City Councillor Giovanni Recupero could be investigated for alleged Civil Rights violations by City Solicitor Cheryl Fisher Watson after complaints lodged with the Council were forwarded to her Monday night – with the charges stemming from an incident where Recupero allegedly verbally harassed a 17-year-old member of the Youth Commission in the City Hall parking lot Feb. 23 following a controversial vote on removing the Christopher Columbus Statue.
Complaints came in quickly after the Feb. 23 meeting in regards to the tenor of comments from Recupero and Councillor Toddy Taylor – both of whom voted against taking down the statue in Chelsea Square – when Youth Commission members Brandon Garcia and Richard Flores gave testimony as part of their high school class and Youth Commission advocacy. Students and Chelsea High Teacher Ilana Ascher said they felt dismissed and disrespected. However, for Recupero, the allegations became more serious as he is alleged to have followed the students outside to the City Hall Parking Lot and confronted them in a heated discussion. He allegedly would not stop when asked to and the students reported feeling harassed and that their rights had been infringed upon.
In a letter to the Council on Monday night, Ascher asked for an investigation by the City – as did a number of other members of the public in communications sent to the body.
“During the Council discussion before the vote, some of the Council comments did not address the matter itself, but were personal attacks on the presenters,” wrote Ascher. “I can only imagine they were designed to humiliate my students and to silence future discourse. More disgraceful were the words of Councillor Recupero after the presentation. To be frank, I and the rest of Chelsea expect more from Mr. Recupero.”
She said her students were on the verge of tears as he pressed them in the parking lot for answers to his questions, and even allegedly suggested they give up their names because they were forfeiting their heritage.
“If one launches personal attacks at a 17-year-old who voiced his opinion, I question whether they should be a city councillor,” wrote Ascher. “I hope City Councillor Recupero wants to do better and does not want to stop youth participation at future City Council meetings. Regardless of his attempt, his actions made a few feel it isn’t safe to express their opinion. This is why I want an investigation into the conduct of City Councillor Recupero on his conduct and actions at the meeting.”
The meeting on Monday was as heated as they come – and just when one thought COVID-19 had stretched City government to the limit, then came a very hard situation for members of the community and the City Council membership.
It was made all the more serious later in the meeting when City Solicitor Watson was called on to give her assessment of the situation. She said the matter was far more serious as it seemed there were Civil Rights violations, and it came between two appointed members of City government – as Brandon Garcia was appointed and confirmed to the Youth Commission.
“What is before you is potential Civil Rights violations, councillors,” said Watson. “Regardless of what you can and cannot do, that is what has been presented to you in these communications. As the City Solicitor, I am looking at a Board member who saying that potentially a City Councillor has harassed a Board member, multiple Board members, from the City of Chelsea…He’s just not a regular resident; he’s one of us…There is not an investigation open, but I may or may not open one without going to a City Council Conference.”
‘I’m not a White Supremacist’
Surprising more than a few people at the outset of the meeting on Monday night, Councillor Recupero went on the offensive to pre-emptively explain that he is not a white supremacist. He reiterated that he only had an opinion about the statue, and he did not condone the things that Columbus did.
He also indicated he is married to an Afro-Latina woman who is of Puerto Rican heritage, and has 13 kids who are both Italian and Puerto Rican – and 39 grandchildren that were from all parts of the western hemisphere.
Speaking without a script, he said the notion of him being a white supremacist was ludicrous and he didn’t appreciate the students and their allies slander he and his family.
“You’re going to hear tonight that I’m a white supremacist and I’m not a white supremacist,” he said.
“It is wrong to slander me as a white supremacist,” he continued. “Number one I am a Latin man. Number two you’re judging me by what I look like, not for what I am or because I had a statement. My personal belief, my personal opinion is my own. We all have an opinion in this world. If we don’t have an opinion then we might as well don’t exist.
