AN INSIDE LOOK - Commentary and opinions on local politics and life in general in Southeastern Massachusetts! Featuring the writings of Bill Gouveia, newspaper columnist for the Sun Chronicle and local cable TV talk show host. Feel free to read, comment and enjoy!
Monday, February 27, 2017
North Attleboro Citizen Steps Up
GOUVEIA: Laurie Lawes a voice for good in North Attleboro
By BILL GOUVEIA / For THE SUN CHRONICLE
There is a distinct difference between complaining about a situation and actually doing something about it. And there is no better recent example of that than Laurie Lawes.
Lawes is a resident of North Attleboro who saw a problem last year when then-RTM member Paul Couturier was found to have posted racist, bigoted memes on his Facebook page. Unlike most of the elected officials in her town, she didn’t just sit back and fret about it. She took action.
Lawes organized a protest outside town hall that drew about 40 people and put pressure on Couturier and others to renounce the disgusting posts. Although few town officials actually joined the event (none of the current selectmen or state Rep. Betty Poirier attended), the statement made clear that North Attleboro citizens would not stand for such conduct. Couturier eventually resigned his position.
But just a short time ago, more bigoted posts appeared on the Facebook pages of town officials and candidates.
Selectmen candidate James Lang was one of those, with anti-Muslim posts featured on his Facebook account. He at first admitted to them, then claimed they might be the work of “hackers.” He initially dropped out of the race, then popped back in. He finished dead last in the recent preliminary election and was eliminated.
At the same time, posts mocking Muslims and Mexicans were found on the account of current Selectman Paul Belham. The veteran official also claimed hackers were responsible.
But Lawes — and no doubt many others — aren’t buying his story.
The local activist went to the selectmen’s meeting last week and addressed officials directly, including Belham. She did not pull any punches when she told them they needed to do more and be better on the issue of bigotry in their community.
Lawes pointed out that nearly a year after the Couturier incident, there is still no official social media policy for town officials. Selectmen have discussed it, but failed to actually come up with one. She also noted not one of the board members had “stood with us” at the March protest, and then took deliberate aim at Belham.
“This is my home. I have a right to expect more from my elected officials,” she said. “Mr. Belham, respectfully you have given a great deal to our community. But I respectfully ask you to resign.”
It was noted selectmen Chairman Patrick Reynolds has responded to the most recent incident by arranging a meeting with the Islamic Center of New England in Sharon, and inviting town officials to join him and learn about the Muslim faith. Lawes was not impressed.
“Patrick, with the whole Islamic thing you have set up — I wish I could believe it,” she said. “It would mean more if you had stood with us.”
Any meeting between town officials and a group representing citizens designed to further understanding and respect is a good thing. But Lawes is right when she says it would have been nice if it happened after the first incident rather than now. Whether true or not, it makes the gesture look like political expediency.
The problem here is not that some in North Attleboro and elsewhere don’t understand Muslims, but rather that they just don’t like them. Instead of the word “Muslim,” you could insert any of the following: Catholic, African-American, Jewish, Portuguese, Caucasian and more. The act would still be awful, even if the perpetrator claimed they didn’t “understand” the victims.
Give Reynolds and those who may attend such a meeting credit for at least reaching out. But in the end, it is a rather shallow response to a very deep problem.
Hate is the issue here. Who it is directed at is secondary. It is just not OK for public officials, or those seeking public office, to participate in hateful acts or posts. They must be held to a higher standard, despite the political mood of the country.
But there are also people like Laurie Lawes who are unafraid to stand up and say it has to end. Who demand more from the people elected to serve the community. Who say hate simply isn’t going to be accepted.
That’s what it is going to take to stop this. And it shouldn’t be this hard.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.