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If only he’d put women’s underwear on his head instead ...

It was a skinny pair of stereo wires that got 21-year-old Joe Previtera charged with two felonies. A week ago on Wednesday, the Boston College student poked his head through a gauzy shawl, donned a black pointy hood, and ascended a milk crate positioned to the right of the Armed Forces Recruitment Center’s Tremont Street entrance. He extended his arms like a tired scarecrow; stereo wires dangled from his fingers onto the ground below. Without those wires, the Westwood native could have been mistaken for an eyeless Klansman dipped in black, or maybe even the Wicked Witch of the West. But those snaky cords made the costume’s import clear: Previtera was a dead ringer for one of Abu Ghraib’s Iraqi prisoners — specifically, the faceless man who’d allegedly been forced to balance on a cardboard box lest he be electrocuted.

"We found that street theater can be more effective in conveying a message than a flier," Previtera says nearly a week later, explaining why he’d dressed up like the Abu Ghraib prisoner. "We picked the location because we wanted to make people think about what they might be called or forced to do if they enlist in the military."

But the demonstration didn’t go as planned. Previtera — along with four friends who’d come out to shoot photos and protect the blinded activist in case, as fellow BC student Nick Fuller-Googins put it, "some hyper-nationalist character came up and punched him in the stomach" — figured the cops would warn him before they tossed him in the clink. But they didn’t. First, Previtera’s friends say, someone came out of the recruitment office and told him to get down; when Previtera didn’t, the person went inside. (No one from the Armed Forces Recruitment Center could be reached for comment.) Soon after, the cops appeared and watched the spectacle from their cruisers; shortly thereafter, the Boston Police bomb squad rolled up. Less than 90 minutes after the protest began, the police began taping off the area around him, and when Previtera stepped down, they took him into custody for "disturbing the peace." But Previtera had remained silent the entire time. "I was really trying to play the role as accurately as possible," he says. "So I was not speaking with anyone, just trying to stay there as still as possible." Any disturbance came from the crowd of gawking spectators that, witnesses say, assembled once the policeman showed.

At the precinct, Previtera discovered that in addition to the initial misdemeanor, he’d been charged with two felonies: "false report of location of explosives" and a "hoax device."

"This was supposed to be more symbolic than anything," says Previtera, who never imagined they’d nab him for a false bomb threat. "I never wanted to scare anyone into thinking I had a bomb. I just wanted to make people think about international affairs." He adds, "I never uttered the word bomb or explosive."

Previtera’s friend Soula was surprised too. But she realizes this kind of escalated police response has sadly become the norm for activists. "In the world and time that we are living right now — most people will say the post-9/11 world — when you go out to some demonstration or in any way display your dissent for anything related to the government or the status quo, you’re putting yourself at risk," she says. And the same day of Previtera’s protest, a report in the Boston Globe warning of possible terrorist threats read: "Officials were urged to take note of people dressed in bulky jackets in warm weather ... or trailing electrical wires."

So if Previtera didn’t mention a bomb, what exactly constitutes a bomb threat? "It can be implied, with fingers and wires — especially in a heightened state of alert, as we are," says Officer Michael McCarthy, Boston Police Department spokesman. And McCarthy thinks this is common knowledge, even if the wires are accessories to a costume. "Mr. Previtera should know better. He’s a young adult educated at Boston College from a wealthy suburb. I’m sure he knows wires attached to his fingers, running to a milk crate, would arouse suspicion outside a military recruiters’ office [when he’s] dressed in prisoner’s garb. If he has any questions as to why people think he may’ve had a bomb, then he needs to maybe go back to Boston College to brush up on his public policy. Or at least common sense, but they can’t really teach that there."

Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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