October 17, 2000
Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA)
Author: George Barnes
WORCESTER -- The first black family to live in Winchendon's Pearl Drive housing complex has endured six years of racial harassment, threats and violence, according to opening statements in a lawsuit yesterday in U.S. District Court.
Demetrius F. Brinson of 31 Pearl Drive, Winchendon, is seeking emotional distress and punitive damages from the Housing Authority and Executive Director David P. Connor, saying they failed to take action to stop the attacks.
Ms. Brinson alleges in her suit that racial harassment against her and her four children has gone unchecked during the six years she has lived at Pearl Drive. The complex is run by the Housing Authority.
Ms. Brinson says her family suffered racially motivated assaults and endured racial epithets hurled because they were the first black family in the housing complex. She says no action was taken, even though she made the problem known both to employees of the housing authority and its board of directors.
In her opening statement to the eight-member jury, lawyer Francisca D. Fajana said the case is about choosing a place that's called home and of the Brinson family being denied that because of threats of violence and racial attacks.
"Imagine being trapped in such a place,'' she said. ``Ms. Brinson has been trapped in such a place for six years.'' Ms. Fajana works for the Legal Assistance Corp. of Central Massachusetts, which is representing Ms. Brinson.
Ms. Fajana said that when her client moved into 31 Pearl Drive in 1994, there were 27 white and two Hispanic families living there.
"She became the first African-American woman to live in the complex,'' she said. "That very day there were three incidents.''
Ms. Fajana said she plans to show that after the move into the complex, two of Ms. Brinson's children went out to join other children playing near their home. What they were met with instead was a verbal attack by one of the children, which led to other attacks. She said at one point Ms. Brinson was told she and her family were not welcome at Pearl Drive.
"She was told to go back where she came from,'' she said. "She was told they needed to go back to Africa where they belong.''
The same day, Ms. Fajana said, one of Ms. Brinson's daughters, Aldofina Hermida, was brutally attacked by three girls who live at the complex. They spit on her, beat her and called her names that are racial slurs, Ms. Fajana said.
Also that first day, Winchendon police visited the Brinson home to ask permission to search for a missing bicycle, Ms. Fajana said. The search was allowed and no bicycle was found. She said that outside the Brinson home, a group of adults was milling around.
She said one of the adults, using a racial epithet, said the Brinsons must have the bike. "That's what those people do,'' the adult said, according to Ms. Fajana.
Ms. Fajana said the racial comments continued on a daily basis from both children and adults.
"It's one thing for teen-agers to do this,'' she said. ``It's another thing for adults to do it.''
The suit alleges that although the racial problems were reported to the Housing Authority, little was done to stop them.
In opening statements for the defense, attorney Philip Wysor urged the jury not to rush to judgment before hearing all the evidence.
Mr. Wysor told the jurors they will hear that tenants who have problems are encouraged to call the office and follow through with their complaints.
"The purpose of the Housing Authority is to provide safe and affordable housing,'' he said. "It is not to be a police force.''
Mr. Wysor also said the defense will show the Housing Authority offered Ms. Brinson a transfer to get away from the problems, but she turned it down. He also said the authority dealt with the problems it could.
"They evicted some of the tenants causing problems,'' he said.
Mr. Wysor also said the Housing Authority tried to set up a mediation process to resolve the problems.
"It should not be punished for what you hear this week,'' he said.
The jurors heard from only one witness yesterday.
Testifying for the plaintiff, Tracy A. Swenson, a former resident of Pearl Drive, confirmed many of the allegations made by Ms. Fajana in her opening statement. She said she and other adults witnessed Aldofina being surrounded by teen-agers and being harassed by two girls the day the Brinsons moved in.
"We could hear them hollering racial slurs,'' she said.
When asked what Aldofina was doing, Ms. Swenson said she just stood there quietly.
"She was surrounded,'' she said.
Ms. Swenson said the girls also threatened Aldofina and told her she did not belong there. She also said the family was harassed by adult residents as well, who called them various names that are racial slurs.
A member of the Pearl Drive Tenants Association, Ms. Swenson said she and other association officers met with Housing Authority officials in an attempt to bring an end to the racial tensions at the housing complex.
Ms. Swenson is expected to continue to testify today when she is cross-examined by the defense.
Copyright (c) 2000 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.
Record Number: 0010177850