Boston Police: Officers overreact to Abu Ghraib protest
The names of the Boston Police officers who arrested Joe Previtera on Wednesday, May 28, have not been reported. The charges they brought against the 21-year-old Boston College student have already been dropped. But the cops’ actions on that day were not only an outrageous violation of Previtera’s First Amendment rights — they also sent a chilling message to anyone who intends to protest at the Democratic National Convention.
We’d hate to think that maybe that was the idea. But maybe that was the idea.
On the date in question, Previtera plopped down a milk crate on the sidewalk outside the Armed Forces Recruitment Center’s Tremont Street entrance. Then, wearing a black, pointed hood and a black sheet, and holding a pair of stereo wires, he mounted the crate and assumed the pose of the Abu Ghraib prisoner in that iconic photograph seen around the world. "We found that street theater can be more effective in conveying a message than a flier," Previtera told the Boston Phoenix’s Camille Dodero. "We picked the location because we wanted to make people think about what they might be called or forced to do if they enlist in the military." (See "Protest," This Just In, June 4.)
Not surprisingly, the military recruiters inside didn’t see it that way. According to Previtera, one came out and told him to leave; Previtera refused. A short time later, a few Boston Police cruisers showed up, followed by — no kidding — the bomb squad. Officers spread yellow tape to isolate him, then arrested him on a charge of disturbing the peace, a misdemeanor. Incredibly, when Previtera was taken to the station house, he learned that he was also being charged with two felonies: "false report of location of explosives" and possession of a "hoax device." Officer Michael Murphy, a police spokesman, told the Phoenix that the wires constituted an "implied" bomb threat, "especially in a heightened state of alert, as we are."
Fortunately, common sense prevailed. Both Previtera and David Procopio, spokesman for Suffolk district attorney Dan Conley, were interviewed on the radio and television program Democracy Now!, and Procopio — with his boss perhaps having learned something from the Tony Van Der Meer incident — sounded like the DA’s Office couldn’t drop the charges fast enough. "Obviously it’s clear to us and to anyone there that Mr. Previtera was depicting one of the Iraqi prisoners," Procopio said. And, indeed, the case against Previtera was closed a few days later.
But Procopio wasn’t quite so reassuring when pressed on a larger point: what steps the DA’s Office has (or hasn’t) taken to make sure that protesters aren’t simply arrested to get them off the streets at this summer’s Democratic Convention. "We are deeply supportive of anyone’s right to protest," he replied. "Boston has a proud tradition of that. Certainly we are supportive of anyone’s First Amendment rights." But when pressed for specifics, he added, "The planning continues, and certainly it’s one of the topics that’s being discussed."
If the DA’s Office has gotten the message, that’s good. But the Boston Police need to get the message as well.
Patricia Washburn: Principal punishes student protesters
Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney surely knew he would face some criticism when he traveled to Winchendon for a talk at the Murdock Middle High School last December. After all, the state had just labeled Winchendon’s school system as "underperforming." But the governor probably had no idea how difficult his reception would be. Some students among the 900 or so folks who were attending booed him. A few protest signs could be seen. (What? No leaflets?) And at least one student refused to shake Romney’s hand.
The most dramatic moment by far came when Kim Thurlow, a senior, led a special-needs sophomore, Jeremy Dell, to the lectern and tearfully asked Romney, "What are these kids going to do? Where are these kids going to go to school?" According to the Boston Globe’s account, Romney shook Dell’s hand, and then accompanied both of them to greet other special-education students. Say what you will about Romney’s policies — the governor knows how to behave in public.
Not everyone, however, was pleased with this exercise in free speech. Within days, the Globe was reporting that several students had been disciplined — with some being suspended — by the school’s principal, Patricia Washburn. "There is a proper protocol and decorum these students are supposed to have," Washburn told the Globe. "Almost everyone has it, but unfortunately, there were [a] very few that didn’t, and we dealt with those situations. We dealt with them Thursday morning, and we’re back to focusing on what’s important."
The Globe was unable to get to the bottom of exactly what had happened, but one student, a senior named Jacob Whitney, was quoted as saying that he had been suspended for three days for refusing to shake Romney’s hand — an action he claimed he’d intended as a joke, and that the governor took as such. Whitney admitted punching a hole in a wall at the school when he was called to the principal’s office, but said it occurred only after he’d been told of his suspension.
There matters stood for several months. Then, on March 15, Boston Herald columnist Joe Sciacca reported that Kim Thurlow, the student who had made such a heartfelt plea to Romney, was being threatened with the loss of her position as an intern for special-needs students. "Since the day the governor came, the principal and superintendent came to my adviser and said my internship was in jeopardy because I was an embarrassment to the school, that I shouldn’t have been allowed to ask that question," she told Sciacca. "All my life I’ve been taught to say what I believe, even by my teachers, and now I’ve been punished. It completely angers me."
This time, Romney personally came to the rescue, telling the Herald, "I certainly believe that no one should lose any rights or opportunities because of their views on any topic. I certainly encourage any school district to welcome the widest array of viewpoints and to encourage student expression and questions." A day later, the paper reported that Thurlow’s internship had been restored.
But Winchendon parents have a right to wonder what their children are learning under the direction of Patricia Washburn and the town’s superintendent of schools, Robert O’Meara, who backed her up. (This week, O’Meara stepped down amid continued controversy over the school system’s poor performance.) When it comes to teaching kids about free speech and the right to protest, the Winchendon schools are every bit as underperforming as the governor says they are.page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5 page 6
Issue Date: July 2 - 8, 2004
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