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Four people, including three clergy members, were arrested at Boston City Hall on Thursday night after staging a sit-in in an attempt to gain a meeting with Mayor Michelle Wu to discuss renaming historic Faneuil Hall, whose namesake amassed his 18th-century fortune through the Transatlantic slave trade.
According to a Boston police report, the four demonstrators were charged for trespassing around 8:30 p.m. — about three-and-a-half hours after the end of the building’s public operating hours.
“Officers asked the group to leave several times and those who did not leave City Hall would be placed under arrest,” Officer Kim Tavares, a department spokesperson, wrote in an email. “The suspects were not City of Boston employees nor were they given special permission/authorization to remain inside the building after hours.”
Three demonstrators on the scene when police arrived left after they were told they would be arrested if they did not exit City Hall, according to the police report.
Those who didn’t leave were charged, according to police. They are Craig Simpson, 76, of Dorchester; John Eric Gibbons, 70, of Bedford; Elizabeth Perry-Wood, 73, of Lexington; and Linda Bessom, 75, of Somerville, police records show.
Charges were dismissed for all four of them prior to arraignment in Boston Municipal Court, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office confirmed Friday.
The effort, coming days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was organized by the New Democracy Coalition, the group that has pushed for renaming the popular tourist attraction and historic site for years.
Peter Faneuil, an 18th-century merchant, built the now-historic property with money he made trading slaves and raw goods.
Faneuil himself owned five slaves at the time of his death. He donated the hall that now bears his name to the city — a landmark also known as the “Cradle of Liberty.”
“We think that the reputational damage that is done to Boston by the name of slave trader Peter Faneuil Hall is serious, and it really chains us to a past that highlights our legacy of systemic racism and white supremacy,” Gibbons said, following the dismissal of his charge on Friday. “So we’re hoping that the city will embrace not only a new name, but a future that recognizes the importance of rectifying injustices and inequities that have plagued Boston for so many centuries.”
Gibbons, a community minister at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, is among a group of clergy members that has sent “several unanswered letters to Mayor Wu about meeting to discuss her support,” according to a press release from the coalition published Tuesday.
Rev. Kevin Peterson, Gibbons, and Pastor Valerie Copeland wrote to the mayor again last week, the group says.
“This fall we Boston clergy chained ourselves to the building called Faneuil Hall. We have called that building ‘Slave Traders Hall’ until an appropriate name is found,” the letter says. “As you know, the building is currently named after the slave trader and slave owner Peter Faneuil, a white supremacist. We think you would agree that a publicly-owned building should not be named after a racial bigot.
“In the spirit of Dr. King’s holiday we are willing to be arrested at city hall if needed,” the letter continues. “We must unchain ourselves from the racist legacy of Boston to create and embrace a new beloved community.”
Peterson on Friday said the protesters wanted to encourage Wu to meet with the group to set a date for a public hearing on renaming the hall.
“We believe that retaining the name of Faneuil Hall remains a huge barrier towards our conversations about race and reconciliation in the city of Boston,” Peterson said in a phone interview.
He added, “We are mystified as to why Mayor Wu has rejected our efforts to have a conversation with her.”
Wu’s office declined to comment Friday on the incident.
The letters and sit-in are only the coalition’s latest efforts to get the attention of city leaders.
Since at least 2017 — and now through three mayoral administrations — the group has publicly advocated for removing the name through demonstrations and other tactics, including by petitioning the City Council, re-enacting a slave auction, and boycotting the famed hall and neighboring Quincy Market, as well as through Peterson’s hunger fast in 2020.
More recently, in October, Peterson, Gibbons, and Copeland chained themselves to the hall’s front steps.
Wu has repeatedly expressed the need for the city to highlight more of Boston’s diverse history, but has so far stopped short of outright endorsing the concept of renaming the famed building.
“It is critical to acknowledge and address the role of slavery in our nation’s founding and the deep inequities that remain today,” her office said in a statement after the clergy members chained themselves to the hall in the fall.
“As we work to build an equitable Boston for everyone, the city is committed to advancing racial justice and learning from our past and right wrongs,” the statement said.
On Friday, Gibbons said the coalition continues to be “disappointed that [the mayor] has delayed or avoided meeting with us for a few months now.”
“And so, the work goes on,” Gibbons said. “The struggle continues.”
City Hall did, at one point under Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, have plans to erect a memorial to acknowledge the history of the slave auctions once held along Merchants Row, just outside the hall. (Notably though, Walsh never backed renaming efforts.)
But the plans for the memorial fell through in 2019 when the artist involved said he would seek to build it elsewhere after the city’s NAACP branch opposed it.
As for the renaming efforts, the coalition is apparently not alone in its sentiments.
A poll published by Policy for Progress and conducted by the MassINC Polling Group in 2021 found a majority of city voters, or 51 percent, supported renaming the hall — a significant contrast to the 36 percent who opposed the idea.
Gibbons pointed to those results as an indicator the coalition’s efforts were successful in swaying opinions at least among the city’s electorate.
“The needle has moved quite a bit from five or six years ago. This was really an outlier issue,” he said. “So we think that the time has come. We’re feeling the momentum, and sure, we don’t want to wait. We want to move forward. We are frustrated, and yet, we feel that some progress has been made and we feel good about that.”
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