Two weeks ago, the story broke that then Ward 3 Council candidate Shawn Oliver had shared Facebook memes that many people found transphobic as well as denigrating to the Democratic Party and progressives.
The most offensive of the posts were varieties of the kind of locker-room talk about gays and women that have historically been par for the course among straight men. The political posts, for their part, were the kind of anti-Democrat, anti-socialist arguments common among folks who don’t believe in a minimum wage or who think transgender women and men are creepy.
They were right in keeping with the increasingly accelerated efforts of the Republican Party across this country — from down the road in the Old Rochester Regional School district to the “Don’t Say Gay” state of Florida — making the reality of transgender individuals invisible to young school children.
The posts were made public at the very end of the Ward 3 race and most city politicians, with the exception of Oliver’s opponent in the race (school administrator Carmen Amaral), stayed away from commenting publicly. They kept their mouths tightly shut.
Oliver, probably thinking an apology was bad politics in the final days of the campaign, declined to say he was sorry and tried to frame the issue as desperate politics on behalf of Amaral and her supporters. He dismissed the posts, which were originally shared between two and four years ago, as merely “off-color” jokes.
Oliver’s strategy was apparently good enough to carry him to victory in the Ward 3 race. The posts — which offered a glimpse into what Oliver, evidently until fairly recently, genuinely believed about trans people and liberals — didn’t keep him from winning his race by a very healthy margin, 57% to 43%.
Oliver, who had done yeoman’s work during the campaign knocking on doors across the ward, was probably already far ahead in this race at the time the story broke on Friday before the Tuesday election. The news about his Facebook posts though was certainly fair politics as he had perhaps disingenuously presented himself as a moderate during the campaign. (The same, by the way, could have been said of his opponent on the other side of the philosophical coin.) In any event, it’s indisputable that Oliver’s past Facebook posts were up there with the best of Donald Trump-style divisive politics.
There were reasons for most of the city’s elected officials to stay out of the Oliver-Amaral Ward 3 contest. The mayor, city councilors, School Committee members and legislative delegation were all going to have to work with whoever won this race. Still, Oliver’s comments were so demeaning, so derogatory — particularly to transgender women — that one would have hoped that New Bedford’s elected officials would have found the courage to speak up for a group that is arguably the most marginalized of all groups in both American life, and in the world in general.
But they are politicians. They did not speak out.
Then, some sort of little miracle happened in New Bedford. The teenagers at New Bedford High School stepped into the breach that the local adults were afraid of.
It started with Amarae Fernandes telling her mother she was upset that transgender kids had ended up as road kill during the Ward 3 campaign. Amarae told her mom she was discouraged because she couldn’t do anything about the transgender smears because she can’t vote. The mom, God love her, said she told Amarae she could do something by staging a protest.
The rest is already local history as Fernandes and her mom, with the help of social media, put together the demonstration within a day.
What’s more, when they did it, they called out the local elected officials for not doing what they should have done, standing up for the city’s transgender community as soon as the Oliver Facebook story broke.
Now, you can argue about whether it was unseemly for the young students to “demand” that all the city’s elected officials explain their silence and immediately condemn the memes. You might ask who are these high school “children,” as Oliver has called them, to “demand” what the city’s elective officials should do.
Out of the mouths of babes.
Very quickly, the city’s conservative activists kicked into gear. They complained that progressive groups, particularly the Coalition for Social Justice, were egging the kids on. They also tried to make a big deal out of the fact that some of the students at the demonstration had wrongly shouted “Screw white men.” The right-wingers questioned whether this was all a front so Amaral could take out Oliver in the fall election.
It’s true. In November, Ward 3 voters will again be at the polls but this time it will be a citywide election and who knows what a bigger voter turnout might or might not bring.
But all these complaints are beside the point. There may indeed be a discussion to be had in this country about white men feeling that the world on which they’ve historically always been on top is disappearing. But that’s an issue to be discussed another day.
The issue at hand is that a resident of New Bedford who had expressed blatantly transphobic sentiments had now been elected to office. What’s more, Shawn Oliver will be representing the city’s only historically gay bar, LePlace, a Ward 3 establishment where many transgender folks frequent.
To his credit, after a week of stalling, Oliver apologized. He did so in what seemed a genuine, if still a somewhat rationalizing, statement, released at the end of the day Monday. The best part of the statement was when he talked about a goal he had struck during the campaign of bringing New Bedford people together and his acknowledgment that his Facebook memes did the opposite.
