Thursday, June 13, 2024

Sunday event host Sara Mae Berman confronts protesters and talks with City Council candidate Dan Totten, right. (Photo: Sabrina Lam)

A celebration of City Council candidates endorsed by the Cambridge Citizens Coalition was interrupted Sunday by dozens of demonstrators who rallied outside. They protested the endorsement of Robert Winters and Carrie Pasquarello, who have received backlash for use of social media seen as transphobic, racist and Islamophobic.

The rally was organized by the Boston Democratic Socialists of America to encourage condemnation of Winters and Pasquarello by other candidates as well as urge the CCC to drop their endorsement. The protesters congregated at Inman Square Plaza at 4 p.m. and marched to 23 Fayette St., where the event was taking place, a half-hour later.

Attention toward Winters’ social media activity was raised at a Tuesday forum hosted by the Harvard Graduate Student Union, where a student asked Winters about his liking of several transphobic tweets. Two folders of screenshots of Winters and Pasquarello’s online activities were included in an online sign-up form the DSA created for the rally. Images of the posts were also printed on fliers distributed before the protest with “Do these people represent you?” asked at the top.

The protesters occupied the sidewalk across from the celebration, raising protest signs while chanting “Drop Rob, Drop Carrie!” and “When trans rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” Among them was Dan Totten, a candidate who has condemned Winters publicly.

Democratic Socialists of America members and protesters march Sunday because of two candidates for City Council in Cambridge. (Photo: Sabrina Lam)

The first in a succession of confrontations between protesters and event attendees occurred when Sara Mae Berman, host of the celebration, confirmed with the protesters that her private property would not be encroached on. During the interaction, Totten asked “Why won’t you reject hate, Sara? Why won’t you condemn it?”

“I don’t agree with what you’re saying,” Berman said. “I’ve known the person you’re talking about for many many years. I think you probably either made it up or conjured it up or something.”

Other celebration attendees who are longtime friends of Winters implied similar claims of fabrication and falsification. Renee Marie Chipman, a course assistant for Winters at the Harvard University Extension School, believes artificial intelligence could’ve faked the tweets.

“I’m very bothered when people spread lies and give wrong characterizations of someone because it’s slanderous, it’s liable, it’s false. They’re making it up, maybe using an AI chat box to try to portray him a certain way that would go with their agenda,” Chipman said in an interview at the event.

Focus on one candidate

Cambridge Citizens Coalition asked police to watch over Fayette Street on Mid-Cambridge during the protest. (Photo: Sabrina Lam)

In regard to what that “agenda” may be, Chipman suggested that she believes Totten orchestrated lies about Winters and Pasquarello to gain an election advantage.

“I think Dan Totten wants to get rid of as many of his challengers as possible. So if he can spread enough lies about a given challenger, then he thinks that he’s going to encourage his success,” Chipman said.

Berman agreed with Chipman and added: “It perverts the meaning of democracy when people tell lies about candidates for their own advantage.”

Candidates and elected officials who have condemned Winters alongside Totten are Ayah Al-Zubi, Ayesha Wilson, Vernon Walker, Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler, Burhan Azeem, Marc McGovern and Quinton Zondervan.

Azeem, a current city councillor, released a statement about Winters last Friday on X.

“His contributions in the past in no way make acceptable any of these behaviors, which should be unequivocally condemned in our community,” Azeem said.

Still, comments at the event and online have been focused solely on Totten.

Complaints go back a year

Complaints about Winters’ online activities also date back to at least June 2022, when his tweets were first screen-capped and written about by activist Loren Crowe, now a New Yorker.

The screenshots include Winters liking a tweet against the elimination of blood donation restrictions on gay and bisexual men and retweeting to an anti-queer account promotion of a “story time with drag kings and queens.” Past alerts from that account had sent violent hate groups such as the Proud Boys to disrupt events. Winters was also captured tweeting “Keep the chains on the protesters. They’ll go well with the leg irons. #StupidLivesMatter.”

Images of Pasquarello’s online activity are also stated on the flier to showcase “a slew of transphobic, homophobic, white supremacist and openly secessionist” sentiments. Her liked tweets consist of posts from figures such as Andy Ngô, who has a reputation for misrepresenting facts and spreading inaccurate claims in favor of far right-wing beliefs.

