Four years ago, the Barnstable County Human Rights Commission appeared to be down for the count. Its proposed operating budget was simply missing from the budget book that the Assembly of Delegates receives each year from the county commissioners for review.
The chair of the commissioners, Leo Cakounes, had been offended by comments on systemic racism made by the then-coordinator. So, he acted unilaterally to effectively eliminate the human rights office, without the formality of an ordinance, which is required by charter to alter county government.
That effort failed, thanks to the Assembly, and the department was funded. But it was hamstrung. First, the coordinator was given an office without a phone and no email account. Then, after a series of one-sided meetings, its mission of advocacy and intervention was narrowed to a purely advisory role.
But Cakounes was defeated in the 2018 election, and the Human Rights Advisory Commission (HRAC), as it was renamed, has made an impressive recovery. With an expanded roster of nine commissioners from across the Cape, and an energetic and experienced coordinator, Susan Quinones, the agency has taken on a wide variety of activities.
Its fundamental mission is to “promote and protect the basic human rights of all persons in Barnstable County.” To do so, it strives to “provide the public with a forum to identify and address human rights concerns within Barnstable County and, where possible, to assist in the resolution of complaints of human rights violations.”
A well-developed intake process for citizen complaints and questions gathers information and then seeks resolution or referral, for example, to the police or to the Mass. Commission Against Discrimination. Most issues involve housing or discrimination, but harassment and abuse are also reported. Of 14 contacts in the past year, five involved formal requests for assistance.
Cape schools have long been the most visible locus of the commission’s work. With 11 human rights clubs, including ones in Provincetown and Nauset, schools name issues in the fall and come together twice a year to share their work at the Human Rights Academy.
This past December, the Nauset High School human rights group and its mentor, Lisa Brown, were recognized by the commission with the Tim McCarthy Human Rights Champion Award, including a $2,000 honorarium. The event is celebrated annually on International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10. This year, owing to Covid, it was virtual.
In the past year, the HRAC convened two conferences involving chiefs of police to consider appropriate measures to prevent a George Floyd tragedy here. From these preliminary discussions, it is clear that our police commonly confront situations calling for mental health and social work intervention rather than force. And while all our local police departments are under town control, the county operates the Cape Cod Municipal Police Academy, which sets training standards.
This difficult conversation has been stalled, in part owing to the state-level reforms signed into law this past December. Those reforms add provisions for officer certification and decertification, as well as restrictions on the use of force. They ban chokeholds entirely. The commission must resume the dialogue on this important initiative.
In the wake of the recent mass murder at three Asian-owned businesses near Atlanta, the HRAC condemned this hate crime and expressed support and appreciation for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities on Cape Cod. It sponsored a webinar, “Bystander Intervention to Stop Anti-Asian/American Harassment and Xenophobia,” on March 29.
While Cape Cod is over 92 percent ethnically white, according to the U.S. Census, there are significant Black, Hispanic, indigenous, and other ethnic populations here. They are indispensable to our economy but remain largely invisible.
The rising tide of hate in our culture represents a civic threat to all of us. Addressing this danger will require education in implicit and systemic bias, and a readiness by each of us to confront haters at every ugly expression and at each observed instance of discrimination. Clearly, the reinvigorated Human Rights Advisory Commission intends to be an active leader in this role. It may well be that, as a society, we have finally reached the tipping point, where real dialogue will result in real change.
Brian O’Malley, M.D., is Provincetown’s elected delegate to the Barnstable County Assembly. Write him at [email protected].