NEW BEDFORD — All around New Bedford High School, students were getting wind of the protest. Amare Fernandes and her friend Karina Garcia told everyone they could, mostly using Snapchat and word of mouth, to walk out of their classes after fourth period. They were protesting Shawn Oliver, the newly elected city councilor for Ward 3, for the memes he posted that the students said were homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic.
“Some of us can vote. Some can’t. We want to speak our truth,” said Garcia, a senior at New Bedford High, which falls within the Ward 3 boundaries that Oliver will represent after he won a special election with only 6.8% voter turnout on Tuesday.
For students, the morning was “exciting” and “ecstatic,” they said, and close to 100 of them walked out the front door toward Hathaway Boulevard, holding signs and chanting “Be Gone, Shawn,” and “Gay and proud.” By the end of the day, Fernandes and other students were face-to-face with Oliver in City Council chambers, asking for an apology or explanation just moments after he was sworn in.
The new councilor, in a tense exchange, told the students that his posts “weren’t anything meant to be hurtful.” After a long day, the students were left disappointed, saying that Oliver’s promise to release a statement wasn’t the apology they were hoping for.
That was the conclusion to a demonstration which had started hours earlier, when both Principal Bernadette Coelho and district Superintendent Thomas Anderson showed up outside the high school to support their students’ right to protest. The administrators said they were proud of their students.
“This is why you come to school,” Anderson said, adding that the demonstration aligned with the district’s mission to “try to educate about the differences we have as people.”
Among the students who left behind their classrooms for the not-quite-spring day, many identified as LGBTQ, but a large number said they were allies supporting their friends and classmates. One student identified himself as transgender, and told The Light that they hoped the protest would “catch the attention of elected officials and people in power.”
It seems they did.
Mayor Jon Mitchell took to Facebook just as students were beginning their walk-out, posting a statement: “I have reviewed the crude images posted on Facebook by City Councillor-elect Shawn Oliver that purport to comment on transgender rights. I want to make clear that I categorically condemn the postings,” Mitchell said. “Coming from an individual who is about to assume public office, they are especially abhorrent.”
Mitchell continued: “New Bedford has long distinguished itself as a city that honors and protects the rights of all of its residents, and the messages conveyed by the postings are antithetical to our core values. No matter how long ago the postings appeared, it is imperative that the councilor-elect repudiate them. The residents of the city and particularly Ward 3 need to be confident that he is committed to serving everyone.”
Other politicians showed their support by attending the protest.
One School Committee member who was on-hand, the freshman representative Melissa Costa, circulated the crowd handing out voter registration forms in both English and Spanish. After about an hour, Costa said she had collected almost 20 registration forms (in Massachusetts, voters can register as young as 16 years old).
She added her own statement: “I absolutely denounce any meme that targets disenfranchised and marginalized people.” Costa said she had responded to students directly and had already spoken with fellow School Committee member Colleen Dawicki, saying they were hoping to draft an official response.
City Councilor Shane Burgo was present and said that he was prompted by the students’ demands to post his own statement on social media. He told The Light, “it’s important for my new colleague to understand [that he is] filling the seat for all of New Bedford.” Burgo said that when constituents — even students — raise concerns about your conduct, “you have to learn to answer.”
On a phone call before the protest began, Oliver himself did not wish to comment on the students or their protest, except to say, “I am aware of them.” Oliver said he would not be attending. “I’m not looking to rile up these folks. I applaud them and their right to exercise their constitutional right to protest.”
However, during the protest a black Cadillac sedan drove back-and-forth two times by the protest, and several individuals, including School Committee member Costa, said they saw Oliver inside. Costa said she could identify the car by Oliver’s election sticker on the rear bumper.
Later on, in the City Council chamber, Oliver said it was him. “I was in the area pulling signs from lawns.” He commended the students on a peaceful protest, and said he hopes his term will “bring back a sense of community” to New Bedford, and “combat division of all types.”
How the protest came together
Everything happened fast. Student organizer Amare Fernandes said she had the idea for a protest on Thursday, one day before she found herself talking into a news camera for a television broadcast and yelling into a megaphone in front of her cheering friends.
Her mother, Fallon Fernandes, is a Ward 3 resident who said she was disappointed by Oliver’s election. She spoke about the issue with her daughter, including the memes Oliver had posted that were drawing scrutiny in the press.
According to her mother, Amare led the way from there. Her daughter started talking with friends about the newly elected official who was posting things that they found offensive. They came up with a list of demands that included every local elected official condemning the social media posts and also any hate toward the LGBTQ community.
