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Why a bust of Maya Angelou was vandalized at BPL during an anti-vaccine protest

Opposition to COVID mandates is a modern version of “state’s rights” — a cloaked excuse for white grievance.

Whoever doused that bust of Angelou could have used water instead of gasoline. I’m guessing that the perpetrator used a flammable liquid as a symbol of immolation, something history shows has been done both to books and Black people.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Maya Angelou has nothing to do with COVID-19 protocols or mandates.

The legendary poet, author, and activist died in 2014, years before this pandemic proved to be as lethal to common sense and basic decency as it continues to be for human lives. In recent weeks, there have been what the Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association describes as “multiple hateful incidents” involving unmasked anti-vaccine protesters who trespassed in children’s rooms and intimidated staff and visitors in at least two Boston libraries. During one of them, a bust of Angelou was vandalized at the Central branch in Copley Square.


“Someone had poured gasoline on the statue,” Maty Cropley, the library association’s president, told Boston 25 News. “These are really ugly incidents at the library.”

Gasoline isn’t something someone just happens to carry in a pocket or bag like a tin of breath mints. It was intentionally brought to the library, and that bust was targeted during the first week of Black History Month. Officials aren’t saying whether this vandalism is directly connected to the protests, but Cropley called its participants “a group that is opposed to masking, vaccines, and diversity.”

Diversity has nothing to do with masking or vaccines, yet it’s telling how some protesters see them as common evils to be stopped. Since the 2020 anti-lockdown protests erupted in various state capitals, most notably Michigan, dissent against COVID protocols and mandates has become a convenient catch-all for white grievance. While the anti-vax sentiment didn’t start with this pandemic, it’s become a modern-day cry of “states’ rights.” That’s the lie that was pushed by white Southerners as a pretext for the Civil War when what they wanted to protect was a right to keep Black people enslaved.

It’s no mistake that Confederate flags were seen during this month’s so-called Freedom Convoy in Ottawa. While many participants in Canada’s trucker protests claimed they were angry about restrictive pandemic measures, that didn’t explain why Confederate flags, swastikas, and other symbols of racism and anti-Semitism were abundant. What the COVID pandemic has emboldened is that other pandemic, which has persisted for centuries — hate and intolerance.


This is the venom driving the well-financed outrage over critical race theory and LGBTQ issues. These are the same forces backing Florida’s “don’t say gay” and “discomfort” bills that are designed to diminish LGBTQ existence, bowdlerize American history, abolish discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and ban books.

Here in Massachusetts, we arrogantly cling to the false narrative that this state has outgrown the archaic attitudes prevalent in red states. What’s happening in Boston’s libraries speaks to white extremism that has never been bound by geography. In Waltham this month, someone removed every book with an LGBTQ reference in the title from a “Little Queer Library,” a small decorated structure that offers free books to the public. The little library, which sits outside the home of Katie Cohen and Krysta Petrie, is adorned with rainbow colors.

“We don’t necessarily consider it a theft, since the books are provided for free,” Cohen told NBC Boston. “We do consider it censorship. We do consider it harassment.”

If she were alive today, Angelou would have recognized these fraught times of hate and fear. It was nothing she hadn’t experienced. Her seminal 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is one of the most banned books ever, according to the American Library Association. In the past two decades alone, it has been challenged or banned in at least 10 states. Last year, it was briefly removed from an Alaska school district for its unvarnished depictions of sexual violence, racism, and what one board member called “anti-white messaging.”


Anything that does not exalt whiteness is branded as anti-white and therefore objectionable.

Only those who still won’t see through the anti-vaccination protests would be surprised that Angelou’s bust was vandalized at the BPL. Libraries and librarians nationwide are under siege from right-wing attacks that also seek to erase Black lives. Vandalizing a statue of a Black woman writer who dared this nation to look at itself is pointed, painful, and on-brand.

Whoever doused that bust of Angelou could have used water instead of gasoline. I’m guessing that the perpetrator used a flammable liquid to evoke immolation, something history shows has been done both to books and Black people.

Perhaps we should listen to Angelou, who left a warning for the ages: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” From Ottawa to our local libraries, these protests have surpassed refusals to wear a mask or get a jab in the arm. Their participants keep showing who they are. It’s long past time for us to believe them.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.