WORCESTER - Representatives of various local, city and state agencies met at Quinsigamond Community College Wednesday night to let members of vulnerable communities know there are services available, people to talk to, and steps they can take to combat hate, intimidation and harassment.
Building upon a recent op-ed piece by Mayor Joseph M. Petty assuring residents "I have your back" in the wake of a rise in racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and misogynistic incidents after the recent presidential election, the Worcester NAACP and the Diversity Caucus of QCC hosted a forum Wednesday night to give people options for where to turn, and assurances that they are welcome in the city.
Patricia Yancey, president of the local NAACP chapter, said it was important to have the forum to let people know that such sentiments have no place in the country, the state or in Worcester.
Officials from the state attorney general's office who attended said Attorney General Maura Healey has embraced her office's role as the people's lawyer. Willie Bodrick II of the AG's Community Engagement Division said Ms. Healey's opening of a hotline to report hate crimes that reportedly received more than 400 calls in its first week was part of an ongoing effort to engage with communities. Every person in a community should feel safe, he said, and the attorney general's office will listen to anyone who feels they have been the victim of a hate crime.
Mr. Bodrick said the office has conducted community meetings entirely in Spanish and Haitian Creole, and said representatives will travel.
"Invite us in," Mr. Bodrick said. "Because we want to be there. We want to be present."
During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump promised to tighten up immigration controls, warning of mass deportations and the construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico. That has led to real fears on a local level, which officials and community advocates sought to assuage at the forum.
Hilda Ramirez of the Latino Education Institute, a collaboration with Worcester State University, said she has fielded calls from students afraid to continue to attend classes. She said she received assurances from statewide higher education officials that state college campuses are safe places where students' immigration status won't impact their education.
Deputy Police Chief Edward McGinn said the department will enforce laws to protect residents' constitutional rights. He said "hate has no quarter here," and reiterated the department's longstanding policy of not getting involved in federal immigration law enforcement.
An audience member asked the deputy to clarify the Police Department's relationship with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Deputy McGinn said city police typically arrest people only on state charges. He noted, however, that occasionally - maybe once or twice a year - when someone arrested has their fingerprints run through national databases, warrants from ICE will pop up, and police will release that person into ICE custody. But he said the department does not arrest people for immigration violations.
He said part of that strategy is making sure the department appears as welcoming and accessible as possible in its relationship with the community. He said a fatal shooting several years ago on Austin Street required the cooperation of witnesses who were undocumented immigrants. He said they even testified in court.
"We don't want people to be victimized," he said. "We want to hear about abuses."
School Superintendent Maureen Binienda gave an overview of various programs and services available to students, and said procedures are in place to deal with harassment or intimidation of students at schools.
City Councilor-at-Large Khrystian King, who said he attended the forum on behalf of the mayor, said it's important to call out bigotry hidden in coded language. He said it's important for people to show up and speak out. He said he has received calls since the election from concerned residents; he said one student at a local elementary school told the teacher about being concerned friends would be "taken away" because of their nationality.
Jayna L. Turchek, the city's director of human rights and disabilities, local peace activist Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, the Rev. Jose Encarnacion of Worcester Interfaith, Gladys Rodriguez-Parker, Stephen Ives of the Worcester Islamic Center and Steven Schimmel of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts also spoke at the forum.
Earlier in the day, the Massachusetts chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - the nation's largest Muslim civil rights group - issued a call for greater police protection of mosques after a threatening letter was sent to a mosque in Rhode Island.
Khalid Sadozai, head of the Islamic Society of Greater Worcester, said Wednesday his mosque has not received any threats but that Worcester police did agree to step up patrols there recently in response to trepidation following the election.