UMass professor Tony Van Der Meer’s ordeal epitomizes the injustices facing those who dare speak out against the prevailing pro-war fervor
BY KRISTEN LOMBARDI
TONY VAN DER MEER says he’s been caught up in the climate of repression that’s swept the nation since September 11, 2001. Prosecutors say his pending criminal trial has nothing to do with repression — indeed, they allege that he lashed out at a cop. The story might sound like a he-said-they-said dispute. But it has come to epitomize the potential injustices facing those who dare speak out against the prevailing pro-war, pro-"USA" fervor.
On April 3 — at the height of the US war against Iraq — Van Der Meer, a UMass Boston Africana-studies professor and a well-known activist, had an argument with an Army National Guard recruiter who had come to campus that day. Van Der Meer took issue with the guardsman after hearing the man threaten one of his students for passing out anti-war pamphlets. Voices were raised. Words were exchanged. Then, things really got out of hand. Within minutes, Van Der Meer found himself on the ground and under arrest, facing allegations by the UMass Boston campus police that he had assaulted one of its officers — to wit, he had "shoved [the officer] in the chest with his hands."
Prosecutors have charged Van Der Meer, 48, with one count of assault and battery on a police officer and one count of resisting arrest. Prospects for the professor look bleak; just last week, his criminal trial was set for November 6. Still, Van Der Meer has a growing cadre of supporters, including UMass Boston students and professors; prominent black leaders in the city, such as South End activist Mel King and Boston city councilors Chuck Turner and Charles Yancey; and, most important, a dozen or so eyewitnesses who say Van Der Meer may have raised his voice during the incident but never raised a finger. And they all believe they can help Van Der Meer by showing how today’s turbo-charged patriotism played a role in his arrest. After all, minutes before his sudden detention, Van Der Meer stuck up for his own student, Tony Naro, who was sporting an anti-military T-shirt and distributing anti-military fliers. Supporters doubt it’s coincidence that Naro was fingered by the guardsmen as a troublemaker. And they doubt it’s coincidence that the campus police moved to squash an argument between a uniformed recruiter and a professor by literally squashing the latter.
Prosecutors are quick to dismiss suggestions that Van Der Meer’s case reflects what can happen to those who speak out nowadays. David Procopio, the spokesperson for Suffolk County district attorney Dan Conley, says the charges against the professor "have nothing to do with free speech." Rather, they amount to "an allegation of assault and battery on a police officer — and the First Amendment doesn’t protect that."
But as Tony Naro, the UMass Boston senior whom Van Der Meer defended on April 3, describes it: "This case is about patriotism versus free speech. It’s the attack on our civil liberties, and the casualties are people like Professor Van Der Meer."
THE NOTION THAT Van Der Meer — who espouses the nonviolent activism of his childhood hero, Martin Luther King Jr. — could be arrested for assault is so contradictory that his case has become something of a cause célèbre within Boston’s academic and activist communities. At UMass Boston, he’s enjoyed an outpouring of support — from campus rallies to fundraisers to letter-writing campaigns. His case has even caught fire among activists, who’ve publicized the matter on peace-group Web sites and social-justice listservs. Just last week, an ad hoc support committee hosted a July 16 demonstration in his support that attracted 60 people.
Askia Toure, a renowned local poet who helped organize the event — and who witnessed the arrest and the events leading up to it — considers Van Der Meer’s case "disturbing." It epitomizes, he says, the "right-wing kind of zealotry" dominant in the culture since September 11. "Tony is an example of the attacks on our civil liberties and the suppression of free speech," he says. "People take issue with this you’re-either-with-me-or-against-me view of patriotism."
On the surface, Van Der Meer seems anything but troublesome. He has a bright smile, a genial disposition, and the paunch of a middle-aged man. His colleagues and students at UMass Boston — where he teaches courses on King, the civil-rights movement, and black politics — paint him as a dedicated man who’s long stood up for his beliefs. He tries to help his students develop the courage of their convictions by making his classroom a safe zone for debate. As a result, according to Ayan Gedi, a UMass Boston senior who’s worked for Van Der Meer for four years, "Students take to him. He makes you feel like everybody’s opinion is worthy." UMass Boston professor Aminah Pilgrim, who also teaches Africana studies, puts it another way: "I have great respect for Tony. Not a lot of people have the courage to speak their mind, and he does that."
