It has been a week that delivered sharply different depictions of two modern-day Bostonians, two sons of Dorchester.
One, which we like to believe is in the ascendancy, featured our new police commissioner— a career public servant, a proud 54-year-old black man. William ‘Willie’ Gross is the face we’d like to believe is truly representative of our city, our neighborhood. Cheerful, optimistic, he is also courageous, tough, and fair, a realist who is propelled by ideals that have somehow survived three decades of hard-nosed police work to seek out the better angels of our nature.
The second, also 54, is a reminder that we have to continually grapple with the fact that there’s another side to our community. He’s the man who was captured on a cell phone video by a woman whom he confronted with this “other Dorchester” in a most frightening way last Friday night. Angry, tortured almost, he raged against “animals” and outsiders ruining “his” neighborhood. Later, police said, Paul Sheehan dropped his code words and went full-on racist in public, dropping the “N-bomb” repeatedly before an officer finally cuffed him, ending his rant and sending him to jail and then to court for an arraignment on Monday.
This is the contrast – the Boston we aspire to be versus the city that we’d like to believe exists only in grainy news reel footage from Dorchester Heights, circa 1974.
But the truth is that both Bostons exist.
The anger and resentment and irrational hate on exhibit in the video captured last Friday night was stomach-churning, but not, to be candid, a great revelation. A long-simmering, insidious form of racism is alive in the land. It’s here, it’s in our backyard. Thanks to the victim of last Friday night’s tirade, it has been posted for all to see. It irrigates all of the worst assumptions and presumptions by others of Boston’s “true” colors — bigoted, ignorant, angry, and intolerant.
Online, the chorus insists that this is not who we are. And, indeed, it’s not what I saw last Friday night when I walked the same Adams Street neighborhood where this ugly incident unfolded. Most people were out on their porches or on the street corners watching the aftermath of a collision caused by a criminal trying to flee the police. The villain had run down a man on Dot Ave and smashed up a second car trying to make good his escape. The suspect was collared by MBTA Transit officers, who also recovered a gun from the scene.
It was chaotic. But there were no meltdowns. The neighbors watched the proceedings and compared notes on what they’d seen. They were white, Asian, black and brown, gay and straight, OFDers and newcomers. I spoke with a teenager walking home from his deli counter job at Lambert’s, to a Southie transplant who just moved into a condo with a driveway, to a couple of millennials who saw the mash-up from their Lyft on their way to drinks in the village. I saw a six-pack of twenty-somethings scanning the scene from their three-decker perch, one floor above their Vietnamese neighbors.
This neighborhood belongs to all of them, to all of us.
Unfortunately, it’s also home to the likes of Paul Sheehan, whose rage boiled over into a rant that badly besmeared our collective identity. He’s not representative of the majority of Dorchester folks, to be sure. But let’s face facts: He lives here, too.
A teachable moment? It can be. The police did, in fact, arrest the man who persisted in his racist aggression. He might soon face civil rights violations for his deplorable behavior. We hope so.
– Bill Forry