In the fragile light of sunrise on a frigid morning, a group of five protesters stepped in front of Mayor Michelle Wu’s Roslindale home with bullhorns. It was just past 7 a.m.
“Good morning! Good morning!” blared their music, a piercing children’s song that built to an abrasive chorus. A passing runner stopped in her tracks and confronted the demonstrators, who have rallied this week against Boston’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for city employees.
“You’re waking her kids up,” said the runner, who later identified herself as Kelly Gallagher, a mother of two who lives around the corner. “If you want to go protest, you can go to City Hall.”
“Paging Dr. Wu,” a voice boomed through the bullhorn. “Paging Dr. Wu.”
Political protests have traditionally taken place in the public square, from Boston Common to City Hall Plaza. But in this heated, pitched political climate, demonstrators are increasingly taking their grievances straight to politicians’ doorsteps, frustrating neighbors and testing the boundaries of public expression and personal privacy. The in-your-face demonstrations are happening on both sides of the partisan divide, from environmentalists desperately pushing actions against climate change to conservatives and libertarians opposing vaccination mandates during the pandemic.
Governor Charlie Baker’s Swampscott home has been routinely picketed in recent years, on issues from housing and climate change to the opioid crisis, prompting numerous trespassing arrests and one civil harassment prevention order. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu canceled his outdoor inauguration last year after armed protesters began showing up in his backyard to protest his statewide mask ordinance.
In October, activists lobbying for a federal climate change bill began stalking Democratic holdouts whose votes would be essential. “Kayaktivists” paddled up to the houseboat of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, and others chased him dockside, chanting “We want to live!” Student activists bird-dogged Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema right into a public bathroom.
“Everyone believes if you’re an elected official you have no privacy whatsoever,” said state Representative Steven Howitt, a Seekonk Republican.
Political dissent and peaceful protests are protected rights, and political leaders are expected to listen to their constituents’ concerns. Those who complain could be viewed as ducking accountability or squelching free speech.
But Howitt is among those who believe there should be reasonable limits to insulate politicians and their family members from the tumult of the job. He filed a bill last year that would prohibit demonstrations within 100 yards of the home of any elected official. In September, the Los Angeles City Council took steps to bar protests within 100 yards of any residence after demonstrations against vaccination mandates were held outside councilors’ homes.
In Boston, protesters last month disrupted Wu’s announcement of the new mandate, which requires city workers to be vaccinated, eliminating a testing alternative. Then early this month, they disrupted the City Council inauguration, blaring sirens and chanting “Shame on Wu!”
One day last week, they began showing up outside the two-family house that Wu shares with her husband, two children, and mother.
“Mayor Wu, we don’t want to inconvenience your neighbors,” one of them said through a bullhorn on Wednesday. “But you’re taking my job!”
Among the demonstrators was Shana Cottone, a Boston police sergeant who leads Boston First Responders United, a group that organized in opposition to the vaccination mandate; she’s currently on leave for an internal affairs probe that she claims is retaliatory.
Holding a sign that read “LGBT First Responder Against Forced Medicine,” Cottone said activists went to the mayor’s house because City Hall is closed. “When you’re not being listened to, you have to do this as a last resort,” she said.
Cottone said she opposes the mandate based on strongly held religious beliefs, which she declined to explain. She rejects the idea of the government intervening on personal health care decisions, even to protect public health.
“Who is the government to tell me I’m not entitled to die?” Cottone said.
She and the other protesters — including a corrections officer who said she lost her job because of the state’s vaccine mandate — focused their arguments on the vaccine’s inability to prevent the spread of COVID-19, especially the highly transmissible Omicron variant. Some, who did not give their names, mocked Roslindale resident Beth Nolan for wearing a mask outside as she challenged them to present evidence for their claims.
“This is unacceptable,” Nolan said of the demonstration in her neighborhood.
It’s unclear, though, exactly how protests could be swept from public streets and sidewalks under the First Amendment. Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a Boston police spokesperson, noted that police would take action against any criminal behavior and that demonstrators could be arrested for trespassing if they go on private property. The city municipal code restricts loud noise between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Boyle said police have increased the “uniformed presence” outside Wu’s house since the protests began but would not comment further on her security detail.
Individuals would typically need to go to court to establish harassment and try to stave off protesters. Seven people were charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct last fall after hauling a pink sailboat marked with the words “Climate Emergency” onto the governor’s yard and chaining themselves to it. In 2020, first lady Lauren Baker got a protection order against a protester who was leaving hypodermic needles outside the home to demonstrate the drug crisis.
But even a protest of words and signs was too much for some Roslindale neighbors.
“The fact that it’s here is just disgusting to me,” Gallagher said. “It’s just crossing lines.”
When Wu left her house for the SUV that would take her to City Hall, she ignored the demonstrators and the questions Cottone shouted at her.
“Why are you taking my job?” Cottone pleaded. “I’ve served the city for 14 years. Why are you doing this to me? Why?”
In an interview earlier this week, Wu said she tries not to take the protests personally and attributed their vitriol to the “intensity [of] the mistrust in the world right now.” Wu has said publicly that angry calls and social media posts opposing her vaccine efforts often use racist and xenophobic language.
“It’s hard to see how divided we are as a country and how people’s emotions can get channeled into harmful rhetoric,” Wu said.
But the mayor has stood by the vaccine mandate, which held up in court on Wednesday, when a Suffolk Superior Court judge denied police and firefighters a temporary restraining order against the policy, citing the threat of the pandemic.
Cottone said she isn’t clear what she will do if she doesn’t get her job back.
“I’m taking it day by day, that’s all I can do,” she said.
A police sergeant whom Nolan recognized for her good work in the neighborhood, Cottone admitted some misgivings about her protests. On Tuesday, when she screamed in the car window at the mayor, she sensed she scared Wu, Cottone said.
“I don’t want to make people feel that way. That’s not who I am. I want to make people safe,” she said. “But like, I feel scared. She’s going to take my livelihood from me.”
On Tuesday night, she had a dream that involved the mayor, she said.
“In my dream, I was protecting her,” Cottone said. “I don’t know what it means.”
Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this report.