One night in 2010, while driving in traffic, a white Brookline fire lieutenant named Paul Pender left a voice mail checking up on a black colleague named Gerald Alston and hung up. Or so he thought.
Pender hadn’t disconnected. Which is why Alston was on the receiving end of the vile words Pender uttered right after. None of the phrase is printable, but it included the n-word.
Alston immediately complained to his bosses, and his complaint made its way to what was then the Brookline Board of Selectmen (now the Select Board). Not only did town officials vote to give Pender less than a slap on the wrist — a two-shift suspension — he was even later promoted, and promoted again.
That incident began a years-long saga that even now the Town of Brookline refuses to resolve. While Pender was promoted, the incident — and the town’s subsequent protection of Pender — sent Alston’s career into a tailspin. He would go on to file complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and the Civil Service Commission, arguing that he no longer felt safe at work. Last week, after Alston won a favorable ruling from the state’s Civil Service Commission, the town’s Select Board decided, by a vote of 4 to 1, to appeal the ruling.
That appeal will only prolong the pain and suffering Alston never should have suffered to begin with.
“Every step to extend this extends what has been a decade-long saga of injustice,” said Raul Fernandez, the lone Select Board member to vote against the appeal. “You are hard-pressed to find someone in the town of Brookline — other than the people I sit with — who wants to keep fighting this case.”
The commission’s ruling reinstates Alston, who has been on leave since December 2013, and awards him back pay. Although he has been reinstated, Alston has yet to return to work, citing the unsafe work conditions — confirmed by the commission — that he maintains still exist in the department.
“Every action that’s taken — like this appeal — puts sort of another nail in the coffin in terms of him being able to return to work,” said Alston’s attorney, Brooks Ames.
Further complicating the case, Alston has also filed suit against the town and some current and former Select Board members, seeking damages for pain and suffering. Three of the Select Board members who voted to appeal the Civil Service decision are defendants in that separate action. Maybe they should have recused themselves?
The Alston case is an embarrassment for Brookline, supposedly the kind of progressive community that doesn’t get ensnared in racial strife. Obviously that’s not the case. The record is clear: Confronted with an ugly racial incident, Brookline’s white leadership rallied around the perpetrator — not once, but repeatedly.
Former Select Board member Jesse Mermell — now a candidate for the congressional seat being vacated by Joe Kennedy III — was among the board members who voted in favor of Pender’s slap on the wrist after the incident first occurred. She posted an impassioned mea culpa on social media in May, two weeks before Town Meeting voted on issuing an apology to Alston.
She’s still apologizing.
She said Friday that she had qualms about the decision when it was being made but went along with the legal advice she was given at the time.
“I didn’t speak up and that was a massive personal failure,” Mermell said. “I knew what was right in my gut and I didn’t follow it. There’s no one to blame but me for that.”
She offered some sound advice to her successors on the Select Board. “The town needs to redefine what winning means,” she said. “We need to look at winning as reconciling this town of Brookline as a progressive beacon with the reality that — like a lot of communities — in Brookline we have a heck of a lot of work to do.”
Ending the persecution of Gerald Alston would be a perfect first step.
Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.