Watertown Preparing to Form a Human Rights Commission, Working on Details of Group’s Role

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Charlie Breitrose Watertown City Hall

Watertown is on the verge of a milestone as it moves closer to establishing its first-ever Human Rights Commission. After a vote in the Subcommittee on Rules & Ordinances on June 5th, a final draft of the Human Rights Commission ordinance passed out of the committee and will move to a final vote in the Council. No one, it seems, expects it to meet much blow-back.

“This is incredibly exciting and overdue,” said Bevin Croft, who was a member of the informal residents’ committee and a former member of Cambridge’s Human Rights Commission. “It’s exciting to see something that was so controversial before get another push and be met with almost no resistance. There was widespread agreement that having a Human Rights Commission and naming human rights as something that’s important to our community was a good thing.”

After a previous unsuccessful attempt in the early 2000s was met with significant resistance (one resident speaking to The Watertown Tab at the time, said that it would be “an opportunity for anyone with an ax to grind to bring their target into a public forum and … ruin their reputation”), a small cadre of residents re-grouped in 2021 to discuss reviving the effort during the city’s charter review process. With some help and advice from the Massachusetts Human Rights Coalition, in the summer of 2022 they wrote up suggestions and handed them over to City Councilor John Gannon, a member of the Charter Review Committee.

“I think this time there’s more willingness, and more people are paying more attention to issues like these,” said Mark Sideris, Town Council President. “They want to be able to have a forum, a place to talk about [these issues].”

“We were pleased there was no resistance or opposition to it like there was 20 years ago,” said Louise Enoch, who said she first took an interest in these issues 25 years ago. “That is a sign of how the town has been changing. It has to change because the world around us is changing.”

What will the Commission do?

Watertown establishing this Commission would follow the example of Cambridge, which established their commission in 1984, and Belmont, which recently worked closely with Watertown For Black Lives to put on a weekend of Juneteenth celebrations around both communities.

“It’s what a lot of cities and towns are doing at this point,” Sideris said. “During the charter review process the commission decided it was time [for Watertown to follow suit], which actually carried the weight of being a charter issue that had to be addressed, and we’re addressing it.”

Human Rights Commissions can have a range of duties: some are even endowed with authority to take legal action on behalf of residents. Belmont’s and Cambridge’s allow people to file discrimination complaints. Cambridge also provides guidance on affordable housing. Boston’s takes anonymous incident reporting.

But what does this mean for Watertown’s?

“It’s not entirely nailed down what people do on these commissions,” Enoch said. “It takes a different flavor for each town.”

Theoretically, a Human Rights Commission can serve as an educational resource for a town; something that businesses or schools could call upon for special presentations about discrimination, Enoch said. It would also assist with networking among organizations and people who tackle human rights issues.

“One of the most challenging things to tackle is the issue of actual complaints of unfair practices,” Enoch said. “That’s the place where these commissions differ and where the question of legal authority comes in. There are some HRCs that have the expertise and authority to adjudicate some cases. The recommendation of our resident group was that we not go down that path. That’s much more complicated.”

“It will evolve,” said Croft, of the role of the HRC. “The city really has to get the members right. They need to recruit a solid, diverse group of folks who are passionate about human rights and have different experiences to just be visible and present in the community as a city body that is a resource.”

The Next Steps

“I think we’re going in a good direction, but that doesn’t mean that we’re there yet,” said Xin Peng. Peng was a member of the resident’s committee that helped put together the ordinance about the HRC, and is also the newly-appointed Chair of the Board for World of Watertown, a non-profit dedicated to promoting diversity and unity in the town. “I’m happy it’s finally here, because now people will have a government body to go seek help with if they’re going through discrimination. But secondly, I feel like it might take a while for it to be efficient and to actually serve the community effectively.”

Peng was one of the people who worked on the project of realizing the HRC for the last two years, and saw firsthand how difficult the process was. “We were all volunteers,” he said, “I feel like it will take a while to become efficient and for the town to figure out how to effectively run it.”

Overall, activists were pleased with the message that forming an HRC sends about Watertown. “It says, this is important to our town that everyone be treated equally and fairly,” said Enoch. “And I really felt that this town needed this.”

16 thoughts on “Watertown Preparing to Form a Human Rights Commission, Working on Details of Group’s Role

  1. And so they finally have their Gestapo that will police people’s speech, freedom of association, and so forth; all in the name of a non-existent right — “not to feel offended.” So of the same people who 50 years ago took the streets in the name of defending freedom, the right to express oneself freely, and civil liberties, are now helping to lead the effort to silence controversial speech, police thought, and control your associations. So we will have a Posse of Prelates, preaching pluralism, like Diversity Demigods, all the while censoring freedom of thought, speech, and expression for those they disagree with.

    • “It’s not entirely nailed down what people do on these commissions,” Enoch said.

      Well that’s convincing….

    • “Gestapo,” really? This commission’s work won’t be anything like this writer described… not about “policing,” but about freedom to live in peace and be equally included in our city. Anyone who previously felt free to insult, threaten or impugn fellow residents who look different or speak a different language or follow a different faith: you should be on notice that day is over.

      • Precisely. They have absolutely nothing to offer but fear. It’s their currency. And it’s not working anymore.

  2. Terrific! …And thank you to all of the committee members who worked hard and long in their efforts to make this happen. Good for Watertown!

  3. Does Watertown have a record of treating everyone less equally and fairly than Belmont? Or Cambridge or Boston? If so, aren’t there already remedies in place for unequal, unfair treatment? This sounds like an anti-discrimination, so why not call it that? I can get behind treating everyone equally and fairly, and I’m pro human rights. But this reads like virtue signaling, and I don’t think the town needs to spend a dime on that. One Cambridge is more than enough.

  4. Using the term Gestapo is silly and having a Human Rights Commission is even sillier. This town, city, whatever we are, should focus on the nuts and bolts of good governance and services to the citizens and not go off in all sorts of unrelated directions.

    • Serving all the citizens of Watertown fairly is entirely good governance. This is the poor man’s argument when you don’t like an activity proposed for the city. People can actually multitask given the chance!

    • Agree. Gestapo (State Police) would be incorrect in this instance. This is more like citizens reporting to the NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs] during the Soviet Union era. It did not work that well. It no longer exists. We can only hope the same fate awaits to these dangerous, and yes, silly, HRCs.

  5. HRC is a solution looking for a problem. Look at the meeting minutes for Boston and Cambridge:



    Woke activism at its worst. While I believe the “Commission” members are volunteers, I’d suppose the Investigating Attorney is paid with tax dollars. Is Watertown willing to do this?

    Massachussets has more than enough State and Federal entities to protect those who allege discrimination in a myriad of ways. We do not need a bunch of agenda-driven activists to chase for reparations for perceived or unfounded grievances. Those who support HRC should clearly enumerate what those grievances are right now. I guess Enoch would be excluded from that: “what people do in these commissions”. Anyone else?

    • The DeSantis Administration in Florida, which is the worst offender when it comes to using “woke” as a weapon, defines it as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.”

      Can any serious person deny this truth?

      • Still waiting for a list of grievances. Make sure you include specific examples of implicit bias and systemic racism in Watertown. Check with the ACLU and BLM if they have some, specifically for Watertown, MA.

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