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Justice, Boston-style
Why is a UMass Boston professor facing charges for assaulting a police officer when 12 eyewitnesses say the officer assaulted the professor?

THE DIXIE CHICKS have become the poster children for victims of our post-9/11 nationalistic thought police. In recent months, since the United States invaded Iraq, we’ve seen a couple of Dixie Chicks–esque cases play out locally. In April, seven students at Wheaton College hung an American flag upside down outside their college-campus home. The Board of Selectmen in Norton, where the school is located, urged the college to order the students to take the flag down. Although the students were harassed with death threats and a vandal lit a fire on the students' front lawn, the Norton police refused to offer protection. Then, on July 4, the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union went to the Esplanade to distribute fliers detailing attacks on civil liberties since 9/11. They were told by Massachusetts State Police that they needed a permit to distribute any literature. But the most egregious of all these cases was the arrest of a University of Massachusetts at Boston professor for assaulting a police officer.

As Kristen Lombardi reports in this week’s Phoenix (see "UMass Police Arrest Black Anti-war Professor,"), the charges stem from an altercation that took place in the McCormick Building of the Boston campus among recruiters for the Massachusetts National Guard, a student anti-war activist, UMass campus police, and UMass professor Tony Van Der Meer. The student, Tony Naro, was wearing a T-shirt that said EDUCATION NOT ENLISTMENT on the front and MILITARY RECRUITMENT OFF MY CAMPUS! on the back. Standing near the guardsmen’s recruiting table, he was handing out fliers for an event to be held the following day in commemoration of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. One of the guardsmen called Naro a "fucking communist," as Naro recalls, and phoned campus police to complain that Naro was blocking their table. When police arrived, they asked Naro if he had a permit to distribute the fliers. They also called Student Life Services to verify that Naro was, indeed, a registered student at the school. Van Der Meer happened to walk by at this point, and Naro called him over for some help. Van Der Meer spoke with the officers and told Naro to find a new spot further away from the recruiters to avoid trouble.

All seemed calm until one of the National Guard recruiters (their names have not been released) read the fliers Naro was handing out and said that Naro should be "shot in the head like King" for his anti-war opinions. Van Der Meer immediately turned to the recruiter and told him that he couldn’t talk that way to a student. The recruiter replied that Van Der Meer "should be shot, too." The two men began shouting at each other. A UMass police officer quickly jumped between the recruiter and Van Der Meer and arrested Van Der Meer.

The National Guard recruiters and campus officers all claim in their police statements that Van Der Meer hit the arresting officer. But Van Der Meer and his attorney have accounts from 12 eyewitnesses who dispute the official police version and say that Van Der Meer may have raised his voice, but he never raised a finger, much less his fists.

Perhaps the most compelling witness is Deanna Brunetti, an Uxbridge resident who was selling class rings to students at a table located right next to that of the National Guard recruiters. She says that she heard the National Guardsman say to Van Der Meer, "You should be shot in the head, you and all you peacemaker people." She also says: "I saw the cop grab the black man by the lapel and push him to the ground. He almost pushed the black man into my table. I didn’t see the black man raise a finger to the officer. Not once."

So why is Suffolk County district attorney Dan Conley prosecuting this case? ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch, who has closely followed the case, thinks it’s "unbelievable" that the prosecution is going forward. "What a waste of resources," she says. "It makes you wonder if the DA isn’t a bit too cozy with the police."‘

It makes you wonder, indeed. And it recalls the case of Shawn Drumgold, who was convicted of the murder of 12-year-old Tiffany Moore (see "Justice Derailed," Editorial, May 9). Three months ago, the Boston Globe published a compelling report calling the police investigation and prosecution of Drumgold into serious question. Although Conley has called for an investigation into new evidence in the case, it’s seems likely that Drumgold, who is in prison, may well be innocent.

Meanwhile, what is the National Guard doing employing soldiers brutish, obtuse, and insensitive enough to say that anti-war protesters should be shot as Martin Luther King Jr. was? And why is this recruiter — while we may not know who he is, we can be sure that the Massachusetts National Guard does — still a member of the Guard? There should be a legislative and gubernatorial investigation into this. The recruiter’s remarks were outrageous, and they shame the uniform of the Massachusetts National Guard. The office of Governor Mitt Romney, who exercises civilian control over the Guard, did not return a phone call from the Phoenix about the case.

And finally, why hasn’t the University of Massachusetts properly trained its police officers in First Amendment issues? The police who responded to the first call could have — and should have — reminded the National Guard recruiters that students have a free-speech right to distribute fliers in a public space. They could have also casually advised Naro to move further away from the table, as Van Der Meer did. Instead, they chose to harass Naro. The office of University of Massachusetts president William Bulger did not return a phone call from the Phoenix about the case.

Conley’s spokesman, David Procopio, blithely notes that Van Der Meer, who has taken a leave of absence from his job to deal with this case, will have his day in court. "The truth will win out at trial. It always does," he says.

Truth doesn’t always win out at trial, as Procopio already knows. In this case, however, with 12 eyewitnesses backing up the professor’s version of events and disputing that given by the police, it should. And when it does, the officers and military recruiters who filed false police reports should lose their jobs.

What do you think? Send an e-mail to letters[a]

Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2003
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