“People that slander me and say I’m a white supremacist are the ones that are more prejudiced,” he continued. “I’m sorry, and maybe that’s not their intent and I didn’t intend to say anything bad about a person. What I said is what I belief and if I speak loud, I’m sorry. I’m deaf so I speak loud. My intention was not to hurt or attack anybody or do anything.”
Recupero has been on the Council for many years and his style is described as abrasive at times, and he is often loud and passionate on the issues. Most of his colleagues, and a number of his constituents, however, would not describe him as a racist or white supremacist.
During the debate Monday, Councilor Damali Vidot said she understood that it probably went too far, but she knows his heart.
“He knows when he said take your last name and remove it; he knows that was wrong and could be interpreted the wrong way,” she said. “I know Councillor Recupero’s heart. Does he say horrible things sometimes? Absolutely yes, 1000 percent and I’ll tell him that…”
Likewise, in January, Council President Roy Avellaneda alluded to Recupero’s nature in his Council President speech, praising him for being determined and serving all of his constituents.
“I know he doesn’t always say things the right way, but be sure he’s a gentleman that fights – absolutely,” he said in January.
Defending and Offending
At Monday’s meeting, Brandon Garcia and a number of student activists from Boston were in attendance to voice strong words on the matter. On the other side of the coin, two of Recupero’s sons were in attendance to defend the accusations against their father.
There was little middle ground.
Garcia was one of the first to recount the situation and say that it wasn’t acceptable how he was treated, calling for both councillors to resign.
“In a city where the majority of our parents are undocumented, we (youth) are the ones who stand up for our families and yet both councillors chose to crudely disregard youth voices in a taunting and unprofessional way,” he said. “To disagree is one thing, to disregard is a whole other thing. To claim they don’t know their history to someone who is Latino, especially a POC youth is not only an act of ageism but also an act of racism.”
He said coming out to the parking lot for a confrontation should not be accepted, and he questioned why other members of the Council had not called Recupero’s past behavior into question before now.
“He took it upon himself to come up to me and another youth and told us not to forget to change our last names,” he said. “That is harassment. It is harassment. It is racially insensitive considering a majority of POC Latinos are stuck with their last name – an emblazoned symbolism we are forced to drag with us…I got my last name Garcia through rape, colonialism and genocide and slavery – period. That should not be tolerated.”
Both Michelangelo Recupero, 33, and Giovanni Recupero Jr., who is in his 40s, also spoke publicly on the matter, defending their father and saying people are not familiar with who he really is.
“Defamation of character is a real thing in America,” Michelangelo said. “You can sit behind a screen or send a letter and point out someone’s history and not know them and you can ruin a reputation. That’s why I stand here and try to defend my dad. There’s teams like the Cleveland Indians who agreed to change their name because they felt it was insensitive, so there’s good and bad with cancel culture. But sometimes in that momentum and power to point the finger at someone, there’s also backlash that they themselves never get to feel. Only the one accused gets to feel that. They just sit back and disappear into history while the person accused has to defend themselves.”
Said Giovanni Jr., “It’s hard to describe the pain and disappointment I feel that my father has to go through this. He’s never taught that to me or anyone in my family… Do I look like the creation of a man who is a white supremacist? Do I look like a man who is a creation of a racist? Do I look like that? I’ve been treated just as badly as you have in my life.”
Yet some students from Boston in the crowd, including former Boston School Committee Student Rep. Khymani James, felt Recupero’s children had no basis to speak because they were raised by their father.
“White people can’t speak about cancel culture,” said James, who attends Boston Latin Academy exam school. “Just because a man raised you a certain way doesn’t mean they can’t be racist. What is going on? What is going on?…I need these two city councilors to resign.”
Meanwhile, a student from Dorchester only identified as Ajernee, said Recupero’s children had no right to speak.
“Giovanni, you need to apologize for teaching your children to hate themselves,” she said. “Second, no one with an Italian name from their prejudiced father should be talking…Your statements at the last meeting are unacceptable and warrant a resignation…You need to get more educated after you resign.”
