In January 2015, 18 activists from the Boston area locked down on the region’s busiest highway, snarling traffic in both north and south lanes, to protest anti-Black racism in policing. The Middlesex District Attorney’s office slammed the protesters with charges including conspiracy to trespass, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. The 18 face jail time, thousands of dollars in fines, and over a year of probation.
Today the activists appear in court. Last night, Somerville’s Mayor Joe Curtatone posted the following statement on his Facebook page, calling for the DA to drop all charges against the Somerville 18.
DROP THE CHARGES AGAINST THE SOMERVILLE 18: We are a nation founded upon and strengthened by a long history of social activism and protest—from the Boston Tea Party to the Freedom Marches for Civil Rights. When something is profoundly wrong in this nation, our citizens speak up and act up peacefully to set it right, and our freedoms—freedoms that are the envy of so many around the world—make this possible.
This January 18 protesters exercised those rights. In their pursuit of social justice and an end to the well-documented unequal and sometimes lethal treatment of blacks by our nation’s law enforcement system, they blocked I-93. They went beyond the usual sidewalk protest to be sure they would be heard, just as area police and firefighters did when they blocked our interstates and major roadways repeatedly in the early 1980s to protest layoffs. Back then, not a single firefighter or police officer was arrested for their actions. The Boston Police commissioner at the time demonstrated respect for their right to protest. He was right to do so.
If we allow the Somerville 18 to be treated differently today, we will all be in the wrong. There is no respect for the right to protest when the punishment proposed is completely disproportionate to the action taken. The news cycle has moved on for those inconvenienced by the traffic delays, but the Somerville 18 face excessive charges for that act of protest: 90 days in jail, nearly $15,000 in fines, and 18 months’ probation—this when peaceful protesters are commonly arrested but never even booked, or at most are given a small fine.
The irony of protesters against unequal treatment by the law enforcement system being treated unequally by the law should concern us all. It certainly concerned the 91 members of the clergy who this summer sent a clear message to District Attorney Marian T. Ryan: “As Black churches are burning across the country, as Black people are being killed by police, and as we honor the lives taken in Charleston, we are asking you to drop the charges against these people of conscience,” they wrote.
It is time for more political leaders to join our religious leaders in demanding fair treatment for the Somerville 18 as well, and I am adding my voice to that call here and now. The job of the District Attorney is a difficult one and we must respect the office’s ability to prosecute, but the ability to prosecute must be weighed against the question of whether or not justice is being done. We must hold injustice as more important than inconvenience.
With full respect, I ask District Attorney Ryan to drop the charges against the Somerville 18, and I would remind us all of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words about the role of the law during times of needed social change: “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”