North Attleboro selectman admits to protesters he was responsible for bigoted posts

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on March 10, 2017.

NORTH ATTLEBORO — Selectman Paul Belham met with protesters outside of Town Hall Thursday to admit he alone was responsible for disparaging posts against Muslims and Mexicans uncovered on his Facebook page last month.

The posts were not — as he once claimed — the work of social media hackers.

But, the selectman said he has no plans to resign like others before him.

“I am guilty of being insensitive to people I know and people I don’t know by participating in sharing derogatory ethnic humor about their culture,” he told a crowd of about 20 before the board’s meeting Thursday night.

The protest came about a year after residents rallied outside North Attleboro Middle School after Representative Town Meeting member Paul Couturier was found to have disparaging posts against Muslims and African Americans on his Facebook page. Couturier resigned shortly after the posts were uncovered.

Belham and selectman candidate James Lang were found to have similar postings in February, and both men dismissed the posts as the work of social media hackers. But Belham admitted otherwise on Thursday.

“At that time, I did not think it was improper, but after thinking about it, I came to realize this is not who I am and does not reflect my true feelings about people of different backgrounds,” he said. “I sincerely make an apology to anyone that may have been offended and will not partake in this behavior in the future.”

During the meeting, Belham repeated his apology and said he wasn’t truthful when approached by The Sun Chronicle, but said the indiscretion should not affect his performance as a board member or his work for the town.

And, at least some are OK with that.

Laurie Lawes organized the gathering after asking Belham to resign at a selectmen’s meeting last month.

But since then, conversations with the selectman have caused her to back down from that charge.

“He took responsibility for what he said and did, and he is going to work with me in getting a social media policy in place,” Lawes said.

Lawes said she hoped to see a social media policy after Couturier’s comments came to light last March, and was disappointed when there was no follow through.

“I didn’t do a good enough job keeping our officials accountable last year,” she said.

But she’s hopeful that will change this year.

Lawes said she was also encouraged to see many town officials — including a few Representative Town Meeting members, Selectwoman Anne Lonzo, Selectman Michael Lennox and selectmen candidates Keith Lapointe and Mark Williamson — join protesters Thursday.

The Rev. Gretchen Weis of Murray Unitarian Universalist Church also commended Belham for taking responsibility for his actions.

“It takes a lot of courage for any of us to admit we made a mistake. I’m proud to see that he’ll be moving forward as part of the solution,” she said.

Umer Akbar, a neuroscientist who recently moved to North Attleboro and assists with interfaith services at mosques in Pawtucket and North Smithfield, said he was also encouraged to see the town moving forward.

“When I heard about this incident happening, I wanted to come out and support it,” he said. “I think today was a good sign of understanding and the acknowledgement of someone’s mistake.”

Kayla McCarthy, 21, of North Attleboro said she hopes to see Belham put some truth to his words.

“I’m all one for memes and joking, but ignorant hatred — that’s not OK or how I want my town to be represented in the future,” she said. “I wanted to see if he would own up to what he said. He did, and I give him credit for it. I accept his apology but it would be nice to see him be more educated on the things he bashed on and to see him interact with those people in our community.

“Actions speak louder than words.”

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