Joan Cromwell, president of the Chelsea Black Community, said she didn’t believe either councillor was a white supremacist, but they needed to be careful about their words.
“This should not be a conversation here and now,” she said. “I do want to say that slave owners had black babies, but were still white supremacists. So know that. Not that I believe Mr. Recupero or Mr. Taylor are white supremacists. I don’t believe that…What you say is very impressionable. What you both say is impressionable, especially to our youth.”
The intensity of the evening carried over to deliberations between the councillors as well, especially when it came to taking a vote on forwarding Ascher’s letter for a potential investigation.
Councillor Judith Garcia (no relation to Brandon Garcia) put forward a motion immediately to send the letter to Watson for an investigation. However, the Council defeated her motion with a vote of 2-9 – with only Garcia and Councillor Naomi Zabot voting to forward the letter to Watson.
That’s when Garcia fired off an impassioned speech lighting her colleagues on fire for voting against a potential investigation. She said there were three other similar letters, and she was going to make a similar motion to see if her colleagues would stand up for what she said was right.
“You fought so much and walked the streets to march,” she said. “But several of your constituents have taken the time to come here and say, ‘Hey, I felt harassed by one of your colleagues.’ And none of you takes the moment to say, ‘Hey how about we send this to our City Solicitor to have a greater understanding of what happened and to potentially open an investigation.’ Two minutes ago you voted no to do that. I’m giving you the opportunity to vote yes…Stand by what you speak for. The fact that only two of us voted in favor of that is disheartening. Don’t claim you’re supporting the larger conversation going on in the USA and not take a stand right now locally because you’re afraid you’ll hurt a colleague’s feelings. That’s shameful.”
Council President Roy Avellaneda said he really did not appreciate the comments by Councillor Garcia and that she had not done her homework. He said the Council lacked the authority to do anything to Recupero, and that the City Solicitor already had the materials and could open up an investigation without the Council asking.
He also said it was wrong for Recupero to approach the youth and say what he is accused of saying, noting that Brandon Garcia should take the matter up with the police.
“To the young man – this is serious,” he said. “I’m sorry this gentleman did that. You need to go down to the Police Department if you felt threatened. Otherwise, the ballot box is where you can punish this gentleman. I can’t censure him. There’s nothing he did on here.”
And he also had some choice words for Councillor Garcia as well, “Maybe you should do your homework before you come in here and insult your colleagues about whether or not they care enough about the participation and the youth and the whatnot. Don’t do that. I’m voting no because the City Solicitor already had the communications. That’s what I’m going to do. If you want to have a conference. Go ahead and I’ll tell you the ending. This body can’t do anything.”
Councillor Vidot also was upset with the comments and the general tenor of the conversations – also noting the Council didn’t have jurisdiction in her opinion.
“I’m embarrassed for all of you,” she said. “I’m embarrassed we continue to treat each other with disrespect. We are the leaders of this community and we should really try to control our temper because our young people are watching us. The reason I voted no is because I know we have no jurisdiction and there’s nothing we can do. I will denounce the behavior of Councilor Recupero and the words of Councillor Todd Taylor, but as a body there is nothing we can do.”
After consultation with City Solicitor Watson, however, she indicated she had not started an investigation, but identified some serious potential Civil Rights violations on an appointed Board member. She also said, as is her custom, that she was waiting on the City Council to ask her to start an investigation. So, indeed, it seemed like the Council did have jurisdiction to start the ball rolling.
So it was that Councillor Garcia got the last laugh on that matter, and took her victory lap appropriately.
“Again colleagues, I get it, you guys all have changed your mind after I had clearly not done my homework, but I clearly did (my homework),” she said.
Game, set, match – if anyone were keeping score on the matter.
In the end, no vote was taking, and under Council procedure, all of the letters of complaint sent to the Council were quickly forwarded to the Solicitor. Watson said she would begin an investigation into the matter shortly, and would report back to the Council.