Early on a recent Wednesday morning, in a residential section of Roslindale, the skies were pink and the cars were asleep in their driveways. Half-a-dozen protesters had gathered outside a nondescript green duplex on Augustus Avenue, standing quietly in the 19-degree chill — until 7 a.m., when they shattered the frigid quiet with whistles, recorders, and drums.
“Good MOR-ning!” one woman screamed to the percussion’s steady beat. Another joined: “WAKEY, WAKEY, EGGS AND BAC-Y!”
The revolution has come to Roslindale. Most mornings since early January, this tranquil street of single- and multifamily homes has played host to pre-sunrise protests against its most prominent resident, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu. The acrimonious dispute over Wu’s vaccine requirement for city employees — now on hold amid a legal battle with first responders unions — has come to define her early tenure in City Hall. Lately, it’s been disrupting her early-morning life at home, too.
Wu’s neighbors say they love this quiet area for its community feel: the coffees with a friend across the street, the backyard barbecues in summer. Now, their block has taken center stage in one of the city’s ugliest political dramas — and the performances start before dawn.
7:05 a.m. — Shouting, in unison: “SHAME ON WU! SHAME ON WU!”
How are Wu’s neighbors enjoying their new morning guests?
“Not at all,” said Lou Janos as he took out his dog Rosie, a skittish lab mix. It was just after 7 a.m., and the drums and whistles were beating in time, deafening from where Janos stood on a stretch of grass near Wu’s home. The protests wake him, his wife, and their baby every morning, Janos said; once upon a time, the neighborhood was “extremely” quiet.
When they arrived that morning, the protesters had been quiet, too, bearing Ugg boots, American flags, and a banner proclaiming that “Medical Freedom is the New Civil Rights Movement.” At 6:59 a.m., one woman retrieved the musical instruments from the trunk of her white SUV; a minute later, it began.
Their timing reflects a strict attention to the local noise ordinance, which requires quiet until 7 a.m. But neighbors — some of whom have become amateur detectives, downloading sound-tracking apps on their cellphones — say the demonstrations often exceed the ordinance’s 70-decibel limit. After dozens of neighbors met with local police last month, the protesters have been forbidden to use electronic amplification devices like speakers and bullhorns, but no other enforcement action has been taken.
Even without those devices, the protesters made their thunderous presence known. One woman banged a plastic trash can against a metal mail collection box; another, in oversized oatmeal-colored mittens, rat-tat-tatted on a snare drum; a third made good use of a whistle. Others relied on powerful, indefatigable voices. (“It’s like having a Blue Man Group audition out there,” joked Liz Graham-Meredith, who lives nearby.)
The sound travels up hills and around bends, to houses blocks and blocks away. By now, Wu’s neighbors have learned to adjust their routines. They have shifted forward or back the times of their morning runs and dog walks; they are waking up earlier and leaving for work before the drumming and screaming begin. They are blaring NPR in their kitchens, attempting to drown out the shouts.
One neighbor’s dog, a golden doodle named Nikita, panics when she hears the protesters, freezing in place.
Mark Drinkwater, who lives just across the street from Wu, has taken to documenting the protesters’ antics on his Twitter account. (“Back starting around 7:04,” he reported recently. “Music director must be late because drums, cowbells, whistles, and voices seem to lack coordination this morning.”)
A nurse practitioner who deployed to Bosnia and Guantanamo Bay as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, Drinkwater said the racket sometimes triggers memories of his military service, particularly the riot control training.
When the demonstrations began weeks ago, a handful of neighbors — some wearing bathrobes — came out to talk with the protesters, attempting to persuade them to quiet down or to relocate their grievances to City Hall. They did not succeed. Neighbors have mulled counterprotests, but many decided that would only encourage their morning tormentors.
Now, when they pass by, in cars or on foot, alone with their headphones or led by a dog on a leash, most neighbors just keep their heads down.
