BOSTON – During the third installment of “The Good Fight” – an online forum designed to provide tools to combat antisemitism – Anti-Defamation League New England Regional Director Robert Trestan urged viewers to get engaged to push back against intolerance by public officials.
He did so by citing some extreme examples from just the past year.
A Lowell School Committee member referred to a former school administrator using “the K-word,” Trestan said.
“School Committee members comparing vaccine requirements to the Holocaust; a city councilor making racist remarks; and a state representative in Maine comparing vaccine mandates to violations of the Nuremberg Code,” Trestan said.
“In all of these instances in my role as regional director at ADL, I’ve heard from many concerned community members who reiterate the same question: ‘What can I do?’”
In a recent wide-ranging virtual discussion, Trestan spoke with journalist and lawyer Carol Rose, executive director of American Civil Liberties of Massachusetts, about how to hold public officials accountable when they cross the line.
The forum, which was streamed on YouTube, was hosted by ADL New England and sponsored in part by Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The series started in 2019 to mark the one-year anniversary of the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Trestan asked Rose to give an example about how she uses the law to hold elected officials accountable.
Rose said the ACLU uses what she called “an integrated advocacy approach,” employing “multiple tools in the tool kit because we have found that the law alone or media alone or legislative work alone or field work and mobilization alone often doesn’t get the job done.
“But when we bring them together, and we coordinate and we collaborate and align all of these tools in the tool kit,” Rose said, “we actually punch far above our weight.”
One example was the reform of the Massachusetts public records law. The old law lacked an enforcement mechanism, Rose said, meaning a city or town official might respond to a records request that could take a lot of time or embarrass their boss, or they could do nothing, given there was no way to enforce the law.
The ACLU employed the integrated advocacy approach to mobilize the media. They had people call their legislators. They filed lawsuits, and ultimately, they got the Legislature to fix the law.
Trestan said it was troubling that it took so much work to do this. Rose said such a coordinated effort is not a quick fix. It took two legislative cycles – a total of four years – to get that new law passed.
Trestan also asked Rose how people can hold public officials accountable, and he answered his own question: “They are all voters, so I guess No. 1 … Make sure that you vote.”
“Let me just say how important people power is in both the legislative context and also in the court context,” Rose said. That kind of involvement includes signing petitions or calling or writing to lawmakers.
Rose said getting involved with your town government can also make a difference. People power and public advocacy also can make a difference in courts. Rose cited the push for equal marriage as one example.
“Judges are people, too, and they read the morning paper and they see the letters to the editor and they see if there has been a rally or people speaking out about something,” Rose said.
Trestan asked Rose about what has been happening in school committee meetings that have gotten out of control, “with slurs, with racism injected, antisemitism, and the tension level is definitely rising. Any suggestions on how people can deal with that?”
Rose said the best response may be to shun the speaker to deprive their message of oxygen.
The other tactic would be “to rise up together and speak on behalf of the people, on behalf of those who are opposed to bigotry and intolerance and to step forward and then to hold out those who are [intolerant] to the sunlight, to the disinfection of sunlight, and to say this is unacceptable in our community, not to say we are therefore going to criminalize it, but to say it is not what we believe and to vote them out of office.”
The best response may be to run for the school board, town meeting, or for city council, Rose said, “and make sure those views are outvoted in a democratic process.”
Trestan said a lot of people have been stepping up to do this in recent years.
“It’s a good reminder that you don’t have to run for Congress to become engaged,” Trestan said.
You can find the three latest installments in The Good Fight series on ADL New England’s YouTube channel.