That the tweets are fake is not a narrative used by Winters or Pasquarello. Winters said Saturday that the “substance of the assertions, they are all misrepresentations” and told the Tuesday forum that he’d liked some tweets he thought were funny, but didn’t remember specifics. Another council candidate, Cathy Zusy, said Pasquarello had told her that “her security work requires her to make social media connections with alternative groups. She needs to know what they’re saying and how they’re communicating.”

Muchnik: Go to the source

The CCC event went on during the protest. (Photo: Sabrina Lam)

Another confrontation transpired with Nicola Williams, a previously CCC-endorsed 2021 council candidate. Protesters urged her to join them on the sidewalk rather than attend the celebration. After a few minutes of pressure, Williams stated that the tweets were wrong.

As Williams turned around to enter the event, the crowd started singing “Which side are you on?” to which Williams said “That’s not fair. Like I said, I’m not hiding. I’m here.” As she continued on inside, some thanked her for her disapproval of the tweets.

Federico Muchnik, a CCC-endorsed council candidate, was confronted by protesters shortly after Williams. When the crowd asked Muchnik his opinions on the controversy, he replied by telling the protesters to “take it up” with Winters and Pasquarello. He responded to additional questions by repeating the Arabic greeting “as-salaam-alaikum,” which means “peace be upon you.”

The response upset attendee Sara Al-Zubi, who raised her voice over the crowd and called to Muchnik as he was walking away. “If we have issues in City Council, what are you going to say to me? Oh, take up your life issues with the other candidates? Is that what you’re going to say to me?”

Ayah Al-Zubi added, “Right now, there are candidates running and I feel unsafe as a candidate myself and I’m standing out here with these folks because it is not okay.”

Claims are “toxic narcissism”

After the altercation, Muchnik remained firm in his decision to maintain a distance from a conflict that he believes does not directly concern him.

“I say, go directly to Carrie, go directly to Robert. If they have to speak for their values, if they have to clear their names, then that’s on them,” Muchnik said in an interview. “I’ve been endorsed by the CCC. But just because I’m on a slate with them, doesn’t mean I share their values.”

Muchnik also referred to a comment he left in a previous Cambridge Day article to express resentment for Totten “hijacking” the council conversation at the forum and beyond. “If Winters and Pasquarello need to explain themselves or their values, so be it. The public will take note,” Muchnik said. “But to hijack a city’s local electoral conversation away from what the public needs to know about … smacks of toxic narcissism and embittered self-interest.”

Councillor Patty Nolan, who was endorsed by the CCC, issued a statement after the event to clarify her position:

Robert Winters has been an asset to the community, providing a way for residents to get information on local government and events and issues. His decades of volunteer work focused on civic engagement and education have greatly benefited our community.  Robert Winters liked posts and made comments on social media that are offensive and do not represent values I or I believe the community share. Some posts crossed a line and caused harm, whether intentional or not, and should be condemned. There are also posts from other candidates that I find deeply troubling from anyone seeking to  represent the community.

Demands are unchanged

After approximately an hour, the protesters marched back to Inman Square. A Boston DSA representative said the group still wanted the CCC to revoke its endorsements, apologize to the Cambridge community and see Winters and Pasquarello drop out of the race. Protesters seek a public apology if they stay in, the representative said.

Evan MacKay, a member of the Boston DSA and graduate student at Harvard University, said the rally should encourage an apology: “Rob has done good things in Cambridge to help people be more aware of what’s going on in our municipal government. But when you find out that you have harmed people in a way that you didn’t mean to or you are educated on the impact of your actions, you have to be accountable for those actions, and you have to try to make amends.”

The Boston DSA has also created a petition demanding the CCC to unendorse Winters and Pasquarello, publish a formal apology, solicit a formal public apology from the candidates, and publish a statement urging the two to withdraw from the council race. The endorsements contradict the organization’s stated values of “ending LGBTIGA+ violence, bullying, and discrimination” and “social justice for indigenous communities [and] people of color.”

This post was updated Oct. 2, 2023, to correct attribution of a quote to Sara Al-Zubi.