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Race, politics & protest in 2017

Mayoral race, racism in Boston dominated headlines last year

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Race, politics & protest in 2017
Demonstrators make noise at the Women’s March in January last year. (Photo: Lauren Miller)

As the year 2017 dawned, much of America was focused on the incoming administration of President Donald Trump, who rode to electoral victory in the 2016 campaign with divisive campaign rhetoric and a vague pledge to “make America great again.”

Author: Chris LovettDemonstrators march en route to the Boston Common to protest an alt-right “free speech” rally.

Author: Chris LovettA masquerader in the 2017 Caribbean Carnival.

Author: Chris LovettQueens in the 2017 Dominican Festival parade.

Trump’s nativist, reactionary rhetoric and the release of a recording in which he brags about harassing and sexually assaulting women ignited a firestorm of opposition even before his inauguration.

On Jan. 21, nearly 200,000 Boston-area residents braved the cold January weather for a women’s solidarity march that was one of many held around the country and around the world. Speakers and marchers pledged their support for the rights of women, people of color and immigrants.

In the following weeks and months, activists’ fears seemed justified as the first iteration of the so-called Muslim ban and a seemingly endless torrent of divisive tweets and statements emanated from the White House. Locally, demonstrations followed in Copley Square and at Logan Airport during the abrupt roll-out of the aggressive travel ban, setting a tone of resistance.

While much of America remained focused on the White House in January, Bostonians turned their attention to another development that would come to dominate headlines: City Councilor Tito Jackson’s mayoral bid. Speaking from the parking lot of the Haley House Bakery Café, Jackson promised to take on some of the city’s most challenging issues: income inequality, housing affordability and educational investment.

“Boston is at a crossroads,” Jackson told the crowd of supporters, reporters and political junkies who braved cold temperatures for the announcement. “We’re at a fork in the road. A decision point. The middle class in the beloved community, the neighborhood that I grew up in, stands in the balance.”

Race issues and racism remained on the front pages of newspapers, with the discussion heating up in May when Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was subjected to racial taunts during a game at Fenway Park, kicking off soul-searching and frank conversations about the nature and persistence of racial animosity in the ballpark and the city. In September, four fans were ejected from Fenway Park after unfurling a banner that read, “Racism is as American as Baseball” in protest of racial incidents there.

Jackson’s mayoral bid ratcheted up the tension on the Walsh administration, bringing forward equity issues and keeping discussions of inclusion and exclusion at the forefront. Over the course of the year, civil rights groups pressed the mayor on city hiring and governance. In June, the Greater Boston Latino Network released a report detailing lack of representation of Latinos in city government. While Latinos make up 19 percent of the city’s population, they represent just 9 percent of city workers. Of the six Latinos who hold executive positions in city government, five are concentrated in Health and Human Services.

In October, the NAACP Boston Branch released a report that found Walsh failed to keep his campaign promises to make Boston a more inclusive city, falling short in city hiring, minority business inclusion, school funding and community policing, among other areas.

After Walsh was re-elected, the Boston Globe in December ran an ambitious series of articles outlining the persistence of racism in Boston, the city’s reputation for racism and disparities blacks in Boston face. Although the series ran too late to give Jackson an electoral boost, the stories raised many of the same issues the candidate had highlighted during the election.

The electoral season brought significant victories for other black candidates, with women of color now making up a near-majority of those serving on the City Council. East Boston attorney Lydia Edwards won a decisive victory against North End city worker Stephen Passacantilli, becoming the first black candidate to win in the traditionally Italian American district. It was the first time a person of color won balloting in East Boston in a local election.

Replacing Tito Jackson in the Roxbury-based District 7, education activist Kim Janey prevailed in a crowded field of 13 before going on to best anti-violence worker Rufus Faulk in the general election. Janey and Edwards brought the council’s number of women members up to six for the first time in history. The newcomers will join Asian American outgoing council President Michelle Wu, Annissa Essaibi George, whose father is Tunisian, and African Americans Ayanna Pressley and Andrea Campbell, who now is the new council president.

City Councilor Tito Jackson and Mayor Martin Walsh strike a conciliatory pose during a ribbon cutting.

Suffolk County Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo addresses supporters.

NAACP Vice President Segun Idowu and President Tanisha Sullivan discuss Mayor Martin Walsh’s record.

Schools

The year 2017 saw a second consecutive year of budget cuts to Boston schools, although the cuts weren’t as expansive as those doled out in 2016. When the city’s school budget was released in February, 48 of the district’s 126 schools saw their budgets slashed, some by more than $1 million. BPS officials blamed the cuts on declining enrollments in some schools, which, thanks to the district’s system of allocating funding per-pupil, siphoned funds away from struggling schools. In a lean funding environment some parent advocates likened to a “Hunger Games” scenario, some schools lost out big.

Brighton High School made headlines with a Level 4 designation from the state, which triggered a reorganization plan. The district sent pink slips to the school’s teachers as part of its turnaround process, prompting outrage from students and parents, some of whom argued that the school needed more resources to serve its student population, 39 percent of whom are English language learners and 20 percent of whom were in special education programs.

