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Arlington Fights Racism needs to broaden support

UPDATED, June 18: An election season extended two months by a pandemic was enough to shake up Arlington. Add to that a determined citizen group and related campaigns using bold tactics, and you have a liveliness pointing toward higher turnout and some electoral success. You also had enough opportunities for error that did not add up to a full expression of the goals for all.Arlington Fights Racism logo

I have never before seen in Arlington a campaign like the one Lynette Martyn, in concert with Arlington Fights Racism (AFR), pursued in seeking key town seats.

Following town politics in earnest since 1994, I have never known a school candidate to report about the meetings of the board she sought via election [See note below]. This remarkable effort demonstrates an intense interest in the issues that the committee discusses. Certainly, it shows a desire to communicate school issues to the public.

In that 26-year period, roughly mapping the rise of the internet from its infancy to adolescence, I have never known candidates to so skillfully use social media.

Faced with an election season ruptured and delayed by a pandemic, AFR was able to pivot in March, when public campaigning was curtailed, by turning to Zoom.

Further, since it began in 2006, YourArlington has never published so many letters, 140 of them, as campaigns took advantage of an extra two months. Supporters of Martyn, Michaiah Healy and Jo Anne Preston sent many.

Every one of those points deserves hearty applause.

Not everything that occurred in the AFR-related campaign does.

Remember the mislabeled mailing in April, the one with a return address that appeared to be something official from the town? To her credit, Martyn immediately publicly acknowledged she had made an error. The press of a deadline to mail campaign literature led her astray, she said.

At the time, she did not respond to questions I asked about how this occurred, and I let it go as a rookie mistake. In life, not every question gets an answer.

The error led Healy, running for Select Board, to distance herself from the matter. So did related campaigns.

About those connected campaigns: In late February, AFR had declared support for a slate of candidates, including Martyn, Healy and Preston, as well as some Town Meeting candidates.

The group's overall aim -- opposing racism in town -- brought timely, positive focus. Yet, in my view, the group has been too focused and needs to broaden its appeal. Its tone has suggested: "If you are not with us, you must be against us."

Where does this attitude arise? I saw it in the letters submitted for publication, some of which were not accepted.

Traditionally, editors publish letters supporting a candidate without hesitation, and that continued right up to the June 6 town election. But another trend emerged this spring, one not often seen in Arlington: Letters from one campaign targeting another candidate with sharp criticism. It seems personal.

In my view, such letters may be published if critical claims include factual support. I weed out unsupported attacks.

My site's policy: " welcomes opinions of all kinds from local residents. They are reviewed for fairness, factualness and taste."

That trend extended to longer expressions of opinion. Consider the exchanges between Martyn and Paul Schlichtman following their ACMi debate.

On April 26, YourArlington published Schlichtman's view of his opponent's debate claims about the racial gap

He wrote: "The 'widespread disparity gaps' that are the centerpiece of Ms. Martyn’s campaign simply don’t exist. We are not shortchanging 'thousands of students' in the Arlington Public Schools, and these accusations are defamatory and particularly hurtful to the dedicated and caring educators working in these schools."

Three days later, Martyn responded. She writes: "He seems to suggest that I have either intentionally fabricated the data, or that despite my extensive education and professional experience, I’m incapable of comprehending and interpreting the very basic and straightforward statistics supplied by the Massachusetts Department of Education. By doing this, Mr. Schlichtman not only dismisses the very real problems revealed by this data, but also my personal experiences as a parent of an Arlington Public School student and those of the many other families I have consulted and worked with."

Such an apparent difference of views is often where debate on editorial pages trails off. Not in Arlington's extended political season.

Between April 29 and May 23, seven letter writers weighed in supporting Martyn. They included her husband and the parents of children of color, a letter with numerous signers.

The parents' letter was held after the publisher requested revision, and the writers declined. The publisher subsequently changed his mind and decided it should be published.

Why was it held? I felt that letters addressing the same points amounted to "piling on." I still think that, but I decided that, in view of the substantial response from an unrepresented population, their words should be published. All in all, I erred in not doing so earlier.

Did the matter end there? It did not.

To offer a dispassionate analysis of this particular debate, I published on May 21 "Support for Schlichtman -- and the value of data." The column lays out in a factually and fair way how each side made its case. It says, in part: "I hope that in the home stretch of the election the candidates can focus the debate on how best to understand the present state of APS and the scope and nature of disparities, rather than expending more energy on an out-of-context phrase, that triggers 'blanket outrage' and gives the erroneous impression that one candidate does not care about ensuring that all APS students receive the support they need to succeed."

For me, those words pointed the election campaigns toward a sensible goal -- seeking balance among viewpoints.

Did balance return? Not really. On May 25, George Floyd died under a police officer's knee in Minneapolis, and protests seeking reform broke out everywhere. Now Arlington Fights Racism, and those it supported, drew energy from a worldwide movement.

Days before the election, as nightly protests against police brutality were held in Arlington, a former school data specialist went public with issues dating from 2017, alleging Superintendent Kathy Bodie told him not to look too deeply into discipline records involving minority students. Bodie has denied that

The Martyn and AFR campaigns promoted the allegation on social media in the context of "fighting racism." You can do that if you accept only the word of the former data specialist. In fairness, these campaigns should also have considered Bodie's views -- unless hers are automatically discounted because of "white privilege."

I applaud new voices, creative tactics and fresh messages brought to town political campaigns. Going forward, all should consider the tone and welcome reasoned opinions.

May 8, 2020: Healy, backed by antiracism group, stands apart from errant campaign mailing

This  viewpoint was published Wednesday, June 17, 2020. NOTE: A reader reminds me that Josh Lobel, an unsuccessful candidate for School Committee in 2005 and 2007, attended and wrote reports of its meetings before and during that time, posted on the now-defunct Think of Our Kids (TOOK) email list.

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