Whoever gave the green light for Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis to have his police troops charge the Rose Kennedy Greenway in the middle of the night and, under the cover of darkness, to cuff and arrest a bunch of Veterans for Peace, legal observers, medics, students, laborers and unemployed people needs to get better advice.
Occupy Boston and its nationwide counterparts are about as pure an expression of political speech as one can imagine. Citizens from around the country, increasingly frustrated at their inability to be heard in Washington, are gathering peaceably in Boston and other key cities around the nation in an effort to have their say in the future of our nation. Until last night, Boston provided one of the models for defending peaceable political protest. (In fact, I also applauded Boston for welcoming Tea Party protesters to Boston recently.)
So, what changed?
In their public statement, the Rose Kennedy Conservancy stated that: “The Rose Kennedy Greenway is a public park and is available by law for the expression of free speech.... Occupy Boston is a spontaneous event and an expression of free speech that did not go through the permitting process with the Conservancy or the City. No one asked for permission. No one gave permission.”
So, why the arrests over the long holiday weekend? It’s hard to believe that permitting was the only issue.
To be sure, the protestors would not have had time over the long holiday weekend to navigate the labyrinth of permitting bodies and procedures in Boston--a process that, in itself, is an affront to freedom of speech and association.
Or perhaps Occupy Boston organizers simply decided, as the U.S. Supreme Court has long held, that public streets and parks belong to the people, noting: “Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been part of the privilege, immunities, rights and liberties of citizens.”
But even if the law allows permitting as a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction on freedom of speech and association, you still have to wonder: how reasonable was the city’s response in this case? Was there really no alternative to heavy-handed mass arrests?
Indeed, let’s ask ourselves: What would Rose Kennedy do?
We know that Mrs. Kennedy loved parks and green space. One rumor floating around is that the cops decided to break up the camp to protect the new $150,000 landscaping project on the Greenway.
If so, there was a better way. If the pro-environmental signs hung around the camp are any indication, most of the folks at Occupy Boston seem to share Mrs. Kennedy’s passion for protecting the Earth. They are good at it, too: organizers have created a well-orchestrated recycling and sanitation system at Dewey Square and on the Greenway.
Rather than bust people in the public park, the city could have hired some Occupy Boston organizers to take care of these tender new plantings on the Rose Kennedy Greenway--cultivating the Earth, a few jobs, and a lot of good will.
Even the Greenway Conservancy admits: “Occupy Boston organizers have been cooperative with the Greenway Conservancy and the Boston Police Department to date, and have agreed to avoid the planting beds and adhere to common sense rules of conduct.”
Beyond protecting plants, however, I’d like to think that Mrs. Kennedy also cared about people and about democracy. Here, too, the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy statement seems to say as much, noting: “The Rose Kennedy Greenway is a public park and is available by law for the expression of free speech.”
As this photo taken today near the Occupy Boston camp shows, the demonstrators seem to feel they have Rose Kennedy on their side:
Which raises the fundamental policy question: if peaceful assembly becomes impossible, what do our city leaders offer as an alternative? Cities like New York and Washington, DC have reportedly made recent moves to accommodate their "Occupy" demonstrators, so why can't Boston?
For democracy’s sake, let’s not criminalize peaceful political protest.
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