“A true lesson I hope we can all learn is that although people may post, share and quote different things, we must always remember that words have meaning and the message of fear or hurt may spread while having no intention of ever doing so,” he wrote.
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The last seven words of that sentence — “having no intention of ever doing so” — may indicate just how oblivious are people who are not members of minority groups when they make jokes about those groups. There is a good reason why transgender people can make jokes about themselves that others cannot. The same goes for members of Black, Latino, Jewish communities, or any other group that has historically been pushed to the fringes of society. They can joke about themselves but others cannot joke about them. Those not in the minority category simply haven’t had the experience, the reality of the suffering, to do so.
After the student protest, the only officials, to my mind, who gave full-throated condemnations of the Oliver memes were Mayor Jon Mitchell, state Sen. Mark Montigny, Reps. Chris Hendricks and Bill Straus and School Committee members Melissa Costa.
“I have reviewed the crude images posted on Facebook by City Councillor-elect Shawn Oliver that purport to comment on transgender rights,” Mitchell wrote on his own Facebook site, just as the protest was happening. “I want to make clear that I categorically condemn the postings.”
As the students pointed out, the politicians would have done better if they had issued their statements immediately after the news about the Oliver Facebook memes came to light. Such statements then might have changed the outcome of the Ward 3 race for good or for bad.
Councilor-at-large Shane Burgo also quickly issued a statement after the protest but it was disappointing. Burgo seems to have very much bought into Council President Linda Morad’s 11th Commandment that city councilors should never publicly criticize each other. That may be because as a freshman he was once chided by Councilor Brian Gomes for a critical comment when he didn’t even name him. Councilors Gomes and Morad, though they claim to be big on council courtesy, have themselves chided other councilors when they don’t agree with them.
So Burgo did not mention Oliver’s posts by name but only issued a generalized condemnation of anyone who would make transphobic statements. He did a little better later when in response to a press question, he said “his colleague” was going to have to find a way to represent everyone in New Bedford.
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Burgo, it seems to me, needs to realize that one can criticize a fellow councilor respectfully and in public. Otherwise, the temptation is to just cover up for fellow councilors, as the City Council, in my opinion, inexcusably did when credible evidence emerged two years ago that New Bedford police had helped former Councilor Hugh Dunn after he had left the scene of a property damage motor vehicle accident and operated his vehicle negligently. The council waited until their lawyer colleague obtained a trial by judge where the magistrate continued the charges without a finding for a year but stated that there was “clearly” enough evidence to convict him. It was a first offense.
Police never administered a sobriety test to Dunn at the early morning downtown crash and the judge said that he was unable to find beyond a reasonable doubt on the drunk driving charge, but that he was “troubled” by evidence that the councilor may have been drinking to excess at Cork. Three officers were reprimanded by the department but their punishments were later reduced at arbitration.
This kind of protection of silence for each other by the councilors, though somewhat understandable given Dunn’s efforts to fight the charges, hurts the council more than any kind of respectful criticism ever would.
The whole goal on the council seems to be to always present the City Council in a positive light, which is impossible for any elected body. It is possible to publicly disagree without being disagreeable.
In fact, Councilor Morad herself, in an interview on WBSM, came closer to criticizing a fellow councilor than Burgo did when she said “Councilor-elect Oliver had different opinions than I have about issues, this one included.”
Morad, by the way, spoke movingly of her nephew being gay and her family’s support of him. But like the mayor, I wish she had done it before the students had to ask for it.
The rest of the city councilors have mostly done worse than Mitchell and Morad.
Councilors Maria Giesta, Derek Baptiste, Scott Lima, Brian Gomes and Naomi Carney have said nothing about the whole matter despite the students’ entreaties. I would also remark that on the night the students protested Oliver’s swearing in, the councilors in the room did not even talk to them, as far as I could see. They seemed more interested in Oliver’s feelings, and his being part of the council “family” as Gomes put it in his remarks to the gathering.
Councilors Ian Abreu and Ryan Pereira later condemned transphobic comments in interviews with me, after I contacted them, and Pereira said he condemned the Oliver posts but stressed that he is not Oliver’s boss, his Ward 3 constituents are. Councilor Brad Markey took no position beyond saying councilors should be careful of their public remarks when I asked him about the controversy. He maintained he hadn’t seen the posts.
