Bigotry finds a voice and venue in Massachusetts
Zaki Alaoui, a Milton Academy freshman, was crossing a street on campus with two friends recently. They stopped to let a car pass. The driver, a middle-aged white woman, stopped and held up a sign that read “Show Me Your Green Card” and then sped off.
In Jamaica Plain, a gay woman was harassed in her neighborhood bar. In Fall River, a Jewish woman was greeted by a swastika tattooed on the house across the street. In Beverly, a black woman was targeted by racial epithets scribbled at her artist’s studio.
These episodes are among hundreds reported by Massachusetts residents since the start of the year as part of two independent efforts to assess the frequency and scope of intolerance. The reports show the incidents of hate are woven into everyday life for people of color, gays and lesbians, and others.
More than 100 reports from Massachusetts have come into Documenting Hate, a project led by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative newsroom. The project is tracking bias incidents and hate crimes across the country since the presidential election. Few of the incidents in Massachusetts involve violence. Most chronicle hateful speech spewed by strangers or graffiti scrawled under cover of darkness.
Separately, a hot line set up by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s office recorded more than 1,700 calls through the end of February. She established the hot line a week after the presidential election for people to call if they experienced or witnessed bias-motivated threats, harassment, or violence.
Roughly 275 reported incidents required follow-up with local authorities, including police and school officials, according to spokeswoman Emalie Gainey.
Much of the information in the call logs released to the Globe by the attorney general’s office was blacked out to protect the identity of callers. But the information indicated residents across the state reported bullying, threats, vandalism, and harassment based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
In the Documenting Hate project, one of the more unsettling Massachusetts reports came from Alaoui, the Milton Academy student. After the driver flashed him that “Show Me Your Green Card” sign on March 9, the teen and his mother, Pamela Pleasants, filed a report with the town’s police department. Pleasants’ husband, an immigrant from Morocco, is a US citizen, but Pleasants doesn’t think the driver knew the teen she was harassing had an immigrant parent.
“She was just seeing a brown child cross the street,” Pleasants said. “Given the climate in this country, that somebody felt so emboldened driving through a school campus that celebrates diversity, and felt the liberty to hold up that sign to kids . . . I was profoundly angry and hurt.”
Alaoui, who is 14, was dumbfounded.
“If this woman feels free to show her hate in public,” he said, “will she confront me in the future or maybe even harm someone else?”
Security cameras at Milton Academy captured the incident but weren’t able to make out the license plate on the small, silver car, said Milton Police Deputy Chief James O’Neil.
This apparently wasn’t the first time the sign-bearing driver has struck. Photos posted on Twitter a week after the presidential election captured a white woman in a silver car flashing the same sign at a passing motorist near Weymouth.
O’Neil said police believe the same woman may have been involved in both instances. Authorities have identified her, but have not charged her with any offense because her actions were not deemed criminal.
In a separate incident in Boston’s South End, Jack Donahue, a 52-year-old actor who is gay, said two men in a truck unleashed a fusillade of profanities at him last month, punctuated by antigay slurs, after he honked at them for not moving when a traffic light turned green.
It marked the third time in the past six months people have targeted him with offensive homophobic remarks — words that can cut deep, he said.
“You turn into a 12-year-old really fast because you feel silly and hurt,” Donahue said.
Members of the LGBT community are the most frequently reported targets of hateful acts in Boston, enduring more assaults, threats, and harassment than any other group, Boston police data show.
Donahue said he increasingly channels his anxiety about gay bashing into action, protectively watching out for younger gay men in the neighborhood, even walking one home after his late shift at a restaurant to make sure he arrives safely.
“It feels,” he said, “like somebody has given tacit permission to the uglies to let their inner reptiles come out and there will be no consequences for it.”
On Boston’s North Shore, Elisabeth Neville Ambler has been feeling the same way. Ambler works full time in digital marketing, which means nights and weekends are when she has time to pursue her other career — photography. The 49-year-old has rented studio space for several years in a four-story artists loft in Beverly.
A few weeks ago, when Ambler entered the elevator, she saw racist and sexist words scrawled on the directory of artists, with lines pointing to her name. Ambler, who is black, suddenly felt nervous working there at night.
“There is no way I want to be there, especially alone,” she said. “I don’t know who it is.”
Ambler gave her notice, packed her studio up, and is moving out. She keeps wondering if she knows the person who wrote the offensive words. And why, she wonders, didn’t anyone else from the building remove the words or speak out about the incident?
Carro Halpin has been asking herself similar questions. Halpin, who works in a small public relations agency in downtown Boston, recently dashed out to grab something for lunch and heard a man shouting at a parking enforcement officer. The man, who was white, had parked in a no-parking zone and returned to a ticket on his car. The officer, who was black, was walking away.
The irate driver screamed profanities, calling the officer a “terrorist” and expressing relief that Donald Trump was president, Halpin said.
“It’s scary that people who think this behavior is OK are coming out of the woodwork,” Halpin said. The incident happened just a couple weeks after a swastika was scratched onto a car in Halpin’s Brighton neighborhood.
Halpin, who is white and 25 years old, watched in amazement as the man with the ticket kept yelling. Other bystanders watched, too. None of them said or did anything.
“I wish I did something,” Halpin said.
“I was going to call the police, if it kept going,” she said. “I wanted to say something at the guy, but I didn’t want him to scream at me and beat me up.”
This story was reported using data from ProPublica’s Documenting Hate Project. This project is collecting reports to create a national database of hate crimes and bias incidents for use by journalists and civil-rights organizations. If you’ve been a victim or a witness, tell us your story here.