AMER JUBRAN MIGHT say that he’s a victim of the same trend that left John Sellers facing a $1 million bail bond after the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last summer.
Sellers, the director of the California-based Ruckus Society, was one of hundreds of activists arrested while protesting at the convention in August 2000. Protesters said police had whipped up exaggerated charges to get them off the streets — an increasingly common complaint within activist circles these days — and many judges agreed; over 95 percent of the court cases have since been dismissed for lack of evidence, and Sellers had his case withdrawn minutes before his trial in October. Last week, he and another ex-defendant sued the city of Philadelphia and its police commissioner for infringing on their constitutional rights.
Now Jubran maintains that the Brookline Police Department violated his and other protesters’ rights by using trumped-up charges to shut down a peaceful pro-Palestinian demonstration in Coolidge Corner on June 10. On that afternoon, the 53rd anniversary of Israeli independence, tens of thousands of people were expected to celebrate at the intersection of Harvard and Beacon Streets, the heart of the heavily Jewish neighborhood. Jubran intended to lead about 60 other activists in presenting another point of view: that the date marked a "catastrophe" for the Palestinian people. But their action ended abruptly when Jubran was arrested on a charge of kicking a passerby. Demonstrators allege that the police then tore down banners reading end the occupation and free palestine. Police, they add, ordered them to leave the area at once — or else.
Brookline’s police chief, Daniel O’Leary, insists that his officers simply responded to a complaint from an aggrieved participant in the Israel Independence Day celebration. Officers did not try to break up the demonstration, he says, nor did they try to suppress the activists’ free-speech and free-assembly rights. But the decision to haul away Jubran — for an alleged act that not one police officer or, indeed, the putative victim directly witnessed — sounded the protest’s death knell. And since that day, the demonstrators’ complaints have caught the attention of civil-rights groups. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) have taken the charges seriously enough to launch a "full-scale investigation" into possible First Amendment violations.
Jubran, a 32-year-old Palestinian refugee who belongs to a coalition called Al-Awda (Arabic for "the return"), says that he simply wanted to express himself when he came to Coolidge Corner June 10.
"We were there to say, ‘Listen, guys, you are celebrating. But we Palestinians see this as a day of mourning,’" recalls Jubran, who was accompanied by activists from such diverse Boston-based organizations as the International Action Center, the Islamic Society of Boston, and Community Change. "We were not looking for trouble."
By all accounts, he and his fellow demonstrators started out doing everything right. The day before the June event, Gabriel Camacho of the Al-Awda Coalition met with Captain Robert Mello of the Brookline police, who would oversee the department’s command units during the festival. Camacho and police officials describe a short, smooth meeting, in which the two men hashed out a designated location for the demonstration. Although activists had intended to gather in front of the CVS at the corner of Beacon and Harvard Streets, Mello nixed that plan. The Israeli celebration, he said, had been granted an "exclusive use" permit for neighborhood sidewalks and streets. He suggested staging the protest outside Fleet Bank, on the outskirts of the commercial district. "I thought it would place us far from the action, but I agreed," Camacho says. "I walked away feeling as if we would be in safe hands."
Negotiations with police continued into Sunday. As soon as Jubran arrived on the scene at 11 a.m., he introduced himself to Mello, who reiterated the ground rules. "He told me, ‘You must stay in front of Fleet,’" Jubran recounts. Mello jotted down Jubran’s name, and then informed him that the Palestinian-rights activists would not be allowed to use bullhorns because the pro-Israeli celebrators had an exclusive permit to use such equipment that day. "He was adamant. He said, ‘If you do, I will call off the demonstration.’"
Brookline resident Martin Federman, who joined the Palestinian supporters that day, says Jubran and other leaders were "amazingly responsive to the police." When protesters mistakenly gathered at CVS, for instance, Jubran ushered them to the police-appointed street corner. When protesters showed up with bullhorns, Jubran ordered them put away. When police complained the action was spilling into the streets, Jubran reminded people to step back. "It was a very controlled protest," Federman says.
Even O’Leary characterizes the protest as contained. "We met with these people," he says. "Everything was aboveboard. I thought it went well myself."
But Palestinian activist Khaled Salna says he felt increasingly intimidated by "the heavy police presence" at the demonstration. As many as 12 officers were assigned to detail posts around the 60-member group from the start, according to eyewitnesses. That number would rise to 30 or so officers by the time of Jubran’s arrest three hours later. Three uniformed police officers who were stationed several feet away from Fleet Bank openly taped demonstrators with video cameras. O’Leary maintains that the Brookline police routinely film public protests. Yet the blatant use of cameras made protesters feel "penned in," says Salna. "It seemed like the police were waiting for us to do something wrong."
Most people on their way to the Israeli celebration simply ignored the pro-Palestinian protest, the activists say. Other people engaged demonstrators in civil debate about the escalating violence in the Middle East. At times, however, tensions flared. According to Camacho, for example, the occasional festivalgoer would hiss insults like "terrorist," "baby killer," and "sand nigger" while walking past. Salna remembers a few giving him the finger. One elderly woman approached protesters and "spat at us, then took some steps, then spat at us again." By early afternoon, a half-dozen older men announced their opposition to the pro-Palestinian presence by nudging their way into the group, activists say. Huddled together, the men pumped their arms while shouting, "Israel! Israel! Israel!"
Richard Picarilello, a long-time human-rights advocate from Boston, says the situation could have unraveled at that point. "But Amer kept reminding us, ‘Don’t react to the provocation,’" he says. Jubran pointed out the disorderly group to a police officer, who ordered the men to leave. Adds Picarilello, "Amer was the one who stressed to us, ‘Don’t react. Keep it peaceful.’"
But Picarilello says that around 1:30 p.m., standing beside Jubran on Beacon Street, he noticed a man repeatedly pass in front of them. Several feet away, Camacho also spotted the man, who soon confronted Jubran. "He was yelling in Amer’s face and shaking his finger," Camacho says. "He was visibly agitated." The man then crossed Beacon Street and consulted a police officer, Camacho adds.