In retrospect, it seems that Van Der Meer’s appreciation of free speech — not to mention of his students — set off the chain of events leading to his current predicament. On April 3, right around noon, he walked from his office to the McCormick Building, which houses classrooms and a cafeteria. He had just met his long-time friend, Toure, and the two were making their way to the cafeteria to get lunch. But first, Van Der Meer wanted to stop by the Black Student Center, where he serves as faculty adviser. On this day, students from the center had reserved a table in the building’s second-floor lobby to raise money for AIDS orphans in Africa. They were also handing out fliers calling for two minutes of silence the following afternoon, to honor the 35th anniversary of the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. King. "I came to take pictures of the students," Van Der Meer recalls, "and then move on."
As he approached the lobby, however, he noticed one of his students being questioned by two UMass Boston police officers. The student, Naro, whom Van Der Meer describes as "a socially conscious kid," was wearing a black T-shirt that read EDUCATION NOT ENLISTMENT on the front. On the back, it declared MILITARY RECRUITMENT OFF MY CAMPUS! Naro had made the shirt himself after spotting military recruiters heckling students for organizing anti-war events. "These guys are guests at our school," Naro says. "They have no right to criticize us." He’s worn the shirt regularly as a way to "make my objections to recruiters known."
Evidently, he succeeded on April 3. Naro had entered the McCormick Building just before noon, loaded down with 200 or so leaflets announcing the April 4 observance of King’s death. The flier featured a passage from King’s 1967 speech "Beyond Vietnam," and drew parallels between the Vietnam War and "the crisis ... today in Iraq." It urged people to affirm "peace and social justice," as opposed to war. Naro planted himself in the middle of the McCormick lobby, he says, "a good five feet" from a table manned by three recruiters for the Massachusetts National Guard. Soon, he heard one of them yell out, "Fucking communist!" One of the recruiters then dialed the UMass Boston police to complain that, according to the April 3 police report, "a white male party was blocking the ... Guardsmen from handing out informational pamphlets."
It would take only five minutes before the police arrived. The officers — described by witnesses as a short, high-ranking female and a hefty black male — asked Naro whether he had "permission" to distribute fliers. "I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’" Naro recalls. The officers, he says, dialed the university’s admissions office to verify that he was a student. They called Student Life Services to verify that the Black Student Center had reserved a table.
Then Van Der Meer passed by. Naro flagged him down. "I was like, ‘Cool, teacher comes and saves the day,’" he says. Once again, the officers asked whether Naro had permission to distribute fliers. The question struck Van Der Meer as "interesting," given that Naro has a free-speech right to pass out leaflets at a public institution. "As far as I’m concerned," the professor explains, "Tony did not need permission. The whole scene was unnecessary." Nevertheless, Van Der Meer produced a slip from Student Life Services showing that students had a table. And he cautioned Naro to step away from the recruiters to avoid trouble.
But it was too late. As Naro backed off, one of the recruiters — none of whom has been publicly identified — found out the subject of Naro’s fliers. He uttered what Van Der Meer now terms "his idiotic and outrageous statement" that Naro, as Naro recalls, "should be shot in the head like King" for his anti-war opinions. "I was like, ‘What the fuck?’" Naro says. Van Der Meer instantly went to his student’s defense.
As he readily acknowledges, "I reacted. I said to the recruiter, ‘You can’t say that to my student. Don’t you dare say that.’"
For Van Der Meer, what happened next calls to mind a scene out of a Spike Lee movie, when a character does something defiant and leaves others gaping in shock. The recruiter, who was wearing fatigues and a beret, spun around and got up in Van Der Meer’s face. "He took this John Wayne stance," the professor says, "and said, ‘You should be shot, too.’" By all accounts, the conversation devolved into a shouting match. Both men were yelling, standing nose to nose, pointing fingers at each other. Van Der Meer says the guardsman even poked him in the shoulder.
