BOSTON/Dewey Square - Two incidents early this week suggest that the Boston Police Department is preventing activists from winterizing their encampment as the weather grows colder. The apparent police embargo on winter tents and insulation materials may have led at least one police officer to infringe on constitutionally-protected rights in his zeal to enforce it.
Clark Stoekley, a New York artist and activist who delivered donated cots and camping supplies to the #OccupyBoston and Occupy Harvard encampments over the weekend, said he was awakened at about 8:30 a.m. Sunday morning by an attempted police search of his truck, without a warrant. The truck was parked at the corner of Pearl and Purchase Streets in Boston’s Chinatown.
According to Stoekley, he was asleep in the back of his truck when a police officer opened the door, which was unlocked, and stuck his head in. Stoekley explained, “I stood up and said, ‘what are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m looking for tents.’ I put my phone in his face, but it wasn’t recording, and he left.”
The police officer in question later admitted to the activist on video that he had been specifically looking for “winter tents” and “any type of insulation material for the tents” already in the encampment, adding that his superiors had directed him to the truck on “information” that it might contain tents.
Video courtesy of Clark Stoekley and Zoe White
Claiming a safety issue, the police officer said, “We don’t want sticks, we don’t want, uh, construction material that’s not going to be used for construction purposes, to, you know, two by fours or anything else like that.” When Stoekley asked whether it was legal for him to have tents in his truck, the officer responded, “Absolutely . . . we just want to make sure they don’t end up in the campsite.”
The police officer also informed Stoekley that he did not need a warrant to search the truck because “it’s a well-being check,” and because the truck had “insignia on the side of it that was suspicious.” The sides and back of Stoekley’s truck are emblazoned with “Wikileaks Top Secret Mobile Information Collection Unit,” and “Release Bradley Manning,” respectively. Stoekley, who describes himself as a prankster-activist-artist, believes that Boston Police were tracking his movements.
The police officer’s actions appear to violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches, which generally require a warrant. According to Sarah Wunsch, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, “A warrant based on probable cause to believe a crime has been committed or is being committed generally is needed to carry out a search. There are exceptions but none seem to apply here.”
As for the officer’s “well-being check,” Wunsch said the justification appeared to be a pretext to search the truck. “There are no facts described here to support the need for a wellness search,” she said. She added that if police attempted the search because of the views expressed on the sides of the truck, it would violate constitutional guarantees of free speech as well. “It sounds like he was singled out for exercising a First Amendment-protected activity,” she said.
The second incident occurred at 7 p.m. on Monday, when police reportedly prevented Allston resident Terranova Kallemeyn from delivering a donated, military-issue winter tent to the encampment. Kallemeyn said that the 11 x 11 tent was to provide a new “women-only” sleeping space, intended to address women’s safety concerns and thereby foster the permanent presence of women in the camp.
According to the activists, Boston police claim to be acting on the authority of the City of Boston in barring the tents. “The police officer told her she couldn’t drop off the tent,” explained Alex Ingram, a 22 year-old Air Force veteran and a full-time resident of the encampment who witnessed the incident. “He said that the city had decided they were only letting donations of food and clothing at the camp. He seemed surprised we didn’t know.”
When asked to confirm whether the Boston Police Department intends to prevent the use of winterized tents at the site, BPD spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll demurred, saying only that “We are not allowing for any building materials to enter the camp site for obvious safety reasons.” She did not respond when informed that the question concerned only the attempted delivery of a single, military-issue, 11 x 11 tent. Nor did she explain what made a winterized tent inherently unsafe, especially given that the camp already has one onsite, sheltering its library.
Christopher Loh, Press Advisor for Mayor Thomas Menino, directed questions to the Boston Police Department, leaving the question of the City of Boston’s policy toward winterization efforts in the Dewey Square encampment unresolved, for now.