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Boston Public Library workers to hold unity rally following ‘incidents of disruption and hate’

At the city's libraries, protesters of Boston's mask policy have hassled staff over the rule. And, in a separate incident, one man allegedly poured gasoline on a bust of Maya Angelou.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff
COVID Mandates

Following what they describe as “incidents of disruption and hate,” Boston Public Library employees on Saturday will hold a gathering to display unity, kindness, and healing, a union representing the workers says.

The Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association will host the “‘Fill the Library with Love’ Unity Gathering” beginning at noon outside the library system’s Central Branch on Dartmouth Street, facing Copley Square, the union said in a statement Friday.

The rally is a direct response to several incidents where protesters against the city’s mask mandate violated the rule while visiting the Central Library and Hyde Park Library, according to the union.

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“While there, they intimidated and harassed members of the public and staff at the library and refused to leave when asked,” the union said in the statement.

Separately, in another incident, an unknown individual allegedly poured gasoline on a bust of the late poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou at the Central Library during the first week of Black History Month on Feb. 5, the statement says.

“These actions created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear that should never exist in the library,” the union says. “The union is hoping that by surrounding the library with love we can begin to heal from the damage caused by these actions. In standing up to hatred and bullying, the library can be made a safe space again.”

What happened: The mask protests

One of the mask-related incidents, on Feb. 5, was broadcast live on Twitter by the account @WeThePeopleOfMA, which frequently posts and shares content in protest of Boston’s ongoing mask and indoor vaccination mandates, as well as Mayor Michelle Wu’s sought-after city employee vaccination requirement.

The two videos, which total nearly 40 minutes long, recorded a group of protesters, who allege they are being discriminated against, entering the children’s room maskless and attempting to read to their children.

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At least one member of the group, Michelle Efendi, was told by a staff member they were trespassing by not wearing masks, according to a video posted on Twitter by Efendi.

“You can let the security downstairs know that it is completely inappropriate for him to threaten to call the police on me … Did you not learn anything from the last time you called the police?” Efendi says to the employee.

Another protester, who was apparently violating the rule for a second time, was issued a trespassing notice that prohibited them from returning to the library for three months, the videos show.

According to a Boston police report, officers responded to the library, for two separate calls, around 1:38 p.m. on Feb. 5.

A sergeant spoke to the protesters — the conversation was caught on video — and advised the group about the mandatory mask rule in the city.

“The individuals, who did not give their identity, were very cordial during the interaction,” the report states. “(The sergeant) left the scene without further incident.”

In a video of a similar protest posted by Efendi at the library’s Hyde Park branch on Feb. 10, an officer told Efendi the mask policy was not enforceable by police, in his opinion, because it was not a criminal matter.

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The officer said police will ask them to follow the rule. Whether the protesters do so is up to them, he said.

However, he said, if the protesters do not comply or leave and police receive a second call, they could then face penalties, he said.

In a statement released on Feb. 7, the BPLPSA Executive Board said the union supports its members who have “several times now been subjected to major disruption and threats to health and safety from individuals using the Children’s Room and other areas of the library as a prop to play out their white grievance fantasy.”

The union said several of the protesters present at the library on Feb. 5 had previously been trespassed “for similar behavior.”

“The disrespectful and embarrassing display of the anti-mask protestors resulted in the endangerment of library staff and other library users, and the disruption of library services, including the divergence of library security from other areas of the library,” the statement reads.

Efendi did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Lisa Pollack, a spokesperson for the Boston Public Library, told Boston.com: “It’s always unfortunate when protestors disrupt others’ enjoyment of a public space. We are incredibly grateful to all of the library workers who have handled these disruptions professionally. Our focus is to provide good public service to our patrons and we will continue to do so.”

What happened: The alleged vandalism

In a separate incident, police also responded to the Central Library on Feb. 5 for a radio call reporting vandalism there, according to a police report.

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At the scene, officers were informed gasoline had been poured over a bust of Maya Angelou, but the library’s security manager did not know who was responsible and there were no witnesses, the report states.

“The officers could smell a strong odor believed to be gasoline,” officers wrote.

Detectives retrieved security video footage allegedly showing a suspect entering the library from the Dartmouth Street entrance at approximately 1:03 p.m. with a yellow bag.

The suspect, a man, then walked over to the statute and poured “a liquid substance from the yellow bag, believed to be gasoline,” on it, police wrote.

He then left the library through the same doors at 1:06 p.m.

Police searched the area but were unable to find the suspect. No arrests had been made as of Friday.

The library staff union says relying on law enforcement to resolve incidents is ineffective

In its Feb. 7 statement, the BPLPSA Executive Board emphasized library staff members have worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to provide services.

Library employees have “been on the frontlines in communicating the mask requirement,” too, the board noted.

“This has been very challenging, despite the fact that the vast majority of library users are in agreement with staff and the City on the use of masks,” the statement says.

The recent incidents “expose the limits of a policy approach that relies almost solely on frontline staff,” the board wrote, adding that library workers were instructed to contact Boston police “when incidents have risen to confrontation and danger.”

“Yesterday’s events illustrate the ineffectiveness of those guidelines, given the poor response from Boston Police to an organized group whose intention has been to consistently threaten library staff,” the statement reads.

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“Boston Police who arrived on scene stated that they were instructed not to remove these anti-maskers, leaving library staff to deal with the situation on their own,” the statement continues. “The individuals responsible for yesterday’s disruption have targeted the Library before and may target it again in their efforts to deliberately disrupt service and threaten the safety of staff and others in the Library.”

The union leaders called on Wu, city officials, and library administrators to “open a dialogue with library workers” to develop a new response system. The board also asked for library security to be doubled, immediately, across all library branches.

In a statement to Boston.com on Friday, Wu said her administration is working closely with library staff and public safety officials on the matter.

Wu also indicated officials will make sure violators of the mask policy will face penalties moving forward.

“We will make sure that for those who are not following policies, there is some accountability and that there will be citations issued and summons to court,” Wu said. “The purpose of our public buildings is for the public to enjoy them, not to have a small group that is trying to disrupt and push everyone out.”

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