Mayor Michelle Wu showed up at the B-3 police station in Mattapan shortly before the 7:30 a.m. roll call Thursday with the aim of greeting officers and wishing them happy holidays.
Awaiting her outside the station was a protest against her recent COVID-19 vaccination mandate. One demonstrator held a sign with a doctored image of Wu’s face and a misogynist slur: “communist (expletive).” “Welcome to the Peoples Republic of Boston,” it read. It was unclear if the protesters outside the station were police officers, she said, and a department spokeswoman later said she did not have details about who was at the demonstration.
It was the latest instance of racist and misogynistic vitriol targeting Wu since she announced her COVID-19 policies this week.
In an interview hours after her appearance at the police station, Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who is the first woman and first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston, said, “This isn’t new territory.”
“Often when there are challenging conversations, the pushback or anxiety about change can be framed in terms of race or gender or country of origin,” Wu said.
Thursday’s incident at the police station came just a day after the mayor publicly spoke of the racist pushback she has received in the aftermath of announcing a proof-of-vaccination mandate for some indoor spaces.
Besides the requirements for dining, fitness, and entertainment establishments, she also strengthened a vaccine mandate for the city’s 18,000-strong workforce as COVID-19 cases multiply.
Since that time, Wu said, hateful messages have been spewed not only at her, but also at workers covering the city’s 311 hot line.
“We must continue to call it out and to show that our city can be better than this, our city is better than this,” she said.
Amid the backlash, Wu has said multiple women in public office have reached out to offer support, citing discriminatory abuse they said they have experienced.
“It’s an experience we all share,” she said.
But she said she is willing to face the backlash if it means clear public health guidelines will ease the pressure “on our businesses who have already been struggling for so long with the pandemic.” Wu has said that if no pandemic-related action was taken, businesses would be forced to shut down because people would feel afraid about going out.
The vitriol has not stopped Wu from her day-to-day routine. She continues to take the T and be out and about in the city. Just Wednesday night, she attended the Celtics game at TD Garden. And while she acknowledges that “there is a level of vitriol and hate that has formed over the politics that we see at the national level spilling down everywhere,” she is also confident that the political dynamic can be different at the city level.
“We’re in a moment in our country when trust is in low supply and I truly believe that city government is the place we can start to rebuild that because we are so close to our constituents,” Wu said.
For some female lawmakers of color, the racist and misogynistic backlash was not surprising. In the words of City Councilor Julia Mejia, “The hate is real.”
The Dominican-born Mejia was only in office for a few weeks when a man left her a hate-filled voice mail after she proposed creating sanctuary safe spaces in Boston to protect students from fear of being deported, she said. In the message, he called her mother a criminal for having lived in the country undocumented for years, and referred to Mejia as a fascist, a communist, and a criminal, and said she should be arrested and that he was calling the president about her.
Mejia ultimately invited the man to call her office. The caller took her up on the offer — and apologized.
“When we think about hate in this country, it is usually being geared toward people of color,” Mejia said Thursday.
Mejia recalled Boston’s busing era, when schools were desegregated via court order, and said the city is in many ways still segregated.
“That hate still lingers here in the city,” Mejia said.
She has empathy for Wu and what she is going through.
“It’s really sad that this is the state of affairs that we find ourselves in,” Mejia said.
The backlash against Wu came a week after Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who was confirmed this month as US attorney for Massachusetts after an unusually contentious vote in the Senate, said she faces death threats as a woman and a person of color. Rollins will be the first Black woman to serve as the state’s top federal law enforcement official.
Rollins said Thursday that the threats she received were not vague or nuanced. Many included racist epithets, including the n-word. Some threatened violence against Rollins. Others threatened her children. Despite the threats, federal marshals have declined a request from Rollins for a full-time security detail.
People have the right to disagree or protest a policy, said Rollins, but when the critiques inject race or ethnicity, “It’s not appropriate.”
Rollins said dealing with racist hatred is exhausting and called the backlash against Wu “distressing.”
“Men aren’t often seeing the same type of vitriol that women are,” she said.
Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who is poised to become the only Black member of the state Senate, said the vile comments made against Wu were evidence that such knee-jerk reactions had little to do with COVID-19 policies.
Rather, Edwards said, it showed people were looking for an excuse to express “hatred about losing power and influence.”
“Their real anger is that there is a woman and a person of color running the city of Boston,” said Edwards. “They’re going to use whatever moment and controversy to express disgust and vile hatred.”
People can disagree with a vaccination mandate without being racist or misogynistic, said Edwards. However, the opposition to such a mandate is allowing its narrative to be controlled by bigots, she said.
Those who oppose the mandate but don’t harbor discriminatory views should speak up, Edwards said.
“I’ve been disappointed by their silence,” she said.
And social media can amplify the political message of small groups, making it so “they look bigger than they are.”
“Let’s not forget, Michelle Wu won this election by [nearly] 30 points,” Edwards said.