Shortly after 9 p.m., they had sent out a letter to the mayor, the entire South Coast legislative delegation, and even U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, plus a slew of local news outlets.
When asked about this letter, which both in its content and its chosen recipients indicated a high-level of media savvy, Fallon Fernandes said she had a friend who helped “polish” the language and identify a list of recipients. She said the friend wished to remain anonymous, and that all the ideas it contained were driven by what students like her daughter had come up with.
Before sending it off, Amare Fernandes and Garcia posted it on social media and in several large group messages. They said student support for its language and the protest itself were overwhelming, so they decided to sign the letter as the “Student Body of New Bedford High School.”
April Jennison is the member of the Coalition for Social Justice (CSJ) who had originally brought Oliver’s online conduct to the attention of several news organizations, and when reached for comment Jennison said that she was “impressed” by the students, but that neither she nor the CSJ had any involvement.
Another activist group, the Bristol County for Correctional Justice, also said they didn’t know about or in any way aid the students.
The South Coast LGBTQ+ Network has worked with New Bedford High School students before, but was actually accused in the letter of being “silent” and not standing up against Oliver.
Andy Pollock, the president of the South Coast LGBTQ+ Network, took the time to respond to students, explaining that he had personally condemned Oliver’s posts, but that the Network could not because of IRS rules for 501c3 nonprofit organizations.
At the protest, Pollock spoke as an individual: “Of course I support what they’re doing,” he said. “We’ve all held signs. The test is in the work that comes after. I hope they continue this energy and keep Shawn accountable.”
Students sit in silence while Oliver is sworn in
At City Hall, Oliver was scheduled to be sworn in at 6 p.m. as the newest City Councilor for Ward 3. He would replace Hugh Dunn, the councilor who resigned in December.
Students began gathering outside at 5 p.m. There wasn’t much to say to Oliver, students said. Instead they hoped to listen.
“We want an explanation,” said Fernandes. “Why would he say those things?”
For the inauguration ceremony, the students listened with interest as council president Linda Morad and Brian Gomes addressed the chamber. Gomes gave advice to his new colleague: “Do the best that you can to represent the city of New Bedford,” and then welcomed him to the council’s “family of 11.”
After Oliver took his oath, most of the room stood and applauded, but the students remained in their seats. Some held signs over their heads, with messages like “Protect Queer Kids,” and “Trans Rights are Human Rights.”
After the gavel, Oliver went to speak with the students and some of their supporters, including Rev. Donnie Anderson, minister of the Pilgrim United Church in New Bedford.
Anderson, visibly upset, told Oliver he needed to apologize to the students and reconcile with them. “Tell them they are worthy and they are legitimate,” she said.
After promising the students he would work with them in the future, and that he would release a statement, Oliver rejoined his family to take celebratory photos behind the city council’s dais.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Kudos to the NBHS students who organized and the others who supported their demonstration today in opposition to the disturbing and, quite frankly, despicable FB postings by Shawn Oliver. And shame on Mr. Oliver for dismissing their disclosure prior to the election as a political tactic rather than apologizing for his incredibly bad judgment. As a resident of Ward 3, I’m also disappointed by Oliver’s election.
As one the student who sat in that room while he was sworn in and protested, I would like to say that we appreciate the opportunity to be heard. This man needs to apologize because he looked us in our faces and refused to saying he was posting a “formal statement.” When asked it seemed he had no intent to apologize in that statement.
This is such an impressive group! I’m so glad the principal supported their students right to protest. This is a worthy education in our civil system.
Andy Pollock? “Non profit status?
Help me understand how you showed up for a photo op but said next to nothing? These kids needed backup and you stayed in the back of the room by the exit!
Silence is the voice of complicity.
SCLGBT Network – Do Better NOW
Support, educate around and fight homo/trans phobia.
I hope another, and perhaps more important, lesson here is about exercising one’s right to vote. If the students old enough to cast a ballot had done so, the outcome might well have been different. The rest of the story is that a meager 6.8% of registered voters turned out. Kudos to Melissa Costa for distributing and collecting voter registration forms. That’s where the true power lies.
Thanks too to Colin Hogan and New Bedford Light for covering this story and Arthur Hirsch for the Ward 3 election coverage. Without NBL we wouldn’t have this important information.
Well said! Local elections are even more important than federal. Vote in primaries! Exercise your right at every opportunity!
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