7:11 a.m. — A call and response: ”NO VAX MANDATE!” one protester shouted; “NO VAX PASSPORT!” the others returned. Across the street and out of rhythm, one protester editorialized: “NO MASK MANDATE!”
Wu faces opposition to her vaccine mandates practically everywhere she goes. The firefighters union has protested across Boston, dogging her at City Hall and at unrelated public appearances. But it’s just this smaller troupe that has focused its anger and energies on Augustus Avenue and Wu’s family life, a choice many neighbors and elected officials say crosses a line. The protesters typically number under a dozen. Many are mothers; at least some are or were public safety workers. One, Shana Cottone, is a Boston police sergeant who was recently put on leave amid an internal affairs investigation. Another, Melissa George, is a former state corrections officer who lost her job because she did not get the vaccine. George said she is not antivaccine, but believes employees should get to choose for themselves.
Neighbors said that months ago, before the protests even began, Wu apologized to them for the police car now perennially stationed on their street. She has apologized to some of them again for the noise. And she sometimes leaves her house early in an effort to spare them, figuring the protesters will depart when she does. But that can spark yet more ire. By the protesters’ tortured logic, the mayor is to blame for the disturbance.
“Wu leaves here early, leaving us to come here and disrupt her neighbors. Doesn’t even care about her neighbors, she just wants to sneak out for herself,” one protester complained in a video posted online last month.
“Sneaky little Wu,” she added. “Selfish little Wu.”
The mayor’s neighbors take a decidedly more positive view of her. They enjoy the block parties Wu throws with her husband, Conor; they fret over what effect the protests may have on Wu’s mother, who lives downstairs and struggles with mental illness, as well as on the mayor’s two young sons. Wu said on Twitter that when she turned 37 last month, one of the boys was confused about why the protesters were shouting “Happy birthday, Hitler!”
Joe Cappuccio, a 96-year-old World War II veteran who is Wu’s next door neighbor, has lived in his home since 1946 and never before had a complaint about the area. Until now, Roslindale was just another sleepy Boston neighborhood, and Wu was just another friendly neighbor. Lately, though, their block has felt like a theater for one of the country’s most painful political wars.
“You’re doing this to be at the pinnacle of frustration for the mayor and others, in the hope that our neighborly frustration somehow motivates Mayor Wu to change,” Graham-Meredith, another neighbor, said. “But it just seems like the wrong way to go about trying to get your point across.”
Robin Chalfin, who lives nearby, hopes the protests will bring the neighborhood closer together. Last month, she and her 12-year-old twin daughters canvassed door to door, distributing copies of the local noise ordinance and collecting signatures on an oversized card.
“We <3 U, Wu family,” her daughters wrote on the front in pink and purple marker — that is, we love you. Inside was an array of encouraging notes from neighbors, neat script from adults and tentative signatures from kids just learning their letters. “Together we create the beloved community,” they promised.
7:19 a.m. — “YOU WANT TO DEFUND THE POLICE, BUT YOU’VE GOT SIX OF THEM OUT HERE EVERY MORNING!”
Almost as many officers as protesters stand watch outside Wu’s home, and by now, the two groups have something of an understanding. One protester thanked the officers recently, explaining that he was there to disrupt Wu but hated to cause them any trouble.
That is a “positive sign,” said former police commissioner William Gross. Communication between demonstrators and officers is crucial for ensuring that protests stay peaceful, added Gross, who supported Wu’s opponent in last year’s mayoral election.
But some critics wonder if the officers should be doing more. After weeks of 311 and 911 complaints from neighbors, and a well-attended community meeting with local police, the demonstrators have not been moved away from Wu’s home, and no arrests have been made.
At any protest, police must walk a tightrope, protecting demonstrators’ free speech rights while preserving the peace. That line grows even tighter when the protest launches at 7 a.m. on a quiet residential street, and when it targets the mayor, who also happens to be their boss, and who also happens to be pitching policies that many of their colleagues oppose.