The legislative delegation and School Committee members did better than most of the councilors, with some of them issuing statements strongly condemning the posts, but these came only after I contacted them, not in quick response to the students.
Some officials strongly condemned anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, but mostly in generalizations not connected to Oliver (Colleen Dawicki, Jack Livramento, Ross Grace, Tony Cabral, Paul Schmid). State Rep. Chris Markey called Oliver’s memes “stupid, foolish and immature” but did not condemn them, questioning the fairness of the question. He said he is against discrimination in housing, employment or education but said there should be exceptions for some private facilities where individuals are in stages of undress.
School Committee member Chris Cotter actually condemned the students’ demonstration as not appropriate during school hours and described Oliver’s comments as “offensive” to a group but seemed more concerned at what he considered the whole matter being spread by political activists.
School Committee member Bruce Oliveira said he would simply have no comment at this time.
I’d like to wrap up this column by saying I’m glad Shawn Oliver has finally acknowledged his posts were hurtful and apologized for them. I like Mr. Oliver personally (as well as Carmen Amaral) and spent more than an hour walking with both of them during the campaign. I think both can be good city councilors. But a good start to either of them achieving that will be to be direct and forthright about their mistakes. And to not be afraid of speaking publicly about other elected officials, even if it means respectful criticism.
Elected officials work for the public. They are on Team Public, not Team City Council or Team Legislative Delegation.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
very well explained. The kids did what we did when we were their age and there was a war on that we did not like. People tend to forget that. They also assume that since they would have joined the protest to cut class, these kids did too. Conservative projection. And to set the record straight, Rep Markey obviously is a bit confused as these kids are talking about life issues and he somehow thinks of strippers. Needs to get educated.
Fair analysis. I would point out, however, that Councilor Burgo was the only elected official who joined the protest.
There is nothing more troubling than a person who sticks his finger in the air to test which way the wind is blowing before doing the right thing.
I suppose that taking an ethical stand on an issue is of less value than political capitol.
The students who held the protest showed a lot more courage than their elected officials.
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES INDEED! BUT ISNT IT ALWAYS THE YOUTH WHO LEAD THE WAY AND REMIND US OF OUR POLITICAL ABD MORAL RESPONSIBILITY.NOT SHOCKING THAT NB CITY COUN CIL COULDNT FIND ITS COURAGE OR VOICE TO CONDEMN OLIVERS HURTFUL MEMES WHEN IT COULD HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE AND BEEN A LEARNING LESSON FOR SHAWN.THIS IS A COUNCIL PAST AND PRESENT WHICH COULDNT FIND ITS COURAGE DURING NEEDLE EXCHANGE DEBATE RANTED AGAINST METHADOBE CLINICS IN CITY WHICH NEXT TO BOSTON HAD HIGHEST DRUG ABUSE BUT HAS NO PROBLEM IN GIVING ITS MEMBERS HEALTHY SALARY INCREASES.BUT PART IF THE PROBLEM TOO IS VOTER APATHY.ONLY 7% OF THE VOTERS MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR OLIVERS UGLY MEMES TO GET ELECTED.IF WE DONT PARTICIPATE IN DEMOCRACY WE LOSE IT! IF,WE DONT STAND UP FOR THE MOST OPPRESSED AND MARGINALIZED IN OUR SOCIETY WE CAN LOSE OUR OWN RIGHTS.SHOUT OUT TO THE NBHS STUDENTS WHO HAVE LED THE WAY AND REMINDED US THAT SILENCE LEADS TO DEATH.GEN Z YOU ARE OUR HOPE FOR A BETTER AND MORE JUST WORLD!
Thank you for your clear description of the duties of our elected politicians. We elect them to represent and defend the rights of all peoples, not to represent their own ideologies or their own preferred way of life.
“particularly to men who identify as women” is not an appropriate way to identify trans women, it perpetuates the same transphobic idea that trans women are just men who want to dress up like women. Please consider editing, as specificity in language is important, and in this case undermines your overall point.
It’s amazing how less than 2% of the population who are LGBTQ now have a louder voice than the other 98% of normal straight males & females in society. The truly sickening part is how they expect to be put on a pedestal and recognized for being the minority, just like other races, and religious groups.
