In the midst of the awful year that was 2017, it was a feel-good story the starved media could eat up without guilt.
In July, the office of Boston’s outspoken mayor, Marty Walsh, announced that on the suggestion of an ordinary Bostonian, the city would be putting up posters instructing residents on how to intervene if they were to witness a Muslim being harassed. The announcement of this PSA campaign came a month and a half after two men were killed and a third was injured on a Portland, Oregon, MAX train. The men had confronted another passenger who was harassing two girls, one of whom was Muslim and wearing a hijab. The posters, 50 of which would be placed around the city, featured a cartoon instructing readers on how to engage the harassee, and deflect the attention of the harasser, without physical or verbal confrontation.
The images and content of the poster was designed by the French artist Maeril and previously displayed in the San Francisco BART public transit system. The sister of one of the women who brought this PSA campaign to BART contacted Mayor Walsh’s office with the idea to bring the posters to Boston.
Unsurprisingly, the story got plenty of national and local coverage. Prominent local outlets reported on the city’s plans and the contents of the posters as well as quoting Boston-area Muslims who supported the initiative, such as Faisa Sharif, Boston’s citywide Somali neighborhood service liaison, and representatives of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC). Several journalists talked to passersby when the first posters went up, and the vast majority of those members of the public who commented responded positively.
The optics were perfect for the city, but the impact of the campaign was basically nonexistent.
Beyond a few community leaders, the voices of ordinary Boston Muslims were notably absent from the planning or evaluation of the campaign or its content. When the campaign was announced, I talked to about a dozen Boston-area Muslims from a variety of backgrounds. Their reactions were extremely mixed, running the gamut from positive to finding the content offensive. A Muslim PhD student told me he used this very technique to deescalate a situation a few years ago. A young Muslim woman who asked to go by her nickname Sharishboo was also very positive, saying, “I know many people are willing to help, but do not know how, so this will be a good stepping stone for them.” Several others stated they were happy that the mayor’s office was acknowledging that Islamophobia is a real problem in the city.
Despite these positive comments, most Muslims I spoke to were somewhat to very critical of the images and scenario on the poster. Multiple people noted that the poster showed a tired cliche—the veiled woman as a passive victim and the unveiled non-Muslim as her savior. One Muslim friend, who like the victim in the poster wears a hijab, was offended by how the images made women like her look powerless and passive.
But there was a larger issue beyond the critical reviews from Boston Muslims—the promised PSA campaign seemed to exist only on paper. Soon after the campaign was announced, one of these posters was put up at a bus shelter that I happened to pass everyday on the way to work. I expected to see it there for a long time, as the time frame of six months was repeated in nearly every story about the campaign. However, just two weeks later the poster had been replaced by an ad.
Puzzled, I circled back around to the sources I had interviewed. No one could recall definitely seeing the PSA. Open source research and my own walkabouts attempting to spot the posters strongly suggested that despite promises of 50 posters being displayed around the city, at best only the initial five were ever put up, and these only stayed up for a short period of time.
When I first set out to write about this PSA, I spoke about the campaign with several members of the mayor’s staff. However, when I started calling and emailing about why the posters had quickly disappeared, I got no response. I left messages and emailed my questions about the campaign to several different contacts in the mayor’s office multiple times, each to no avail.
Finally, a FOIA request provided the pedestrian solution to the riddle of the missing PSA. The mayor’s office had printed the posters, but left it up to the ad company, JCDecaux, which owns the bus shelters and other public ad spaces, to place them. The documents provided by the FOIA request revealed that I was not the only person who had inquired about the fate of the posters. A Muslim resident of Boston had also emailed asking about why one of the posters had been taken down so quickly. This email prompted a member of the mayor’s staff to reach out to their contact at JCDecaux, who responded that the space where the poster was displayed had been sold.
According to the correspondence I obtained through FOIA, the mayor’s office did indeed print 50 of the posters at a cost of about $3,000. However, the responsibility for carrying out the campaign was de facto in the hands of the advertising company. They provided the space free to the city as a service, but only if another customer was not paying them to use it. Representatives of JCDecaux did not respond to requests for comment on this piece.
At issue here is not just that a highly publicized public service campaign fell flat, or that money was wasted on printing posters that were never used. Rather, it’s the fact that an ostensibly progressive local administration got credit for helping to protect a vulnerable minority community without bothering to research the impact of its efforts either before or after they were implemented.
In the wake of the Supreme Court upholding the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, state and local governments can no longer simply go through the motions of supporting and protecting Muslim communities. Mayor Walsh’s administration needs to do more to engage a broad spectrum of Muslim Bostonians and work together with them on meaningful social and legislative changes, such as putting and end to Islamophobic policing programs. PSA campaigns cannot combat Islamophobia if the structures of local governance and policing are themselves Islamophobic.
Claire Sadar is a freelance journalist based in Boston mainly covering Turkey and Muslim-American communities.