It’s surreal hearing President Donald Trump talk about my hometown, but his rhetoric is too familiar. Trump called the city of Lawrence, and other sanctuary cities, “safe havens for just some terrible people,” particularly opioid pushers and MS-13 gang members.
It’s reminiscent of what some of the white kids would say back in high school — a Catholic school located in Lawrence but filled with students from (usually more affluent) surrounding towns. I’ve heard it all: Lawrence is full of drugs, crime, and, worst of all, immigrants — immigrants who pushed drugs and guns and danger.
Lawrence’s problems are well-documented, and its economic woes can be traced back to the 1940s. But no one ever talks about the history of Lawrence, how we can trace the decades of decline to its current struggles. Instead, Lawrence is discussed through white and xenophobic lenses that blame immigrants. Before the incoming waves of Latino migrants in the ’60s and ’70s, the mostly-white Lawrence was already suffering from abandonment and unemployment. The decline started when textile mills started to leave town in the late 1940s, and worsened when the city missed out on the suburban growth and early electronics boom that affected other towns along Route 128.
By the ’70s, a new wave of migrants, mostly from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, had settled in the city. They moved into homes abandoned by white people and took jobs in the factories and mills that remained. White Lawrencians were hostile to the new migrants. In 1984, two nights of riots and fire erupted after whites vandalized a Latino-owned store; a few white kids told The New York Times that the rioting was “strictly racial” and they “hoped there would be more trouble.”
By the 1990s, violent crimes and car thefts were rampant, and Lawrence established itself as a “drug mall,” a place out-of-towners came to get their fix. Of course, the city was also hobbled by racial and economic segregation. As Llana Barber noted in her book “Latino City,” a study of Lawrence from 1945 to 2000, 1990s Clinton-era welfare reforms not only targeted poor people of color but, at the state level, reforms also sought to dissuade more immigration to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, most of the local wealth and jobs were still concentrated in the suburbs around Lawrence. Lawrence was also politically dominated by an elderly white voting base who did little to support the younger Latino population. By 1993, Lawrence had to rely on mostly state funding to support its impoverished public schools, but residents themselves, as a tax base, were too poor to fund any escape from the need for constant outside aid.
By 2000, the city was three-quarters Latino. Lawrence was now the kind of place that was both feared and ridiculed. The city you don’t visit because you fear getting jumped or shot, but also the place that’s dismissed as too ghetto, too loud, too Spanish. In high school, I heard white kids echo their parents’ ignorance — things like “Lawrence was nice until the Puerto Ricans moved in.”
Not to say I don’t get it. I grew up in Lawtown: I heard the gunshots and sirens, found needles in the streets, learned what streets and blocks to avoid, and saw stolen cars abandoned on my street — including one that was set on fire. In the last decade, I now see idling vehicles with New Hampshire plates and white people in the front seats, parked outside my home, waiting on a dealer who drives by or walks up. Shootings are still common, and still claim too many people. When the city went a year without a murder, it warranted an Associated Press
But in the case of the opioid epidemic, it feels myopic to discuss crime and not treatment, to blame one city and not discuss regional approaches — an attitude Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera voiced in his response to Trump’s comments. We concern ourselves with the recent wave of addicted white people and not the fact that Lawrence has been discarded, neglected, and ignored, a municipal outcast, for 60 years. But white folks in power have never been concerned about black and brown communities unless their problems spill over. And when they spill, the reaction too often is to crack down: detain them, deport them, contain them to their borders. Lawrence is the latest stand-in for the image of a brown community menacing hardworking whites. Remember that Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire also blamed Lawrence for his state’s fentanyl problem a year ago.
And while I won’t downplay the danger of MS-13 or their violence in Lawrence, I will note that the gang is Trump’s favorite dog whistle for xenophobes. Drugs and gangs, Trump says, are symptomatic of Lawrence’s sanctuary city status. He ignores that his deportation strategy does little to hamper MS-13’s transnational operations and that there’s no evidence that sanctuary cities breed crime. (Further, I doubt last year’s ICE raid in Lawrence that detained green card applicants will hobble MS-13 or the opioid trade.)
Ultimately, Trump’s remarks aren’t about Lawrence. They’re about rallying confused, frustrated white people — not just the poor ones — and giving them some semblance of answers and actions. It’s an old song for Trump, an older one for Lawrence, and the oldest song for immigrants. It’s time to spin a new record.
Alejandro Ramirez is the editor of Spare Change News.