Are Mass Arrests the New Normal in Boston?
For many of the last 30 years, I have been in leadership of various movements for democracy and social justice in and around my hometown of Boston. In that capacity, I have helped organize dozens and dozens of street demonstrations of every type - including what's come to be thought of as "Occupy-style" marches since the global uprisings of 2011. Fast-moving, unscripted, and relatively tough for the police to stop outright.
One example of this sort of action was a "War Chest Tour" through the Boston financial district in April 1988, where my friends and I led over 400 student activists from a couple of dozen Northeast colleges past - and in some cases, through - the offices of various corporate headquarters and banks (which had each done a variety of bad things to communities the world over). These were non-violent protests, just like the Boston protest march of over 1400 people expressing their outrage over the Ferguson grand jury verdict last night. We blocked traffic, then as now. Some stickers and spray-painted tags appeared on signs and walls along our march route, then as now. But only a couple of young protestors got arrested back in 1988.
Last night, there were 33 confirmed arrests, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the National Lawyers Guild. The Boston Police Department has been claiming over 40 arrests. The Massachusetts State Police claimed over 50.
Whatever the actual figure turns out to be, that's a big change in just a quarter century. Of course, I'm not suggesting that there have been arrests at every march in either era. But I'm definitely seeing more arrests when arrests happen these days. Especially since the Occupy period.
Now aside from being a once-and-future protest leader, I'm a photojournalist. I'm also a communications professor. Among other things, I teach a Media Analysis course.
Naturally, with that kind of skill set, I automatically analyze any news media I check out based on long experience.
And looking at the local coverage of last night's march, I was immediately struck by two things. First, a fair slice of the Boston press corps covered it - to their credit. Second, most of the news coverage - notably the early TV coverage aired while the protest was still wending its way downtown from Dudley Square - quoted area police officials patting themselves on the back for making sure things didn't blow up here the way it has elsewhere since the verdict.
Field reporters on those early broadcasts practically cooed about how peaceful the march was - as if that's somehow unusual for people making use of their constitutionally protected right to protest for redress of their grievances.
But then the cops went off and arrested a bunch of protestors in three locations: the on ramp to the Southeast Expressway, the Back Bay entrance to the Mass. Pike, and the Central Artery exit at Dewey Square, (former home of Occupy Boston). And not gently either.
Then the news narrative hurriedly changed this morning to something like "it was ever so peaceful and calm in Boston thanks to the efforts of our ever genteel and level-headed centurions ... oh but, yeah, there were a bunch of arrests, too."
So, ok, I understand how newsrooms work, and how sometimes a story has to be corrected once more information comes in. And I don't want to be hypercritical here about the work of the many reporters, editors, and producers covering the developing story in question.
But I do want to underscore some problems with the reportage of the yesterday's protest march. For starters, none of the major media covering the action discussed the fact that Boston police are at least as militarized as police in places like Ferguson.
Nor did they mention that Boston police still haven't responded in any constructive way to the damning evidence of racial disparities in Boston police encounters with people from Boston’s communities of color unearthed by a recent ACLU report.
Nor did they point out the many dangers to civil liberties of the Boston police working hand in glove with various shadowy intelligence agencies through their Boston Regional Intelligence Center to spy on Bostonians engaged in exercising their democratic rights to free speech and assembly.
If more news organizations paid more attention to these facts, maybe we would have seen at least a couple of articles about last night's march that asked some harder questions of police leadership.
Like, most critically, "Why so many arrests?"
Failing to ask such questions makes me wonder: "Are mass arrests the new normal in Boston?"
Is this just the way it is now? Robo-cops, armed and armored to the hilt, working closely with an alphabet soup of federal intelligence agencies, busting larger and larger groups of people at protests that wouldn't have warranted more than a stray arrest or two in years past.
I know the immediate response from police spokespeople and "law-and-order conservatives" will be: "What do you want? For us to let these kids block major highways? People could be killed!"
To which I would respond: "People are being killed every day. Innocent young people of color being executed around the US by cops (and paranoid gun nuts) like you all. For doing things that would barely warrant a slap on the wrist in any sane society.
"So if kids like these protestors feel the need to block some highways to get society to wake up, pay attention, and join the movement for a massive overhaul of the racist American 'justice' system, then more power to them."
Saving innocent lives trumps highway traffic every damn time in my book. Call me old fashioned.
In closing, friends will often hear me joke that I "fear for the Republic" about this or that development.
But when I see things like large numbers of arrests at non-violent protests passing unremarked in Boston's professional news media, seriously, I fear for our Republic.
And I hope you do too. Because awareness of the magnitude of the growing threat to our civil liberties is the first step on the road back towards democracy.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston, and an assistant professor of communications at Lesley University.