What police say was a misinterpreted accident at a rally in support of Democratic candidates triggered a storm of controversy on social media Friday and Saturday after state Rep. Tram Nguyen posted that a driver had intentionally driven into a group of people holding campaign signs.
“The notion that an individual driving by a group of volunteers with signs would deliberately steer their car into the crowd is unfathomable,” Nguyen, D-Andover, wrote in a Facebook post.
Missie Bankes, chairman of the Republican Town Committee, responded to Nguyen’s post saying she’d been told by police that the driver was actually an elderly woman who had gotten so excited to see the group that she momentarily veered her car and later told police she had no idea she’d frightened anyone.
On Saturday, Nguyen — who represents Boxford, North Andover, Andover and Tewksbury — said she removed her Friday evening post because she started to receive conflicting information about the incident and wanted to get more details. She said her initial post was intended to show support for her volunteers, some of whom held campaign signs in support of her candidacy.
Boxford police Chief James Riter said Friday’s rally took place outside of the town’s historic Lincoln Hall, in a side parking lot facing Route 133. At 5:38 p.m. someone called police to report an incident and an officer was dispatched to investigate, according to the chief.
Pamela Newport of Boxford told The Eagle-Tribune that she took part in the rally and said that although she did not witness the actual event, she was close enough to hear a vehicle make two smacking sounds that she said came from the vehicle striking two campaign lawn signs.
She said the incident sent a wave of panic through the crowd.
“Everyone was really upset and all thought it was done out of anger,” Newport said. “We told the representative what we experienced and that we were all afraid and that’s all she had to go on. Then on Saturday she walked it back.”
Riter said the incident involved an 80-year-old woman who may have veered slightly as she was excited to see people standing with signs in support of Democratic candidates.
“She’s of the same political persuasion (as the sign-holders) and said she got excited and may have edged her way over a bit,” Riter said.
In his report, Boxford police Officer Albert Manzi said he spoke to one of the people holding signs, who told him the vehicle in question came close to the base of the stick of his sign and may have hit it.
Manzi said the man had been standing close to the road at the time of the incident, but that the sign did not appear to have been damaged and that the man said he was not hit by the vehicle.
Manzi said he subsequently spoke to the driver at her home and that the woman apologized for driving too close to the crowd, saying she was excited to see the signs and became distracted and did not realize how close she’d come to one of the participants.
Riter said that no charges were filed in connection to the incident.
Jim Lyons, chairman of the state Republican Party who lost his seat to Nguyen in 2018, posted on Facebook on Saturday morning accusing Nguyen of spreading false information about what had happened Friday night.
“Nguyen, who claims to ‘make our communities more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming, so that all people are treated fairly, with dignity and respect,’ owes an apology for her intolerant and divisive words,” he wrote in his post.
Lyons added that Nguyen’s post had called on leaders of the local GOP to condemn the incident.
Nguyen responded on Saturday around noon with a Facebook post in which she said she removed her Friday post as she wanted to get more details.
“I will continue to talk to those who were on the ground and let the police reach a conclusion about what took place,” she said.
Asked if she’d seen a copy of the police report, Nguyen said she had not but that she had requested one.
“My understanding was the people present (at the rally) have not filed their reports yet,” she said. “I have full faith in police to take this seriously and to complete the investigation.”
Riter said that as far as he is concerned, the investigation has concluded and that no other reports about the incident had been filed as of Saturday afternoon. He also said he is not aware of any video of the incident.
“I listened to the recording of the call to dispatch and although someone in the crowd did say someone swerved at them, clearly there was no way this was an intentional act,” Riter said.
Asked if she still expects the local GOP to condemn Friday’s incident, Nguyen said she expects them to condemn any act of hate related to today’s political climate.
“I was calling for condemnation for such division,” she said. “Jim Lyons is calling for the same and we should stand in solidarity of such behaviors.”