Budget issues aside, Mayor Martin Walsh began the year with a state-level legislative package that included a bill critics said would pave the way for unified enrollment — a controversial scheme through which children being signed up for BPS schools could be assigned to either charters or district-run schools. Pressed on the issue, Walsh administration officials denied authorship of the provision, but House Education Committee Chairwoman Alice Peisch countered that claim, noting that she filed that legislation as she received it from the mayor’s office.

The controversy further stoked parent activist concerns that the Walsh administration would press forward with unified enrollment after the election. Despite statements from Walsh’s Education Chief Turahn Dorsey that such a plan was near completion, city officials have yet to make it public.

Perhaps generating the most headlines this year — and certainly the greatest amount of parent outrage — was the announcement of new school start times. For two weeks in December, parents pilloried BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang and pressured Mayor Martin Walsh after the department rolled out a new bell schedule that gave high schools start times at 8 a.m. or later and elementary schools start times as early as 7:15 a.m. Parents, irked that dismissal times as early as 1:10 p.m. would inhibit their ability to work, amassed more than 8,000 signatures on an electronic petition, flooded the Mayor’s Office complaint line, pressured city councilors and picketed Walsh at a West Roxbury Christmas tree lighting event. At the end of two weeks, Walsh and Chang backed off, agreeing to delay changes in start times for another year.

That debacle came on the heels of the disclosure of an IRS audit that found that school activities funds were improperly allocated to pay staff and contractors and that other city departments had failed to apply Medicare withholdings in their payroll. While the mayor told news media Chang failed to notify him of the audit findings, deflecting attention to the embattled superintendent, the BPS portion of the IRS fine accounted for just $32,000 of a total $944,000, indicating that the accounting errors outside of the school department’s purview were far greater. Walsh told reporters he’d received news of the audit only in the last week in November. Yet an unnamed city official paid the nearly $1 million fine to an IRS representative on Nov. 8 — Election Day.

Immigration

Trump’s invectives against immigrants moved from rhetoric to reality quickly in 2017 as the federal Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement began rounding up the undocumented regardless of whether or not they had committed a crime — a break from ICE practices under the administration of former President Barack Obama. The case of Francisco Rodriguez-Guardado illustrated the aggressive deportation policy. Rodriguez-Guardado had been working as an MIT janitor and owns a carpet cleaning business. He arrived in the U.S. in the mid-2000s seeking asylum, and although federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents eventually denied that request, they have allowed him to remain in the country.

Like many in his situation, Rodriguez-Guardado was taken into custody after a routine meeting with ICE agents. Unlike others awaiting deportation, Rodriguez Guardado had members of his union SEIU Local 32BJ and prominent politicians take up his case. And he has an attorney, who in December, secured his release from prison after filing an request to re-open his asylum case.

While supporters of Rodriguez-Guardado and immigration rights activists have held rallies and protests in Boston and around the country, Trump has continued punitive policies against undocumented immigrants and restrictive policies against those seeking to come here legally.

Criminal justice reform

Legislators kicked off the year pledging support for criminal justice reforms — including repealing mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, an increase in threshold for felony larceny, reforms to the cash-bail system and a guarantee of the basic right to counsel for anyone facing incarceration, regardless of a defendant’s ability to pay. By the end of 2017, an aggressive reform package moved closer to law, with versions of the bill clearing both the Senate and House.

Beleaguered leaders

Suffolk County Register of Probate Felix D. Arroyo was suspended from his job in February by Trial Court administrators who charged him with mismanaging the long-troubled office. Arroyo returned to the office in October after an independent investigator found that he had been undermined by longtime staff in the office he manages. The United States Attorney’s office is currently investigating allegations of discrimination in the Trial Court.

Arroyo’s son, Felix G. Arroyo, was suspended and then fired from his job as Chief of Health and Human Services for the City of Boston after an employee lodged a complaint he had sexually harassed her. The employee withdrew her Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint, which named Arroyo, Mayor Martin Walsh and the City of Boston as defendants. The Walsh administration officials have given no specific reason for firing Arroyo.

In April, UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley announced his pending resignation, following disclosure of a $30 million deficit on the campus. Motley’s resignation was seen by some as scapegoating by the school’s trustees and the UMass Building Authority after cost overruns on costly construction projects at the Dorchester campus exacerbated the school’s financial woes.

Other highlights

While demonstrations supporting immigrants, Muslims and women drew thousands, only a few dozen souls turned out to an alt-right rally held on the Boston Common in August. But thousands of Bostonians marched from Malcolm X. Boulevard to the Common in protest of the march, dwarfing the so-called “free speech” supporters.

Labor activists turned in signatures sufficient to secure a spot on next year’s state ballot for initiatives that would create $15 minimum wage and mandate paid sick leave for Massachusetts workers. A ballot initiative that would add a 4 percent surtax to income above $1 million is also expected to appear on the ballot next year.

As the year drew to a close, Roxbury residents were saddened by news of the exit of Dudley Dough and Tasty Burger, two of the first businesses to open in Dudley Square’s Bolling Building. But the situation took a positive turn in December, when several new restaurateurs announced plans to open in the area, including two with specific plans to take over the Bolling Building locations.

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