Somerville Mayor Demands Boston Protesters NOT Be Held Accountable

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In Facebook post, Joe Curtatone calls for charges be dropped against ‘Somerville 18’; cites precedence of police civil disobedience.

Here’s some good news for anyone considering a little civil disobedience in Somerville, MA; if the mayor agrees with you, you’ve got carte blanche to break all the laws you want. That’s right. If you and your friends want to get together and stop traffic, you have his blessing, as long as your heart is in the right place.

DROP THE CHARGES AGAINST THE SOMERVILLE 18: We are a nation founded upon and strengthened by a long history of social activism and protest—from the Boston Tea Party to the Freedom Marches for Civil Rights. When something is profoundly wrong in this nation, our citizens speak up and act up peacefully to set it right, and our freedoms—freedoms that are the envy of so many around the world—make this possible.

Citizens have the right to speak up all they want. The First Amendment is quite clear about that. We can write what we want, publish what we want, speak what we want, get on the radio, get on TV, make a viral Youtube video, etc. If you want to find out what’s wrong with this country, find any old guy at a bar and ask him where the country went wrong. You’ll get an earful and no one is going to get charged with anything.

This January 18 protesters exercised those rights. In their pursuit of social justice and an end to the well-documented unequal and sometimes lethal treatment of blacks by our nation’s law enforcement system, they blocked I-93. They went beyond the usual sidewalk protest to be sure they would be heard, just as area police and firefighters did when they blocked our interstates and major roadways repeatedly in the early 1980s to protest layoffs. Back then, not a single firefighter or police officer was arrested for their actions. The Boston Police commissioner at the time demonstrated respect for their right to protest. He was right to do so.

Now, this is ripe. As we understand it, one of the tenants of the Black Live Matter movement is that police aren’t held to account when they act illegally, especially when they brutalize or kill young men of color in the course of their duties. Where a private citizen might face charges if they use deadly force to protect themselves, police officers often undergo a quick reviews and are back on the street in a few days.

In other words, police (and other government employees) are often held to a different standard than “the people” are. This many people find problematic. While most understand that law enforcement needs certain powers to do their jobs, it creates resentment when the police act above the laws they’re expected to enforce.

In the case of police and firefighters blocking highways as a form of protest, it was certainly illegal and those individuals, especially the police officers, should have been held to an even higher standard than private citizens might be. Their job is to uphold the law, not dismiss it whenever they have a work grievance.

This is America, Mayor. Not FRANCE.

If we allow the Somerville 18 to be treated differently today, we will all be in the wrong. There is no respect for the right to protest when the punishment proposed is completely disproportionate to the action taken. The news cycle has moved on for those inconvenienced by the traffic delays, but the Somerville 18 face excessive charges for that act of protest: 90 days in jail, nearly $15,000 in fines, and 18 months’ probation—this when peaceful protesters are commonly arrested but never even booked, or at most are given a small fine.

Well, those protesters managed to hold up traffic for hours along Boston’s main traffic arteries. Boston lost tens of thousands of man-hours of productivity in the process. In the case of salaried employees, corporations bore the brunt of that cost, but for hourly employees, the Somerville 18 hit them right in the paycheck…and we’re sure that the cost was far higher than $15,000 per protester.

How would these agitators feel if every person who spent hours stuck in traffic took turns preventing them from leaving their house to go to work (assuming they actually have real jobs)? If we assume 10,000 people were delayed for 3 hours, that comes out to approximately 70 days per protester, which makes the 90 days in jail seem less “excessive” and more “par for the course”.

The irony of protesters against unequal treatment by the law enforcement system being treated unequally by the law should concern us all. It certainly concerned the 91 members of the clergy who this summer sent a clear message to District Attorney Marian T. Ryan: “As Black churches are burning across the country, as Black people are being killed by police, and as we honor the lives taken in Charleston, we are asking you to drop the charges against these people of conscience,” they wrote.

In that case, we’re far removed from Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham jail. At that time, serving time rather than simply paying a $187 fine was part of the protest. Are the Somerville 18 not up for the struggle? Surely individuals willing to shut down the traffic into a city to bring attention to a cause should be willing to go to jail to demonstrate their resolve.

Then again…

Of course, if that wasn’t part of the plan, then perhaps the Somerville 18 should have thought about that before they started filling steel barrels with concrete.

It is time for more political leaders to join our religious leaders in demanding fair treatment for the Somerville 18 as well, and I am adding my voice to that call here and now. The job of the District Attorney is a difficult one and we must respect the office’s ability to prosecute, but the ability to prosecute must be weighed against the question of whether or not justice is being done. We must hold injustice as more important than inconvenience.

Once again, Mayor, this is Boston we’re talking about, not Paris, and we’re guessing the people who work in the city want to keep things that way. We don’t want to give a license to each and every aggrieved group to shut down the city just to let everyone know that they aren’t happy with the current state of affairs.

With full respect, I ask District Attorney Ryan to drop the charges against the Somerville 18, and I would remind us all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words about the role of the law during times of needed social change: “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Collectively punishing the commuting population of Boston, many of whom were black people who would have preferred to spent their day not staring at a bunch of white kids chained to concrete barrels is not “the flow of social progress”.

If this were a matter of social justice (and a constructive way to achieve it) then others would have stepped up and followed in the footsteps of the Somerville 18. They’d find new and interesting ways to shut down Boston’s highways until the jails were full and people were rallying to their side.

Instead, we’ve got some wannabe economic insurgents who did what they could to sabotage the well being of a city in some misguided attempt to make a name for themselves and bring attention to a cause that has already had plenty of attention.

So, Mayor Joe Curtatone, how about we don’t drop the charges. We’re pretty sure they won’t get anywhere near the maximum sentences and hopefully they’ll think before they blockade another highway.

-Tristan Pinnock, Blast Social Justice Correspondent

Tristan's just this guy, ya know?