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Wolfeboro in national spotlight protesting commissioner's remarks

JANE O'TOOLE spoke first during public comment time during the Wolfeboro Police Commission meeting of May 15 before a packed meeting room at the Wolfeboro Public Library. She asked Commissioners Ron Goodgame and Joe Balboni where they stood in regard to Commissioner Bob Copeland's racial attitude toward the President. They did not condone his remarks, answered Goodgame. (Elissa Paquette photo) (click for larger version)
May 22, 2014
WOLFEBORO — Wolfeboro resident Jane O'Toole was disturbed upon overhearing Police Commissioner Bob Copeland loudly denounce President Barack Obama as a "f----g n----r" .in a local restaurant this past March. She says that when she confronted him over his language, he doubled down.

"Is someone here tossing around the N word?" she says she asked. "Yeah," was his reported response.

When she found out that Copeland was a member of the Wolfeboro Police Commission, with authority over the hiring and firing of police personnel and compensation, she complained to the Board of Selectmen. They informed her that they have no power over members of the commission.

She then wrote to the commission, receiving a candid emailed response from Copeland himself: "I believe I did use the 'N' word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse. For this, I do not apologize — he meets and exceeds my criteria for such."

With no further recourse, O'Toole fired off a letter to the editor of the Granite State News (May 8 issue) that concluded, "I am new to Wolfeboro. I have no vendetta. I love this town and have met outstanding, inspiring people here. I have faith a majority of you find racial intolerance and unabashed use of the "N" word abhorrent – especially from a Police Commissioner."

When she opened the paper the next week, she saw 10 letters decrying the commissioner's response. Furthermore, readers not only posted her letter and a link to the editorial page on Facebook, but later than day more than 100 citizens took Copeland up on the invitation to attend the upcoming monthly meeting, May 15, in the Wolfeboro Public Library.

Reporters and cameramen from the Associated Press, the Concord Monitor, the Granite State News, and the Union Leader, took notes as Wolfeboro Community Television and Government Oversight.com kept their cameras rolling.

Like the Lexington and Concord shot heard 'round the world, the voices of Wolfeboro citizens speaking out against racism have circulated the state, nation and even the globe since that event, stirring others to do the same. Eventually, political leaders followed suit.

In this case, 31 people went on public record, giving their names before they spoke at the podium. Each faced the three-member police commission to share their views. There were tears, anger, and strongly-worded statements punctuated by cheers of acclamation as most revealed dismay and deep offense at Copeland's comments in public and subsequent response to O'Toole. One after another, citizens implored Copeland to resign.

Commissioner Ron Goodgame answered O'Toole's question on where the commissioners stood with a declaration that he and Chairman Joe Balboni's views did not coincide with Copeland's and they did not condone the remarks.

Copeland had his defenders, too. David Baker said that he has known Copeland for seven years and has never heard him say anything that would leave him to believe he is prejudiced.

And when the commissioners re-entered public session following a non-public meeting, his neighbor, Richard Coan, praised him as a good father, husband and generous member of the community, but he revealed under questioning from an audience member about how he felt about the use of the racial slur, that his father had changed the spelling of the family name to counter anti-Semitism.

Christie Bowers followed that with a second turn at the microphone to tell Copeland that while he "might be the most wonderful person to be at a barbecue with" there's a difference between speaking as an individual and speaking while holding a public office. "Your comment was not slang. It was a slur, a word of injury and harm…I've lost my trust in you."

Earlier in the meeting, Frank Bader defended Copeland's right to express his negative views about the president (a matter that was not under challenge that afternoon), and another man commented that Mark Twain uses the word nigger in his novels Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Kingswood Regional High School English teacher John Struble, who commented that his 11th grade honors students were studying Huck Finn, added that everyone has a right to an opinion, but if he expressed prejudice in his classroom, he wouldn't keep his job for a day.

"We teach tolerance," said Jamie Meyers, Academic Coordinator of the Kingswood Social Studies Department, telling Copeland, "You've added to our curriculum."

Kingswood junior Michael Bloomer demanded to know from Copeland how President Obama fit the criteria for the use of such a derogatory word. "When did he enter the criteria? When he graduated from Harvard? When he supported marriage rights or …health care? Or is that he had the temerity to be president? This is not a face I want representing our town. Please apologize and resign."

The speakers represented no particular party or organization, but rather a cross section of Wolfeboro's predominately white population in age and occupation. Parks and Recreation Director Ethan Hipple and Planning and Development Director Rob Houseman emphasized a welcoming town with respect for diversity and joined in the chorus of calls for Copeland to resign.

Dennis Davey, citing his 40-year career in law enforcement as a State Trooper and prosecutor, said that Copeland's label of Obama as a "f----g n----r" and defense of those comments showed "poor judgment and a lack of discernment," adding that if he had made remarks like that as a trooper he would have been fired. Others have been let go for "far less," he said.

Speaking also as a proud parent of three "first-rate adults" and grandfather of nine, three of which were adopted from Haiti, whom he described as "black as black can be," Davey said, "I don't favor one over another." Commenting on Copeland's statement that he was not phobic, Davey said that what was salient was whether, "in the darkest of terms" Copeland was racist, or prejudiced, and in his opinion, "he demonstrates both."

A mother, who said – as have others, including the commissioners – that she has lost sleep over the situation and the prospect of speaking out in public. "Steeped in raising two young children," as a mother, she tries to be a role model and teach her seven-year-old that he is accountable for his words and actions. She asked Copeland to hold himself accountable just as she would her son.

Safety was a concern of several speakers, among them, Michelle Rafalowski-Houseman, a resident who teaches at Brewster Academy, which has a diverse student population. "This man's comments are racist and bigoted," she told the commissioners. "There is no place for that in a town position. I feel it's unsafe for students. He needs to leave," she stated emphatically.

"I have the utmost respect for our policemen," commented David Greene, "but the problem now is, is this attitude in the police department? Do we have a clean police department or is it racist?"

Such questions, the interchangeable use of the words chief and commissioner in some headlines, and a deluge of phone calls to the dispatch center and town hall, prompted Chief Stuart Chase to hold a press conference the next day to clarify the difference and assert emphatically that the department does not reflect Copeland's views.

At the commission meeting Sandy McBeth turned to the audience to show off the three RESIGN stickers affixed to her sweater. Turning back to the commissioners, Chief Chase and Officer Chris Keaton, all listening, she declared that she was 100 percent behind the police department. "There is no need for a police commission," she stated flatly.

Whitney White, an African-American Brewster Academy alumna from Brooklyn, N.Y., who returned to Wolfeboro to work in the school's development office, attended the meeting and the Chief's press conference as well. She said she asked Copeland after the commission meeting whether he was going to apologize. "He said he was going to go home and think about it. I don't know why he was taking so long," she pondered. "His comments were hurtful."

Wolfeboro native Rachel Jeffers, also an alumna and employee of Brewster Academy, said that she's never seen such a cross-section of the community standing up for what they believe in. "It made me very proud to be part of the Wolfeboro community," she reflected.

By Monday, the controversy had aired on the Today Show and CNN, among numerous other national media channels, and the links to articles and programs discussing the issue had grown long. At noon, a relieved and saddened Balboni finally had Copeland's resignation in hand. It bore only two words: "I resign."

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