Forum Highlights Questions on Racism Security and Privacy Rights After the Boston Marathon Bombing
Cambridge, Mass. - Forty activists gathered on Monday night at the Cambridge Friends Meeting House for a forum on the reactions and responses to the Boston Marathon bombing. The event was sponsored by United for Justice with Peace.
Discussion focused on police response to the April 15th Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured 264. In the following days, federal investigation stalled Boston as police hunted for suspects Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, identified through citizen tips to surveillance images taken at the Lord and Taylor store and released by the FBI. On April 18th, the suspects carjacked an SUV and allegedly killed MIT security officer Sean Collier. After a gunfire exchange, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was critically injured and run over by his brother Dzhokhar as he fled, beginning a manhunt that would last almost 24 hours. Thousands of members of the FBI, SWAT teams, the Department of Homeland Security, the Massachusetts National Guard, and several local police forces began to search Watertown.
Governor Deval Patrick made a public announcement at a media briefing early Friday morning, requesting that residents “shelter in place.” Citizens of Boston, Cambridge, Watertown, Belmont, Brookline, and Newton were asked to only open their door to police officers showing proper identification. Commuter bus, rail, taxi and subway services were suspended. Businesses were told to stay closed until further notice.
The shelter-in-place order in Boston was the first of its kind. Advocates said that previous nationwide orders have taken place as a result of gas leaks, gun threats on college campuses, and hazardous chemical involvement. The order was also the first of its kind to involve almost a million people. Questions remain about ordering people to remain home violates the Fourteenth Amendment. Governor Patrick was able to remain within the legal confines of the Fourteenth Amendment by “requesting,” rather than “ordering” people to stay in their homes.
Joseph Gerson, director of the Peace and Economic Security Program of the American Friends Service Committee, lives four houses from the boat in which Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, and had a resident’s eye view of the massive Watertown manhunt. During a slideshow, he showed photos of neighbors being ushered out of their homes at gunpoint with their hands in the air as SWAT teams watched. Gerson said, “This is what parents in Pakistan and Afghanistan feel like every day. A friend of mine was ordered out of her home on Norfolk Street, near where the Tsarnaev’s lived, and police wouldn’t let her back to her home for 18 hours. Of course we know that the lock down was almost useless. No one was telling what “to shelter” means. The police panicked, and as a result, they shut down the whole city. And we really need to ask ourselves, what does this mean for democracy?
Concerns over the Fourth Amendment, which protects American citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures without judicially sanctions and probable cause, have arisen, along with concerns the backlash of racism against the Muslim community. Within days of the bombing, Malden resident Heba Abolaban was harassed on Commercial Street while wearing a hijab by a man who punched her shoulder and screamed, “Fuck you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions! Fuck you!' A police report was later filed, but there is no word on arrests made.
Cyrus McGoldrick, director of outreach and development for the National Coalition to Protect Civic Freedoms, reflected, “It took New York City years not to have a kneejerk reaction for all the false alarms that happen there. Look at the AP story. If there is more than one man of Middle Eastern descent in an establishment, the police think they can monitor it.”
The Associated Press has been publishing stories from its ongoing investigation into secret intelligence operations set up by the New York Police Department following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
McGoldrick said, “I have noticed how the Tsarnaev wife has been lambasted for even having a lawyer at all to represent her. This is something we need to remember. It is not suspicious to have a lawyer present when talking to the FBI.”
McGoldrick has been active in the anti-war and activist communities for many years, and serves as the Muslim chaplain at Manhattan College. He continued, “Fox News tried to link the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center to the Muslim Brotherhood terrorists because the Tsarnaev may have attended community meetings once or twice. The organization has been accused of “radicalizing” them. These were public events that people, many of you are probably in the audience went to today to criticize the wars, talk about peace, foreign policy, and Guantanamo Bay.”
The mix-up of mosques occurred when the Los Angeles Times published a story incorrectly connecting Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, instead of the Islamic Society of Boston, in Cambridge. USA Today, and Fox spread the false news like wildfire. McGoldrick spoke of having open dialogues with Muslim communities to dispel racism and assumptions.
Other worries mentioned involved increased security infrastructure, and what it could mean for Boston.
Ben Falkner of the National Lawyers Guild said, “The Homeland Security Budget has received $1.3 billion from FEMA since September 11th, 2001. In Boston, we have received a lot of that. Ed Davis, the police commissioner, just asked Congress on May 9th for more money from Homeland Security to 'enhance infrastructure.' You mean more money for drones and cameras.”
Police Commissioner Davis did testify at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on May 9th, mentioning that FBI agents did not tell Boston police they had receiving warnings from Russia’s government in 2011 about suspected bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In written testimony, Davis said, “I strongly support the enhanced ability to monitor public places. This monitoring, which has been upheld by the United States Supreme Court, violates no constitutionally protected rights but gives police the ability to investigate and effectively prosecute.”
Cheryl Fiandaca, bureau chief of public information for the Boston Police Department responded to an inquiry by Open Media Boston about detailed plans for increased security with the following, “All recommendations on security measures and funding from DHS are part of an after action report the Department is preparing. We wouldn’t have any further comment at this time.”
Hillary Farber, associate professor of law at the UMass Dartmouth School of Law said, “A person’s physical image is captured on camera in Boston everyday as we move around public spaces all over the city. The images we saw of the brothers that went viral and led to their capture- those images were not public surveillance. Those were from Lord and Taylor cameras. Now the police are pushing for more cameras. Having cameras does not mean we’ll have greater security. This was unprecedented. The fact is, what happens to those retained images from public surveillance is something we don’t know. These might go through databases for current or future investigations. We don’t know how long they’re kept for.”
Advocates said that many questions are still unanswered as the investigation continues, but one of the least discussed is why the media and the nation has focused more resources and attention on the Marathon bombing than any other incidents. There have been dozens of shootings in Boston since the bombings, but the public response to the ongoing problem of gun violence in the city has been dwarfed by the Marathon bombing response.