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Climate of fear (continued)


THE APRIL 3 incident at UMass Boston may seem isolated — until you consider the political climate in which it occurred. And that, of course, is partly what Van Der Meer found so demoralizing. Country-music stations stopped playing the Dixie Chicks after the band’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized President Bush for waging war. The Baseball Hall of Fame canceled an event featuring celebrities Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon after they attended a peace rally. A Guilderland, New York, lawyer was removed from a shopping mall and carted off to jail after refusing to take off a T-shirt that read GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. In this context, it’s hard not to see Van Der Meer’s plight as fitting a pattern.

Take, for instance, a similar scene that played out at Wheaton College, in Norton, in April. There, seven students living in a college house had hung an American flag upside down — a recognized sign of distress — to protest the US invasion of Iraq. Almost as soon as they displayed the flag on the house, they received calls from residents warning them to take it down — or else. Local selectmen pressured the college to intervene — to no avail. Soon, pressure gave way to menacing acts. People left death threats. A brick was tossed through a window. Someone even set a small fire on the lawn. Meanwhile, Norton police refused to provide security. Things got so bad, so threatening, the students finally took down the flag.

And then, there’s what transpired in Boston — ironically, on the Fourth of July. On that day, members of the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) went to the Esplanade to distribute fliers detailing the attacks on civil liberties in the post-9/11 climate. Once there, they were told by Massachusetts State Police officers that they had to have a permit to leaflet. Apparently, they weren’t alone. According to the ACLU, which is investigating the matter, dozens of people who’d come to the Esplanade to hand out pamphlets — from supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean to members of Jews for Jesus — were met by police officers. Some were delayed an hour before they could leaflet. Others were stopped from doing so entirely. One woman was even arrested.

ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch sees these incidents and the one involving Van Der Meer, which her organization has followed, as part of a larger pattern. In all three instances, she points out, people were protesting government policies and the oppressive post-9/11 atmosphere. In all three, they were shut down and prevented from doing so. In all three, they were silenced with the approval of police. Says Wunsch, "[Denial of] the right to hand out leaflets and express yourself is one of the most basic violations of civil liberties. But this is what happens in the name of patriotism. People are silenced."

At the very least, this pattern of squelching dissent raises questions about the veracity of Lanergan’s criminal complaint. Wunsch, for one, considers it "unbelievable" that Suffolk County DA Conley is bothering to pursue charges against Van Der Meer — particularly in light of all the witnesses who back him up. "What a waste of resources," she says. With so many people lined up behind the professor, "It makes you wonder if the DA isn’t a bit too cozy with the police."

But Procopio, Conley’s spokesperson, contends that his office has weighed the evidence and determined that it shows "probable cause to believe [Van Der Meer] assaulted a police officer with both hands." Aside from the cops and recruiters, he says, prosecutors have collected testimony from "three independent witnesses" — two UMass Boston students and an employee — who corroborate Lanergan’s account. When asked about the 12 or so eyewitnesses confirming Van Der Meer’s version of events, he points out that the professor will have his day in court. Before a jury, he will be able to present evidence and witnesses who say that "the facts didn’t unfold as we allege them," Procopio says. He then adds, "The truth will win out at trial. It always does."

IN THE COURT of public opinion, though, Van Der Meer has come out the clear victor. Last Wednesday, 60 people turned out to protest his criminal trial during a brief hearing at Dorchester Municipal Court — something that even Procopio admits is unusual. Protesters, most of them UMass Boston students and professors, marched outside the courthouse. They displayed banners reading SUPPORT OUR TROOPS? SUPPORT OUR PROFESSORS and chanted, "Drop the charges!" UMass Boston junior Diana Bell and many of her fellow students made a point of showing support for Van Der Meer because, she says, "This is a blatant injustice. It’s part of a larger struggle to maintain our civil rights."

Bell and 40 other students, professors, and Boston-area activists have formed an ad hoc committee to draw attention to Van Der Meer’s plight. To date, they’ve raised hundreds of dollars to help him with legal fees. They’ve collected 50 support letters to send to DA Conley. They’ve gathered more than 100 signatures for an ongoing petition demanding that the DA drop the charges.

Yet committee members aren’t simply targeting Conley. Indeed, they are especially critical of UMass Boston administrators. The April 3 incident, they say, has left the campus reeling. For one thing, it has raised the issue of institutional racism. After all, the whole ordeal started when a recruiter made a deeply offensive comment about Dr. King and, by implication, his politics. Beyond that, Naro believes the campus police fell back on old-fashioned stereotypes. They saw a confrontation between a black man and a white authority figure. "Instinctually," he charges, "they identified with the recruiter. They saw a black man in a dashiki" and assumed he was at fault. Naro, who is white, notes that he emerged from the April 3 incident unscathed, despite the fact that police officers had placed him in handcuffs at one point. By contrast, his black professor endured physical force. "It bothers me," he says. "I said more inflammatory things to the recruiter than Professor Van Der Meer. Why was I treated differently?"

Van Der Meer puts it more bluntly: "The way I was treated, I felt like a runaway slave. As a teacher of black history, how could I not?"

Not surprisingly, the incident has left many students and faculty members reluctant to voice dissent on campus. They wonder why the administration hasn’t done more to exonerate a man so respected by the university community. Why didn’t administrators push to dismiss the charges? As Diane Dujon, a UMass Boston faculty member, explains, "People are nervous the university won’t stand up for you. They think, ‘If this happened to Tony, it could happen to me.’"

To hear UMass Boston officials tell it, their hands are tied. According to UMass Boston spokesperson Ed Hayward, the Van Der Meer case "is in the court of law now, under authority of the district attorney," and university officials have no influence over how the DA pursues the matter. Hayward points out that UMass Boston chancellor Jo Ann Gora has publicly expressed regret over the April 3 arrest. "She’s very concerned," he says. He declines to discuss her administration’s investigation into what happened at McCormick that day, although he says officials found "a lack of understanding between different groups on campus and the public-safety department." Earlier this week, Gora established a public-safety advisory board so people could voice concerns about police conduct. "We felt this would be a way to remedy the situation," Hayward adds.

Asked to respond to the sense on campus that protest is discouraged, he replies, "There’s no reason for anyone to be fearful of speaking out. There’s the utmost respect for freedom of speech on the UMass Boston campus."

It’s a statement that likely rings hollow for Van Der Meer. After all, he must contend with the criminal-justice system. Even though his lawyer, Guiney, plans to give "plenty of mention" to the recruiter’s comments at trial — "It’s what ratcheted up the noise level to begin with," he says — the November 6 proceedings do not come without risk. If convicted, Van Der Meer faces up to five years in county jail and a $5500 fine — the maximum penalty for the combined charges. This, while the men who may have instigated the spat received a mere a dressing-down from the National Guard. Says the Guard’s Danielson, "We didn’t feel there was basis for action outside of verbal discipline." So the recruiters were warned to behave "like professionals, even if a soldier doesn’t agree with what an activist is saying." Danielson does make it clear that they may be subject to further discipline, depending on the outcome of Van Der Meer’s trial.

Standing before a Dorchester Court judge on July 16, Van Der Meer couldn’t quite shake the absurdity of his current circumstances. "Every day," he says, "I ask myself, how did things get this far?" Every day, he asks how his future could be in such jeopardy. "And for what?" he wonders. Because a student was handing out anti-war pamphlets? Because a professor objected to an offensive statement? "None of that is illegal," he says. "Free speech is not a criminal act."

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Issue Date: July 25 - August 1, 2003
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