PEPPERELL — Town officials are considering organizing a conference on tolerance after a seemingly peaceful display of support for ending human detention camps turned into a heated argument that spewed onto social media earlier this month.
On July 12, a local event called Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps was held at the roundabout near the Peter Fitzpatrick property and the Pepperell Community Center.
The event was one of many vigils organized under the national Lights for Liberty organization that put together events nationwide taking a stand against the poor conditions immigrants face while being held in detention camps.
The event was hosted by J.D. Melendez, a Pepperell resident who also leads the LGBTQ+ groups that meet at Lawrence Library.
According to Town Administrator Andrew MacLean, a resident was driving by the event, pulled over and got into an argument with those attending the vigil due to the person disagreeing with the vigil’s statement.
Police Chief David Scott confirmed the incident, saying in an email on Monday that police were called at about 7:23 p.m., to address the confrontation. Scott said no arrests were made.
According to a video posted to Facebook by Anna Melendez, J.D.’s wife, shortly after the vigil, the resident who pulled over at the vigil is Steve McGaffigan.
The video shows the owner of Mastertech Automotive Services, located across from the roundabout on Main Street, yelling back-and-forth at participants in the vigil about how those in the detention centers are “illegal” and how judges have “already decided that they don’t belong here.”
“Why don’t you pay for their right?” McGaffigan says in the video. “Why don’t you pay for their health insurance? It’s about time that us conservatives stand up for what is our country, not your country!”
McGaffigan confirmed Tuesday that he interrupted the vigil on July 12 and he received multiple calls the day after from people who’ve seen the video or heard about the confrontation. He said most of the callers had been supportive of his actions at the vigil, while others called him a racist and a bigot.
The 65-year-old claimed he saw the vigil as he was leaving work and was “creeping along” the roundabout, yelling out statements, including, “I love my country” and “Why are you here?” He said that people at the vigil started crowding in front of his car, causing him to stop.
“I’m trying to keep it on a down-key, but I can’t stand what’s going on,” McGaffigan said. “I believe you should stand up for your country.”
As of Tuesday, the video had more than 100 comments featuring more arguing between users who supported either the vigil and its message, or McGaffigan’s comments.
MacLean said other residents made him aware of the video and the comments posted by Melendez and others, including an exchange Melendez got involved in that others thought was racist and sexual.
“J.D. should’ve bit his tongue, but the situation was escalating,” MacLean said last week. “I’m not trying to blame him.”
MacLean said Melendez and the LGBTQ+ group invited those who made the negative comments on the video to the group’s next meeting, which was scheduled for this past Wednesday, July 24. MacLean said he was also planning to attend that meeting.
“I don’t expect it to be a showdown,” he said. “It’ll be a chance for them to deal with their issues and for J.D. to show where he’s coming from. I think it’s a genuine opportunity for them to learn something.”
When asked for comment, Melendez requested that questions from The Voice be forwarded to his attorney. The Nashoba Valley Voice reached out to his lawyer for comment.
Though MacLean had originally planned to draft and release a statement on the incident, he said last Saturday that he spoke to advisers and decided to not release the statement. Instead, he said the town is discussing plans to hold a public meeting on tolerance sometime in September.
“This seems to be a more measured and proactive response,” MacLean wrote in an email. “The message might raise more questions than answers and cast a spotlight on something that isn’t really there to be found. We agreed to wait. If there are further occurrences, we already have a drafted message and could release it promptly.”
Jon Winkler: @MrJW595 on Twitter