When are we going back to a normal America? Why don’t we have a “straight pride” parade where people who are celebrated for being normal? The WOKE movement in America is leading to the downfall of what was once the greatest nation on earth, and the people who have forced the WOKE ideologies are to blame.
For the longest time I’ve held to the belief that knowing one’s party politics only gets in the way in local politics. There’s no R or D way of providing local services such as trash pickup or snow plowing. Some of the nicest, most compassionate people I know have been R’s, despite that not being my leaning, and so I would have been glad to support them if they had run for some offices. I never wanted someone’s beliefs on abortion to dictate whether I thought they might be the best person to lead the RMV or serve as state auditor.
But Trump has changed all that for me and perhaps others, as we saw the once highly popular Sheriff get defeated after he came to be known more for his support for Trump than his perceived ability as sheriff. And so maybe it really does matter if Oliver is also a “Trump supporter,” because we now have to question what that means. It certainly doesn’t indicate that one supports any of the traditional Republican philosophies of fiscal discipline, supply side economics, conservative social values, or even libertarianism. It certainly doesn’t mean what Trump claimed it meant during the campaigns – that he was for the little guy, and against cronyism and corruption. To be fair, maybe we should just ask local candidates who they supported and why. But in my perhaps biased estimation, it’s based on anti-immigrant fervor, a disrespect for those who are different or marginalized, nationalism, and a general appeal for the mocking, bullying, toxic masculinity. (Although it is certainly not confined to white males, as white women were ultimately the group to elect Trump over Clinton.) And of course some of this sentiment is a simple knee jerk reaction to recent news reports than love to highlight extreme examples of “woke” beliefs of some extremists, and a heavy dependence on what people have “learned” from Fox News entertainment and internet memes.
But if all that adds up to, as it seems to in this case, a really ignorant, hateful view towards trans issues then maybe it shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.If someone is really that ignorant about suicide and violent crime victim rates for trans youth, then I’m not sure I want them holding any office. Same goes for the old-fashioned comments about LGBT persons in changing rooms.This kind of ignorance says they don’t have the worldly knowledge, intellectual curiosity, or even the sense to withhold opinion (or at least the sharing of memes) on things they just don’t know much about, but at the minimum ought to have the sense to know – just aren’t nice. I don’t know that I want to trust them on trash or plowing issues if they’re 1) just plain ignorant and 2) bold enough to promote that ignorance. In Dartmouth, we have school cte candidate(s) that are Trump supporters. This was part of the conservative agenda (seeking local office) going back to the Christian Coalition.I don’t know know that we should pretend that all they really want is to have classes on financial literacy, when perhaps there’s a good chance that they want to have a debate on CRT. We have a superintendent who is a Fox News devotee. How can I respect her judgment on school issues, when she is subscribing to nightly lies about kids wanting to identify as cats in school systems? How do I ignore that? How can I think that she has the intellectual capacity or curiosity to really examine the use of Native imagery as a mascot/logo, curb the use of racial slurs in the school, or will be responsible on issues related to school shootings –when she takes her world view from Fox. That’s a supposedly educated person choosing ignorance.
At the same time, let’s say Amaral is as far “on the other side of the coin” philosophically. What — she supports student loan forgiveness and dental coverage under Medicare? That’s not exactly the equivalent of believing that the election was stolen and the the 1/6 rioters were justified. I’m done with these Trump people. I don’t want to be around them; I don’t want my kids to date them (or Andrew Tate followers); and I don’t want any of them to hold any office. It’s a toxic, hateful, ignorant philosophy, and I think it’s time we accept Popper’s paradox that we mustn’t tolerate intolerance — even, and perhaps especially, at the local level.
Misguided loyalties? You mean to their constitients? If a newcomer to politics can win in the face of the progressive movement “calling him out”, then why should more powerful politicians like Brian Gomes and Linda Morad follow that movement like sheep? Many of the politicians Jack criticizes are not white men. This isn’t about white men, or Trump supporters, or extremists. Jack is underestimating public skepticism about the decision to have a sex change. Perhaps the voters just didn’t think the social media posts were that significant. Perhaps they thought they were old, or satirical, or irrelevant. The students did something admirable to speak out, but not everyone has to agree with them. City Councilors are supposed to be loyal to their constituents. So far Shawn Oliver is doing a pretty good job.
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