Updated 10:15 a.m. Nov. 8
The election of a former Braintree teacher to the town School Committee last week laid bare deep and growing political divisions in that South Shore community, stemming from his apparent involvement in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot aimed at overturning President Joe Biden’s election.
Megan Courage said she is deeply worried about her hometown. “It feels like a parody of like what happens in a movie when, like, an evil villain takes over,” the former Braintree High School student said.
Courage was talking about the election of Matthew Lynch to the school committee last week after he had apparently attended the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection in Washington, evidenced by a selfie of Lynch during the riot that circulated in local Facebook groups. Outrage from residents led to his resignation from his Braintree High School teaching job in February.
But more broadly she was referencing the deep divisions that have emerged in Braintree. Ideological chasms separate the people of the town, feeding off of national narratives, with fallout over a Native American mascot at the high school, “critical race theory” and even facts of national political events themselves.
Courage, 25, graduated from the high school in 2014, just one year before Donald Trump announced his bid for president and began to emerge as a national force.
“I was honestly surprised by how many people in my life were, like openly campaigning for him [Trump],” Courage said. “And then when it came around to 2020, I was even more surprised by how many people were still campaigning for him.”
Over coffee at a Dunkin’ off Grove Street, she said she is pleased that the town is becoming more diverse with more Asian, Black and Latino people in town: Braintree was 87% white in 2010, compared to 99% in 1980. But Courage said the diversity is not welcomed by everyone.
“Since last summer, there’s been a lot of contention having to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. They got rid of the Braintree High mascot,” she said. “There was like a huge division in the town over that. A lot of people are feeling like their way of life is under attack. And so any type of change creates a lot of conflict.”
And many voters who feel that way threw their support behind Lynch, a 35-year-old bookkeeper and air force veteran. Lynch has publicly confirmed that he was visited by the FBI in connection with the Capitol riot. He has not been charged with a crime.
"It feels like a parody of like what happens in a movie when, like, an evil villain takes over."Megan Courage
It was reportedly student and parental anger over his role in the insurrection that led to his stepping down from his teaching job of roughly a decade. But Lynch also has quite a few supporters.
“Matt Lynch. We’re lucky to have a kid like that,” said Patrick Lally, a local events organizer responsible for the weekly trivia games at the SouthSide Tavern Restaurant.
Lally, standing outside the popular eatery, described a very different version of Lynch’s background and of the rioting at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. “There was no insurrection on Jan. 6th or whatever it was,” he said. “I think a lot of it was staged. I don’t believe for one second that that was an insurrection.”
For local Democratic activist Kathy Tuffy, though, there is no doubt what happened in D.C.
“It was really shocking what happened on January 6th. And I commend the Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police officers who defended the Capitol,” she said.
Tuffy was one of three candidates among seven who won seats on Braintree’s school committee, coming in third behind Lynch, who scored the second-most votes. In the low-turnout race, Lynch netted 2,319 votes above Tuffy’s 2,220, per unofficial election results.
Efforts by GBH News to reach Lynch were unsuccessful, but in an appearance on a local right-wing podcast in the lead-up to Election Day, Lynch made it clear who he saw as the enemy. Tuffy, a former elementary and eighth-grade math teacher, figured prominently.
“People are starting to see, like, ‘Who are these people taking over our town?’” said Lynch. “This lady, Kathy Tuffy, is actually running, she’s kind of the head of them. So, she’s running against me because once I announced I was running, they kind of got scared, and they were like, ‘Oh, we have to run her now.’“
Tuffy in the past has been outspoken about her liberal politics, but she was reluctant to talk about her fellow newly elected school board member.
“I have no comment on other candidates,” she said. “I just focused on my campaign, and working for the kids in Braintree.”
Intimidation and threats against Tuffy and others have become increasingly common on social media, and some fear those threats could seep into their real lives in Braintree. Reporter James Bentley of the Patch News Service, the first to report on Lynch, says he had to file a public records request with the public school system to document complaints against Lynch when he was a teacher because parents were afraid to publicly discuss their concerns.
“I’ve been talking to some concerned citizens parents, but I really didn’t have anyone that wanted to come forward on the threats out of fear, retaliation,” he told GBH News.
Bentley received a trove of complaints against Lynch, including 27 emails from parents who criticized the former teacher’s involvement in the Jan. 6 riot and of his posting alleged transphobic comments on social media.
Lynch supporter Lally doesn’t buy it.
“Those are false allegations,” he said. “I think that's a smear campaign by progressive liberals, and they just want to bash somebody.”
Lally apparently is not alone. Lynch’s Facebook page is filled with comments from locals who support his platform to return Braintree High’s former mascot, a depiction of a 17th-century Mattakeesett tribal leader, which was removed last year after a petition and at the urging of a local Native American leader. Lynch also aligned himself with a nationwide campaign by right-wing activists to bar what they call “critical race theory” from schools, but what others simply call American history taught without hiding the warts.
At a Braintree candidates’ forum this year, Lynch took aim at the notions of equity, diversity and inclusion in public school curriculum.
He told a packed auditorium, “I really think we need to look at what we're teaching them. I think we need to have some conversations, especially about this diversity, equity and inclusion and, you know, the inclusion stuff. I think we need to look at the curriculum, make sure we’re actually going in the right direction.”
Courage says she’s concerned that the controversy over critical race theory here and elsewhere is an attempt, in her words, to “whitewash history”.
“The way that people throw around critical race theory, I learned about that in grad school,” she said. “It’s not something that I was ever taught in public school.
“I don’t think that they plan to teach critical race theory to 14-year-olds,” Courage continued. “What they want to do is teach them a realistic version of history, not the whitewashed version that we get right now.”
Courage — a third-generation Irish American — says she and others are pushing Braintree to be more tolerant and more critical of its past and its present. But with some calling for deemphasizing the role of racism and inclusion in the teaching of history and civics, including new school board member Lynch, Courage concedes that her hometown is clearly not ready to move past the conflict, made worse by local reminders of the attempted insurrection in Washington, D.C.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year Megan Courage graduated from Braintree High School.