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Democracy is in danger and so are the people fighting for it, because white comfort leads to American violence

From Michelle Wu to Rachael Rollins, being women of color in politics always meant dealing with debate and dissent. It shouldn’t mean death threats and violence.

Beth Nolan, a resident of Mayor Michelle Wu's Roslindale neighborhood, argued with anti-vaccine protesters outside of Wu’s home.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

One nation, divisible. In America, liberty and justice were never meant for all.

The minute we take strides toward equity, the Make America Great Again sector of the country is threatened. True equity is received as a threat to those who delight in supremacy and power.

Systemic oppression prevents us from liberation and makes white folk who hunger for hierarchy uncomfortable. And when white people who believe in whiteness as a power structure are in anguish, they lash out.

This has always been America’s way and recently, we’ve been reminded that even as we climb, supremacists will stop at nothing to tear us down.

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Look at them outside Mayor Michelle Wu’s home, under the guise of peaceful protests, with their cowbells and whistles and hateful rhetoric. Note the vilifying tone set by Tucker Carlson and Ted Cruz, opening the door to threats against US Attorney Rachael Rollins. They called her a danger and pro-criminal — yet overall violence in our city is down. Remember the way Donald Trump held the power of the presidential seat and targeted congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib?

“As women of color in politics — especially Black women — we are all too familiar with the vitriol and constant threats of violence that come with claiming our rightful place in the world and in the halls of Congress,” Pressley told me in a statement last week. “And while these attempts to silence and debase us only strengthen our resolve, we can’t accept them as par for the course for women seeking careers in public life. We must root out these sexist attacks wherever they exist and continue to shed light on them so other women dealing with this kind of hatred know they’re not alone.”

They’ll put our faces on money and tell us we’re worthless at the same time. We’ve normalized the notion to whitewash history, demonize true justice and equity, and destroy anyone working to build a true democracy.

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Then-City Councilor Michelle Wu, with her son, greeted people at a Chinatown event in 2020. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Upon winning a historic mayoral election, the xenophobic and sexist attacks against Wu have only surged. When she introduced the B Together indoor vaccine mandate and a city worker vaccine requirement to slow the spread and severity of COVID-19, the backlash was swift and aggressive.

Time and again, protestors have shown up at her home, first with bullhorns, now with cowbells. Beyond the noise, they scream hateful things. There have been calls rooted in anti-Asian and sexist rhetoric. And even more sinister threats.

“What these people mean when they are shouting my kids will grow up alone, without me, you see the fabric of our democracy is frayed, hanging on by a thread right outside your house. As a mom, it’s staggering,” Wu said.

Those are death threats. These folk are viciously angry over a vaccine mandate to protect people in Boston, where over 80 percent of residents are vaccinated with at least one dose and more than 90 percent of city workers already are, too.

I remember when protestors sat on the front lawn of Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. They were arrested, facing felony charges. They welcomed themselves to his front yard to protest police brutality and unjust processes in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder. A killing.

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And yet, a Boston.com online survey found over 90 percent of respondents felt there is nothing wrong with anti-vax protests at Wu’s home. The juxtaposition is real.

“My job is to be available to constituents and to take on hard issues that come with difficult conversations,” she said. “I try my best to have those conversations at City Hall, out in the community, through social media. People have every right to disagree with our policies and make their voices heard, but when someone’s children are there, young kids, it causes other impacts. It’s not just disagreeing with policy.”

America was founded on feeding off the suffering of others and calling it freedom. With each move toward liberation, comes a fight for our lives. We saw it after the Civil War with Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. We saw it last January with the insurrection.

Erecting a noose and waving confederate flags, carrying bats and sticks, thousands invaded the Capitol. It was the result of a supremacist president and people who believe that because their candidate didn’t win, they are oppressed. They attacked democracy and called it patriotism.

Several hundred were arrested. Not even a quarter of them have been successfully sentenced. Some are even running for office.

To protect white comfort, a push for oppressive measures continues to rise.

We are seeing it in the blocking of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, in the banning of books by authors of color, in the vilification of critical race theory, in Florida’s new “Individual Freedom,” bill.

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Public schools and businesses will be prohibited from making people “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin.” That sounds progressive until you realize the people pushing this bill, like Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, are specifically targeting teaching about racism in meaningful ways that don’t shy away from the systemic and ever-present existence of inequity.

The legislation prevents employers from subjecting “any individual, as a condition of employment, membership, certification, licensing, credentialing or passing an examination, to training, instruction, or any other required activity” that promotes certain concepts related to race and racism. This could easily prevent corporate diversity and inclusion efforts.

To even talk about racism and the role it plays in everyday American life, how it is baked into legislative, legal, academic, corporate, social, and economic systems, is considered an attack on white folk.

So what does that mean for the officials we elect to protect our freedom and dismantle unjust systems? What does it mean for those who dare to dream of new possibilities for American living?

US Attorney Rachael Rollins.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Rollins, sworn in earlier this month as the first Black woman to serve as US attorney for Massachusetts, has been repeatedly threatened.

“We are all on edge,” Rollins told me days before starting her new role. “When someone says you’re nothing but an f***ing N-word and you will die a f***ing N-word and somebody is going to put two in your head, that doesn’t leave anything for interpretation. When it comes to my three girls, I’m not going to put them in jeopardy or myself. It’s tough to feel like you have to argue for your protection.”

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Former Trump secretary of education Betsy DeVos was immediately protected by US Marshals following taunts by hecklers. But the same defense wasn’t extended to Rollins. The marshal service didn’t deem the Black woman at the center of a historic roll call vote, a national debate in which she was being demonized as pro-criminal, a woman who is being told she deserves to die, as someone to keep safe.

Fortunately, some Boston police feel differently.

“Members of local law enforcement have been incredibly supportive in making sure I am safe when I am home,” she said. “They told me, ‘I don’t agree with a lot of what you say but you and your girls will not be in jeopardy when you are here.’ ”

We should be able to disagree without rage that harms people. We must resist the American urge to be selective about who gets protection.

“My 17-year-old daughter, 12-year-old niece, and 8-year-old niece did not sign up for this job. I am fine being criticized but do it at my job. Leave my family out of it. To be honest, if you have to revert to racist rhetoric and death threats, we can’t have a conversation. How is that moving us forward? It’s exhausting to have to remind people of your value,” Rollins said.

And it’s a kind of heavy people of color grow up with. As a little girl, Wu remembers strangers mocking her language and holding their eyes. Now she has to have hard conversations with her sons, much like Rollins is having to protect her girls the way her parents had to protect her.

“As a woman of color in office, you not only experience a different kind of intensity and disagreement, but when you speak about it, it intensifies even more. I am at the point where I am being called racist for calling out racism,” Wu said.

“I am, in fact, privileged in that I am surrounded by resources and people who are thinking about my security and investigating death threats. There are countless members of our community who are subject to systemic violence who have no dedicated security and support.”

To have her life on the line, to be compared to Hitler, and to have so much of it happen in front her children? It’s all too much but her dedication to the city stands strong. She firmly believes we are all in pain and this isn’t personal. We just have to keep working toward progress.

“I try to think on a scale of systems rather than challenges with any particular person who is upset or directing their emotions at me,” she said. “They are still part of broken systems.”

One nation, divisible. Until we realize the comfort of some means the freedom of none.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.