The vigil in Lowell was planned to honor the Asian victims of the shootings in Atlanta last month, and to give voice to the outrage that their murders were not initially regarded as hate crimes.
So some in the crowd recoiled when a white city councilor, Rita Mercier, stepped to the microphone. Just last summer, Mercier had opposed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis. Known for inviting federal authorities in 2002 to deport non-citizens who commit crimes, she was also a longtime opponent of reforming an election system that voters argued gave white politicians a lock on power.
“You’ve got some nerve, Rita,” a voice rang out. “You’ve got some nerve.”
Tensions are high as this immigrant city faces the beginning of the end of majority-white rule. The old guard is begrudgingly making room for more diverse leadership after a federal Voting Rights lawsuit by Asian and Latino residents compelled an electoral shakeup, and community activists are demanding that city leaders recognize racism as an urgent problem.
“I really believe in change and I really believe in social justice,” said Tooch Van, a Cambodian refugee who was one of the plaintiffs in the Voting Rights suit and who is now a candidate for City Council. “A lot of people in Lowell, they don’t want to share the pie. They have the pie and they want to hold it.”
Lowell’s population is now one-quarter Asian American and the city is home to the nation’s second-largest hub of Cambodians, many of whom fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s. Yet only two elected city councilors are Asian American; the other seven councilors, like all seven members of the School Committee, are white. White Lowellians now represent a minority of the population — 45 percent — the same as the combined share of Asian American and Latino residents, according to the city manager’s office.
In 2017, Asian and Latino voters argued in federal court that their voting power was diluted by Lowell’s system of all-at-large elections, in which all candidates competed citywide.
City councilors fought the suit for two years before adopting a consent decree that required an overhaul of elections by this fall. In the upcoming municipal elections, the council will be expanded from nine to 11 members. Only three will be elected at-large, while eight will be chosen by the voters in their respective districts — including two where Asians and Latinos make up a majority of the population.
But that has generated competition and resentment among some incumbents, five of whom live in the same neighborhood and will have to compete for political survival. (Mercier was the top vote-getter in 2019 and many prior races since she first ran in 1995.)
At the same time, community activism has been ignited by the racial justice demonstrations of last summer and by last month’s attack on Asian Americans in Atlanta. The death of a Black suspect fleeing Lowell Police in December has spurred weekly protests at City Hall and ensnared the white mayor — whose wife and children have seemed to publicly side with the protestors — in a dispute with both Mercier and police.
And people of color have increasingly clashed with white elected officials who have brushed aside their accounts of discrimination.
At a March council meeting, Lianna Kushi, one of the Voting Rights plaintiffs, spoke up against Mercier for sponsoring a motion that might have seemed benign: Mercier was seeking data on the number of hate crimes against Asians in Lowell. Mercier did not respond to interview requests from the Globe.
Kushi noted that many racist acts fall short of qualifying as hate crimes, and said councilors “don’t believe” the accounts that residents have shared. At a listening session last summer, residents told elected officials about the slights, slurs, and microaggressions they had endured in Lowell. And just weeks ago, a Lowell School Committee member who used an anti-Semitic slur on live public access TV suggested it was common parlance.
“From all the things you have heard and seen over the decades, past year, and past few weeks,” Kushi said, “I don’t think that just collecting data is going to convince you of our humanity.”
Robert Forrant, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said elected leaders praise the city’s diversity but can’t seem to process the way their grip on power has contributed to feelings of exclusion — or even relate the experiences of current newcomers with the struggles of their own immigrant forebears.
“The history in Lowell has been always a history of sort of back and forth between immigrants and the city,” said Forrant, who has studied the mill city’s waves of Irish, French Canadians, Greeks, Portuguese, and Cambodians. “The last group in is usually picked on.”
Still, officials tend to romanticize their city as a place that embraces new arrivals, and to think “Lowell is immune” to racism, Forrant said. “It’s a weird ahistorical position many of them take.”
The disconnect was on vivid display at last month’s vigil after the shootings in Atlanta.
Ani Vong, 39, spoke publicly for the first time about her father, Cambodian refugee Bun Vong, who was beaten to death in Medford in 1985 after a traffic dispute with two white men. In an interview later, Vong said she’d been told the vigil would feature real people’s stories, not political speeches. But Mercier spoke not long after Vong did.
Initially, when she was called out by someone in the crowd, Mercier seemed taken aback: “I’ve got some nerve?” Mercier repeated. “See, that’s hate. Is that not hate?” Stammering a bit, she tried to start again: “I’m sorry, but I’m here trying to make a difference.”
Mercier’s adult daughter, Kellie Dube, grabbed the microphone.
“You people have the audacity to snicker about my mom?” Dube said. (She also did not respond to requests for an interview.)
To Vong, the episode spoke volumes: An event to honor Asian American grief had been “hijacked” by white women.
“We’re crying. We’re dying,” Vong said in an interview. “We are the ones that are being killed because of the color of our skin. You have no idea what that feels like, and you never will.“
While the city of Lowell did not report any hate crimes last year, Asian Americans worry that such acts are underreported. The uptick in hate crimes nationally has prompted many to speak up about the discrimination and diminishing language they often face.
Vong recalled how a frustrated customer in the store where she was working once demanded to know if Vong could read. Later, the customer returned and apologized, saying she’d had “a bad day” — the same phraseology that Atlanta police would use to describe the motivation of last month’s shooter in Asian spas.
“We’re trying to convince people to listen, this is happening, like Black people have been doing for hundreds of years,” Vong said. “Why are you so tone deaf that you won’t just listen to us?”
It remains to be seen how soon the new election format will change the council’s diversity. One of the two Cambodian-Americans already on the council, Vesna Nuon, has joined the crowded competition to hold an at-large seat. In one of the new districts crafted with Asian and Latino majorities, the better-known candidate is a white neighborhood activist, Dave Ouellette. The other is Colombian-born pastor Juan Castaneda, who unsuccessfully ran at-large in 2019. Two Black candidates also have emerged: Bobby Tugbiyele, who founded a recruiting firm, is running at-large, while labor leader Corey Robinson is running in the Centralville district.
Van, the plaintiff-candidate, is sanguine about his odds. Even if he doesn’t win, he hopes that through his lawsuit and his candidacy, he is helping to nudge the city to become a more egalitarian place.
“That’s what I hope from the bottom of my heart — that this lawsuit is in the history books,” Van said. “You have to go with change.”