LYNN — Around 20 Lynn Racial Justice Coalition activists surprised Mayor Jared Nicholson and members of the city council with an unexpected protest against the city’s plan to include Eliot Community Human Services in its mental health response plan Monday morning.
The protest took place at the Knights of Columbus for the Community Minority Cultural Center’s 37th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Day Legacy Observation and Celebration breakfast, which was attended by local and state officials.
After Bishop Dr. Anthony Bennett, of Greater Bethel Pentecostal Church, delivered an opening prayer honoring Dr. King and asking God to “take away the prejudice and let us love with principals,” Nicholson gave a mayoral greeting summarizing the city’s effort to form an unarmed crisis response team, the All Lynn Emergency Response Team (ALERT).
“A lot of [the city’s] challenges have to do with the kind of inequality that’s been driven and exacerbated over the years by systemic racism and as a majority-minority community with a very vibrant population of people of color,” Nicholson said. “We are actively working on addressing the mental health issues in our community, and dissecting some of the ways this plays out through the racial justice lens. This is why we’ve been creating an independent unarmed crisis response team that we’ve committed to pushing forward.”
The protest arose almost immediately after Nicholson took his seat, and Lynn Racial Justice Coalition Co-Chair Rev. Bernadette Hickman-Maynard took the podium.
Hickman-Maynard is a co-chair of the Lynn Racial Justice Coalition, a conglomerate of eight different local organizations — IUE-CWA Local 201, Lynn United for Change, North Shore Juneteenth Association, Prevent the Cycle, Diverse People United, New Lynn Coalition, and the Essex County Community Organization.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, the coalition sought to implement ALERT, an unarmed response team meant to handle non-violent emergencies without police presence.
Former Mayor Thomas McGee allocated $500,000 toward funding the ALERT program in 2021. Last week, Nicholson published an op-ed in The Item announcing that the city had chosen to partner with Eliot Community Human Services, a mental health specialist that has a location in Lynn.
“We want people to get the care and assistance they need when they need it. We believe there is an opportunity for the City and community leaders to take advantage of a collaborative partnership with Eliot, which is critical in understanding the landscape of mental health needs across the City,” Nicholson wrote. “Eliot has already assembled an impressive array of resources. They are hiring five teams of 12 professionals, including prescribers, nurses, case workers, and managers.”
Coalition members were unsatisfied with Eliot’s role in ALERT, alleging that the mental health organization relies too heavily on police for mental health services.
“Eliot is closely tied with the Lynn Police Department and the staff’s LPD Behavioral Health Unit. These teams are housed within systems that contribute to the re-traumatization of Black and Brown communities through involvement of the police,” the Lynn Racial Justice Coalition wrote in an open letter to Nicholson.
Hickman-Maynard introduced her speech with bold words toward Nicholson, prompting about 20 coalition activists to simultaneously stand and present their signs.
“This morning, we gather together to honor and celebrate the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I invite you to think with me, what would Martin Luther King do? What would he do if he had built a coalition, worked with the city for three years to start a program that would address systemic racism, police brutality, mass incarceration, and then the mayor went behind their back and unilaterally decided to house the program under an organization with ties to the police and known for being culturally incompetent?” Hickman-Maynard asked.
Hickman-Maynard went on to allege that Nicholson “insulted and disrespected” the coalition.
At the door, coalition members distributed copies of their open letter to Nicholson to attendees as they left. Nicholson shook their hands on his way out.
When asked for comment on the surprise demonstration, Nicholson said that he appreciated the group’s advocacy and that there was “always time and opportunity for constructive dialogue” with the coalition.
“These are important issues, and it’s important that we get them on the table so that we can figure out what’s in the best interests of the whole city,” he said.
Nicholson added that the event, which featured performances from Lynn’s vocal trio “1 of a Kind,” Zion’s Youth Dancers performing a “Footsteps” Dance, and Rev. Dr. Theodore Hickman-Maynard’s powerful keynote speech, was an important way to honor Dr. King.
“It was a wonderful event. It’s really important that we have these opportunities to recognize and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so I’m grateful to all the organizers, performers, and the supporters —it was a great crowd,” Nicholson said.
Others, like Ward 4 City Councilor Richard Colucci, found the demonstration disrespectful and distracting.
“I thought it was very disrespectful and it wasn’t the time, nor the place to do that,” Colucci said. “This day was supposed to be about Martin Luther King Jr.”