“Although he might be willing to put on a show to save his hide, his views … are not likely to change in any meaningful way.”
The hype started slow that morning, the first Thursday in September.
By the end of that afternoon, word had spread. My local networks in Arlington were abuzz with the news: A pro-police rally sponsored by a group called America Backs the Blue was coming to town.
Even at that point, it was just the latest example of drama in our town that centered on the hurt feelings of police officers in response to increased public concern over racial inequities in our criminal justice system.
In fall 2018, Lt. Rick Pedrini—a 20-plus-year veteran of the Arlington Police Department—was suspended after the media exposed he had published a series of racist columns in a police trade publication produced by the Massachusetts Police Association (MPA). In those columns, Pedrini insinuated that undocumented immigrants crossing our southern border should be shot and joked about the hypothetical deaths of prominent figures associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. He also referred to those arrested for drug-related offenses as “maggots.”
Members of the public, including me, implored Arlington town manager Adam Chapdelaine to terminate Pedrini, but instead the town kept him on the force using an unorthodox—and some would say co-opted—version of “restorative justice” (RJ). At the time of this reporting, Pedrini also still sits on the MPA Executive Board.
As I reported for DigBoston in 2019, restorative justice is “a system that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the larger community,” according to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. A central tenet of restorative justice is to “prioritize the needs of those most harmed by a given offense in order to help with their healing.”
In 2018, Mass lawmakers included RJ in a criminal reform package as a recommended alternative method for dealing with low-level interpersonal crimes and as a way to cut down on incarceration. Until Arlington employed RJ to save Pedrini’s job, there was no precedent for it being used to resolve personnel issues in law enforcement.
“[The restorative justice] process has had success in schools, juvenile justice, and other contexts in which offenders are members of vulnerable or marginalized groups,” says Rosalind Shaw, an associate professor emerita at Tufts University and a specialist in transitional and restorative justice. “But when the polarity of power is reversed, with a perpetrator from a dominant group—such as a senior white police officer—and victims/survivors from marginalized groups, this can drive restorative justice in directions that are anything but healing.”
Outraged by the leniency that Pedrini was shown after publishing such controversial comments, residents of the town launched a petition last year that accrued well over a thousand signatures, demanding (among other things) that Pedrini remain on desk duty for the foreseeable future. Adam Chapdelaine, the town manager, said the APD would comply with the request and pledged that, for the most part, separate from detail work, Pedrini’s role has been primarily restricted to administrative assignments.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May and the subsequent waves of civil rights protests across the country, the town of Arlington and the APD released statements in support of racial justice. On Juneteenth, around the same time a Black Lives Matter banner was hung on Arlington Town Hall, Chapdelaine also requested the APD remove stickers with the thin blue line from K9 squad cars.
For those who embrace advancing racial equity and oppose police violence, things were looking hopeful. Until they weren’t.
Working the rallies
Among the factors that alarmed many Arlington residents about the Sept 10 pro-cop rally was its slogan, “Back the Blue,” which led to a lot of public confusion about its organizational ties.
For the past few years, there have been several groups holding “Back the Blue” rallies around Massachusetts. One of the first documented Back the Blue rallies occurred on Cape Cod in 2018, for which the group ACT for America—which is recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-Muslim hate group—claimed credit for as part of its larger “Back the Blue” campaign. Since then, several other groups have sprung up that also began hosting their own similarly flavored “Back the Blue” rallies in the Bay State. These include the groups Defend Your Police (a phrasing riff on the “Defund the Police” movement) and Super Happy Fun America, the latter of which was behind the 2019 Straight Pride Parade in Boston.
Though all these groups, including America Backs the Blue, are independent from each other, they all seem to use nearly identical slogans, symbols, and merchandise at their events—namely in the form of black-and-white American flags with the single thin blue line, signs claiming “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter,” Trump banners and MAGA hats, and pro-gun stickers and slogans. These rallies also all seem to draw a mostly homogenous demographic: that is, mainly older white attendees, many of whom tend to not wear masks in recent months despite the COVID pandemic, as well as some sporting neo-Nazi paraphernalia.
Another one of the people listed as a co-sponsor and co-organizer of the America Backs the Blue event slated for Arlington was Elizabeth (Liz) Pedrini, who had been voicing outrage on social media over the hanging of the BLM banner on Arlington’s town hall. A recent mayoral candidate last year for the City of Woburn (she lost her bid), Liz Pedrini is also the wife of APD Sgt. Rob Pedrini, as well as the sister-in-law of the aforementioned Lt. Rick Pedrini.
Controversy around Rick Pedrini had already roiled in Arlington since fall 2018 and was only exacerbated in March 2019 when the RJ process abruptly ended, and it came to light that the kickoff of several closed-door meetings with Pedrini almost exclusively involved other police officers and town officials. (The final restorative circle did include some members from the communities targeted by Pedrini’s rhetoric—including some people of color and immigrants. But public email records revealed several RJ participants were not entirely satisfied with the process or outcome.)
