Sunday, December 14, 2014

Protest With Care; the Garden of Discretion

            It's hard to know what to do when you know you want to protest, but you don't know where the demonstration is going and you don't want to get arrested.
            Saturday, taking part in a national movement, organizers (to use the word loosely) called for a protest in front of the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston to call for greater accountability from police departments nationwide in the light of two recent cases in which police officers were not charged with a crime after shooting a young unarmed black man in one instance and choking another man to death in the course of making an arrest of a black man on a trivial matter.
            Some other high-profile police shootings: Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot dead by police in Cleveland in November; Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old shot dead in Brooklyn last month; Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old shot dead by a neighborhood watch leader in 2012 in Florida; and Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by New York police officers in 1999.         
            It's hard to look at the larger pattern here and then say, OK, I'm good with doing nothing, if doing nothing means business as usual. So when we found out about the Boston demonstration, we decided to put in an appearance if only to add to the number count and to suggest that people who look like us are upset by these cases as well as the younger demographic.
            Because I had a morning meeting located in the other direction, however, we got a late start and by the time we made it to the Statehouse, the protest was long gone from there and headed in an unknown direction. Anne and I did find a small affinity group of younger people, equally late and lost, working their smart phones to try to find the latest postings from demonstrators on their whereabouts.
            "Here it is," said a woman, who had been checking on a Facebook group postings. "They're headed to a spot near the Science Museum."
            We may have been the only people not searching through a device, but we were also the only ones who knew where the Science Museum was and how to get there on the T. We walked back to the Park Street subway station and took the Green Line a couple of stops. When we got off at the above-ground station, all we could see were long lines, rank on rank, of yellow-coated State Police.
            It appeared that every Massachusetts state policeman was earning overtime from this demonstration. Their presence below us closing off a roadway and lining the banks of the Charles River did suggest that we were close to the protestors' destination. We walked down from the station, crossed a street near a usually busy intersection now strangely empty of anything but police and police vehicles. We passed through the security line along the river bank, assuming the personnae of ordinary, relatively respectable-looking white couple, after a brief, pleasant interaction with an officer.
            "All right if we go through here?"
            "Sure. But you should know there's a big group coming this way."
            We made thanks-for-the-warning noises, slipped past and joined the big group. The demonstrators' number was estimated at a thousand in news reports, but I don't think it was that high by the time they arrived at the front entrance of the Suffolk County jail, the target for the chanting, sign-holding, and short-speech-making devolving into more chants that followed.
            A row of black-clad policeman stood in front of the County building. The chant and arm-waving I felt best about joining in on was "Hands Up, Don't Shoot!" At least I knew what that was about. Signs held high in the crowd offered other comments: "I Can't Breathe" and "Black Lives Matter."
            Other marches took place Saturday, a large national march in Washington, DC on Saturday; and a much larger city demonstration in New York City, a much larger city than Boston. But Boston led the international news coverage of the day's protests because we ended up with "21 arrests."
            I knew from news coverage of the public reaction to the Ferguson and New York City grand jury decisions that one of the chief tactics of the protestors is to disrupt traffic on major highways. That had happened briefly in Boston the night of the Brown decision, and more significantly in New York and in other places.
            We also knew that while that the road in front of the jail has little traffic, we were not far from Storrow Drive, a major road, and the busy highway intersection known as Leverett Circle. The rationale behind stopping traffic, if I understand it, is to make ordinary people stop and pay attention to something that ordinarily doesn't affect him:
            Read our signs. Feel our pain. Ignoring this is not OK.
            This approach reminds me of the old Sixties slogan: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.
            It's a more aggressive demonstration tactic than those of the usual protest march, such as the one on climate change we attended a couple of months ago in October. These marches try to assemble large numbers of people to draw public and media attention to a particular point of view on a big issue. Demonstrators exercise free speech and the right of public assembly -- stopping traffic does those things too, but also gets in your face.
            So I'm not opposed to this tactic, but it strikes me as a more youthful game than I'm ready to play, and I don't want to end up getting arrested for something out of my league.
            So, when people got tired of venting in front of the jail, it seemed to us that the next place to go would be the highway. The police clearly knew that as well. And that's why hundreds of officers were forming a thick line barring the way to Storrow Drive and lining up a vehicle barricade as well.
            We sensed the vibe getting heavier. Some police officers were moving our way as well, getting between us and the river. And when the large vehicle pulled up with the words "Prisoner Transport" lettered plainly on the side, we thought it was time to take a walk in the other direction (on "the mild side," so to speak).  
            What did happen, as I read afterwards, was that some demonstrators urged people to push against the police line. When the police told them not to push on their line, and they didn't stop, they began to arrest a few, 21 in total according to the cops.
            Getting arrested seems to me a high price to pay, in discomfort, time, and possibly even money. On the other hand, it does get attention. Boston's arrests led the news coverage, even without our cautious assistance. And that may be the point.