In recent years, we’ve seen no shortage of hateful, vile, reprehensible behavior exhibited towards women and people of color. Over the past weeks, protesters have directed that hate toward Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, hurling misogynistic slurs and threatening violence outside her home in Roslindale. We don't have to accept this behavior.
Ostensibly, the outrage is over the mayor’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. And to be sure, the mandate isn’t window-dressing — it requires people to be vaccinated in indoor spaces such as restaurants and gyms as well as theaters and sports venues. It’s a big step, and an important one, given how rapidly the virus has overwhelmed our health care system, completely within the mayor’s rights, and an issue she ran on when she rode to victory this November.
But let’s be clear: This has never been about protesting. I’m all in favor of protest, particularly as a person of color and a woman. It was protest that brought about progress both for civil rights and women’s rights. I strongly believe that people have the right to assemble and to protest what they think is wrong or injustice.
Rather, staking out the mayor’s home and using racist language is about intimidating those with whom you disagree — or just plain dislike. These people are referring to Michelle Wu — the first woman and person of color to be elected Boston mayor — as a “communist c---” and a “piece of s---,” painting COVID in racial terms and threatening violence.
We have a name for threatening behavior targeted at people of color and or a specific gender: hate crime.
As a Black woman who has devoted her personal and professional life to building bridges of understanding, I’ve been on the receiving end of hateful, racially charged behavior for decades — and as recently as a week ago for tweeting that Michele Obama should be considered for the Supreme Court. As awful as it is, I’ve learned it comes with the territory for advocating for racial equity and inclusion. Thankfully, no one has ever come to my home to deliver such a message.
It should not be legal to go to private homes and terrorize and traumatize elected officials and their families. Other municipalities, including Los Angeles and St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and the state of Virginia, have enacted limits on protests in residential areas. If you want to protest an elected person or a public figure, go to their place of work — after all, that’s where their work is being done. Private homes should be off-limits.
While the majority of this threatening behavior is happening on the right, this behavior seems to be becoming the new normal — and liberals and progressives aren’t immune to stepping over the line. During the Trump administration, we saw examples of officials being harangued while out at dinner. I wouldn’t have wanted to dine with or serve those people either. But that doesn’t make blowing up in someone’s face in front of their family acceptable.
However, showing up at a mayor’s home at 7 a.m. with a megaphone and scaring people like the 96-year-old veteran who lives on the street? That should be out of bounds.
City Council President Ed Flynn has noted that his father, Ray Flynn, had protesters at their home during his tenure as Boston mayor in the 1980s and 1990’s — but that this is different. As Flynn said, “The level of intensity that's happening today wasn't there when my father was there, and I honestly believe some of it is related to an anti-Asian sentiment that we have in this country.”
Exactly. There have been far too many examples of anti-Asian hate these past two years — and unfortunately, we’re seeing it continue, and escalate, with our new mayor.
Federal, state and local elected officials spoke out forcefully to condemn the behavior targeting Mayor Wu. But they shouldn’t stop there.
Here’s what they can do: Legislators should enact legislation that establishes rules about protesting at the private homes of public figures (or anyone, for that matter). (One bill is already before lawmakers.) The American Civil Liberties Union — no shrinking violet when it comes to protecting free speech — says speech “does not merit constitutional protection when it targets a particular individual for harm, such as a true threat of physical violence” and believes “regulations that penalize acts of violence, harassment, or threats … can and should be proscribed.”
Not only will better regulating these types of events keep the neighborhood safe, but also keep things from getting out of hand. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone to be killed before taking this disturbing trend seriously.
The founding fathers gave us the right to assemble — they even gave us the right to be boorish. But they didn’t grant us the ability to use those rights to intimidate and terrorize people with whom we disagree. It’s time the Legislature did something about it.
Editors' note: The author's consulting firm was awarded a contract by the city of Boston in a competitive open bid process in 2020 to create the "All Inclusive Campaign" under the previous administration. The campaign is still ongoing under the Wu administration.