Within seconds, Van Der Meer wasn’t facing the guardsman anymore. Instead, a campus police officer — who hadn’t spoken to Naro or Van Der Meer before — inserted himself between the men, his back to the recruiter. Van Der Meer says the cop grabbed him by the collar of his green corduroy jacket and pushed — so much so that his jacket was ripped to shreds and his glasses lens popped onto the floor. The officer, Naro says, "was angry, red-faced. He was screaming, ‘Shut the fuck up!’" He then wrestled the professor to the ground as the recruiters left. Dazed and trapped under the weight of the officer, Van Der Meer says, all he thought was, "Is this a nightmare?" The reaction among many who witnessed the incident was swift. Some students cried. Others protested, chanting, "Police brutality! Police brutality," while Van Der Meer was handcuffed and hauled off to jail. "It was mayhem," Naro concludes, "just mayhem."
To hear the UMass Boston police report tell it, mayhem had set in long before the professor’s violent arrest. Patrolman William Lanergan, who arrested Van Der Meer, paints the National Guard recruiters as victims of a rowdy crowd "yelling for the Guard to ‘go home’ and ‘Get off our campus,’" in his April 3 report. He maintains that he was "shielding the guardsmen from the angry individuals" when he noticed the verbal fight. "A black civilian and a white, uniformed Guardsman were nose to nose yelling in a heated fashion," he wrote in the report. When Lanergan tried to break up the spat, he claims, "the unknown black male party shoved me in the chest with his hands and stated, ‘You get out of my fucking face.’" Van Der Meer, the officer charges, "elbowed my chest" and "began to wrestle with myself." Only when the professor was threatened with "pepper spray and pain compliance techniques" by Lanergan and two colleagues — whose names are not fully identified in the report — did he comply, the report states.
Lanergan’s account of what happened April 3 — which Van Der Meer calls "a fiction" — has been corroborated by three of his fellow officers on the scene, as well as the three recruiters. According to Captain Winfield Danielson, of the Massachusetts National Guard, "the recruiters admit words were exchanged" between themselves and Van Der Meer. The recruiters, whom Danielson declines to identify, left after the officer broke up the fight. Interestingly, both the police report and the recruiters’ statements make no mention of who initiated the argument. Nor do they mention the comments related to King. Says Danielson, "The statements say there was an argument. They don’t recall specifically what was said."
But almost everyone else who witnessed the incident backs up the professor’s version of events instead. In fact, Tom Guiney, the Milford attorney who represents Van Der Meer, has a list of about a dozen people who "clearly remember" not only the recruiter’s words, but also that Lanergan shoved the professor without provocation. The list includes Deanna Brunetti, an Uxbridge resident who works for Josten Rings. On April 3, she set up a table in the McCormick lobby to sell class rings. She recalls that the National Guard’s table was located to her left, the students’ table to her right. She also recalls the argument. She says, "The guy in the uniform said to the black man, ‘You should be shot in the head, you and all you peacemaker people.’" The next thing Brunetti knew, an "extremely angry" police officer — "I’ve seen people with anger problems before, and I think this guy had one," is how she puts it — jumped between the two and began yelling at Van Der Meer. "The officer poked the black man," she continues. "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." Brunetti then adds, "I didn’t see the black man raise a finger to the officer. Not once."
Toure, the friend who had come to UMass Boston to eat lunch with Van Der Meer that day, echoes these sentiments. He insists he never heard students yell at the guardsmen — although he did hear the recruiter’s comments "loudly and clearly." And he insists Van Der Meer did not verbally or physically assault the officer. "He did nothing to provoke the police," Toure maintains. "He wasn’t in any way acting disrespectful."
Lanergan, for his part, declined (through UMass Boston public-safety chief Phillip O’Donnell) to speak to the Phoenix for this article. When asked about the discrepancies between many eyewitness accounts and Lanergan’s own report, O’Donnell replied, "I don’t have any comment on that." He then said, "There will be no comment on this case coming from this department."
Lanergan’s accusations have had devastating consequences for Van Der Meer. The day after his arrest, the gravity of the situation hit him. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t counsel students. On campus, colleagues expressed regrets. At home, activists inundated him with e-mails expressing outrage over his arrest. And then, there were the taunting phone calls. Phone calls proclaiming support for "Bush and the boys." One person called Van Der Meer five times — each time, the person left a tape of a clip from the movie Full Metal Jacket, during which a soldier talks about his weapon as having no regard for "the niggers, spics, and Jews." By late April, Van Der Meer had had enough. He took a leave of absence for the rest of the academic year. "Suddenly, I was in the same league as the Dixie Chicks and Danny Glover," he says. "It was too much."