish them away as to preserve something that never existed, we do a disservice to that history. We have seen this recently with the Kavanaugh hearings. Luckily we know more of the character of one of our gubernatorial candidates than we did before. Unluckily we know that the now adult Katz thinks that some assault of children by adults is fine and should go unreported.