Still, law enforcement has discretion in such situations; what one officer might consider an arrest-worthy offense, another might shrug off with a warning. The protesters are not trespassing, nor are they violent, but law enforcement experts said their behavior lives in a kind of gray area, where greater enforcement could be legally justified, but might be unwise. Neighbors said police advised them to ignore the protests as best they could, warning that arrests would only inflame the situation.
Wu’s relationship with the city’s public safety workers was arguably tense even before the vaccine mandate sparked widespread anger; though she has denied that she wants to “defund” the police, Wu has proposed major changes to the department’s operations. According to self-reported campaign finance data from last year’s election, roughly one in 10 Boston Police Department employees gave to Wu’s opponent, former city councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, who brought in about 50 times more money than Wu from city police officers and firefighters.
By virtue of its geography, the mayor’s home is guarded by officers from District E-5. Cottone, a protest organizer, is a police sergeant in that district, though she’s currently on leave.
Gerard Bailey, chief of the Police Department’s Bureau of Field Services, said in an interview that officers at the scene do their job impartially, putting aside their own political views and any familiarity they may have with protesters.
“There’s no conflict. Regardless of who’s at a protest, or who’s in the crowd, they’re basically going to be professional,” Bailey said. “We’re doing the best that we can as far as making sure everyone’s rights are protected there. . . . Overall, it’s been going OK.”
It’s not clear how big a role Wu herself plays in dictating the so-far low-key response to the protests, and her office did not answer questions about it. But several former local law enforcement officials said City Hall is likely at least giving input on the police response.
Wu has shown “a tremendous amount of restraint,” said former Suffolk County district attorney Rachael Rollins, both in the way she carries herself personally and “in the response we’ve seen from the Boston Police Department and the city.”
Others were more blunt.
“If the mayor wanted [the protesters] gone, she would have made that call by now, and that would be history,” said Tom Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who teaches at Emmanuel College. “Many of us looking at this say, ‘You’ve clearly crossed the line here, and if not for the patience and forbearance of the mayor, you would’ve been in handcuffs weeks ago.’ ”
For her part, Wu has said she tries not to take the demonstrations personally, but worries about the toll they take on her mother and neighbors.
“I’m grateful to the officers who deal with this alongside us in the mornings, often becoming targets of insults and aggressive threats from the crowd as they do their jobs. I’m especially thankful for our detail team who are always professional and focused on supporting community,” Wu said in a statement to the Globe. “I’m confident in their ability to keep our community and me safe.”
On that recent, frigid morning, it was Wu’s appearance that pitched the protest into a frenzy.
At 7:23 a.m., an officer walked up Wu’s driveway. A black SUV approached.
For the protesters, these were familiar cues. The drums picked up, the whistles squealed, the shouts crescendoed.
“HOW MANY SHOTS DOES IT TAKE TO BE FREE? HOW MANY SHOTS DOES IT TAKE TO BE FREE?”
“WU, YOUR RIDE’S HERE!”
“I AM NOT YOUR LAB RAT!”
Wu walked down her driveway, in a blue coat and with a calm expression. The shouts grew frenzied, cross-talking one another.
“SHAME ON YOU!”
“WE HAVE CHILDREN TOO!”
Wu climbed into the passenger seat and pulled on a black mask. Protesters clustered in the street in the path of the car. The driver honked.
At 7:25 a.m., as the car took off toward Poplar Street after a brief delay, the whistles faded. With Wu gone, the morning’s mission accomplished and their point made, the protesters grew relaxed, almost jovial. One asked another if she was headed to the day’s next demonstration (she was). After a few minutes of milling around, they headed to their cars, too. For the neighbors, it marked a familiar moment of exquisite relief.
By 7:30 a.m., the street was quiet again. But for the sole police car stationed outside the green house, it could have been any other block in Roslindale.