The Sept 10 Back to Blue rally drew three counterprotests—one held directly across the street from the Arlington Town Hall on Mass Ave, with additional clusters of demonstrations one block over at Whittemore Park on the corner of Mystic Street (where I was stationed), and in front of the First Parish Unitarian Church on the corner of Mass Ave and Pleasant Street. But the real showdown was still yet to come …
Days after the Blue Lives Matter standout and counterprotests, the Arlington Select Board held an impromptu vote at its next meeting to address the issue dominating public debate in town. In a 5-0 shutout, the body decided to remove the BLM banner at the end of September—to huge public outcry. Within days, a petition demanding the board retain the banner garnered nearly 400 signatures in 48 hours, and a town meeting warrant article proposing a resolution to support the return of the banner also accrued more than double the amount of in-person signatures required, topping out at over 209 in 24 hours—no easy feat during a raging pandemic.
The week after the select board vote to take down the BLM banner, Pedrini addressed the town of Arlington. Speaking at a virtual Zoom meeting that was conducted like a public webinar without the ability of viewers to ask questions in real time or engage in dialogue, Pedrini again apologized for the “insensitive” statements in his columns. He then asserted that he is not racist because he has close family members who are people of color and lives in a “diverse” community. When discussing those demographics targeted by his columns, he repeatedly referred to people who “feel” marginalized and oppressed.
“It’s not a feeling,” retorted Susan Ryan-Vollmar, a member of Arlington’s Rainbow Commission who was part of a select panel that engaged with Pedrini. “People are marginalized, people are oppressed.”
Ryan-Vollmar recalled the experiences of trans colleagues who had been harassed and abused by corrections officers in the state, and also described some of the behavior of the Back the Blue rally participants as “disgusting” and “vicious.”
In responding to Ryan-Vollmar, Pedrini relayed to the audience that he had worked at the Sept 10 rally and counterprotests, piquing lots of interest and concern online. I formally inquired about the assignment the following day, and Arlington assistant town manager Ray Santilli wrote that Lt. Pedrini was “was not assigned to either the rally or counter-protests.”
Yet after I sent him the soundbite in which Pedrini stated that he worked the events, Santilli seemingly reversed his position a few hours later, sending a second response: “Due to serious public safety concerns, all available Arlington Police Officers were required to work the event. During the rally/protests, Lieutenant Pedrini was assigned as the interdepartmental liaison to mutual aid agencies and provided geographical information to assist them.”
Santilli states that Pedrini was assigned at a location “away” from the protests. Yet, in another version of events, counterprotesters who were across the street from the Back the Blue rally claim to have seen Pedrini there. Additionally, Pedrini’s own recollection of witnessing the actions of counterprotesters suggests he was in close proximity to them. A public records request filed that day also revealed that Lt. Pedrini’s wife, Sgt. Gina Pedrini, worked a detail at the event. The total detail payout to the Arlington Police Department for working Sept 10 events totaled more than $5,200.
Several additional public records requests pertaining to these issues have been met with a series of identical $75 charges and are currently being contested with the state. However, prior documents that have been obtained by past public record requests include emails showing that though the town manager seemed interested in using restorative justice for Pedrini when his columns were first published, then-APD chief Fred Ryan—who had known Pedrini for decades and sat on the Board of Communities for Restorative Justice at the time—seemed to have his doubts.
“One critical element of restorative justice is … a willingness to accept responsibility for your actions,” Ryan responded to Chapdelaine. “I don’t think [Pedrini] is in that mindset and, although he might be willing to put on a show to save his hide, his views … are not likely to change in any meaningful way.”
Two years after Ryan wrote that email, Pedrini still rejected any suggestion his words—which advocated violence against Black and brown people—were racist, or that he or law enforcement officers in general had any internal racism to struggle with.
“I don’t think there’s any problem with white supremacy [in policing] and none in Arlington in particular,” Pedrini stated at that community conversation when the topic came up. When asked if he had been reading any books or materials to further his education on anti-racism, Pedrini responded: “I am not reading anything in particular.”
Pedrini was then prompted to elaborate on how he has evolved since his suspension and undergoing the RJ process. “I’ve most definitely grown as a man,” he said. “I’ve definitely changed.” Though he didn’t offer many details about these changes.
A recent Arlington High School graduate had a quick comeback: “You explain that it was only two years ago that you had this kind of a-ha moment. … But if it only happened two years ago, what happened to your entire life [up to then] as a police officer?” asked Doralee Huertelou, a former organizer with the AHS Black Student Union. “Because it wasn’t two years ago that Black people arrived in Arlington.”
As for the Black Lives Matter banner, Arlington Town Meeting voted resoundingly to restore it to town hall. However, ultimately it’s up to the select board to authorize its return. As of this writing, they haven’t made a decision yet.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, donate at givetobinj.org.
Laura has been featured in Politico, the Washington Post, Quartz, Vice, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, and other publications. She covers housing and healthcare for BINJ.