Somerville 18 face charges for blocking I-93 during Black Lives Matter protest

A march that took place in Somerville and Cambridge as part of the national Black Lives Matter movement on Dec. 5, 2014 was one of several such actions in the greater Boston area last year and this year. The "Somerville 18" face charges for participating in a similar protest on Jan. 15. Nicholas Pfosi for The Tufts Daily

Last year, national media coverage focused on several cases of unrest, largely in the form of protests in which activists called the world’s attention to police brutality — particularly excessive force and the targeting of black bodies in the United States. This call for justice, policy changes and rectification of the various economic, social and educational inequalities developed into the Black Lives Matter movement. Following national protests, 18 protestors in Milton and Somerville — who came to be known as the “Somerville 18” — blocked four lanes of southbound traffic on I-93 in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement on the morning of Jan. 15.

According to a Jan. 16 article on BostInno, a total of 29 protesters were arrested on Jan. 15, 18 of whom blocked I-93 at Exit 30 near Somerville. Following these arrests, the Middlesex District Attorney’s (DA) Office has charged the protesters with trespassing on state property, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, conspiracy and carrying a dangerous weapon.

In a solidarity statement in conjunction with their action, the protesters revealed their commitment to continuing the conversations engaged by Black Lives Matter, especially with regard to the greater Boston area.

“We hold ourselves accountable, as non-Black people, to turn up and disrupt business as usual,” the Somerville 18 group wrote. “Today, our nonviolent direct action is a manifestation of our long-term commitment to confronting our nation’s racist power structure as part of achieving the liberation of all oppressed people, always by uplifting and centering Black liberation. We expose the reality that Boston is a city where white commuters and students use the city and leave, while Black and Brown communities are targeted by police, exploited and displaced.”

The statuses of the defendants’ cases vary, according to Elizabeth Vlock, a spokesperson for Middlesex DA Marian Ryan, who corresponded with the Daily through email.

“On Sept. 24, one defendant admitted to sufficient facts on the charges of trespass on state property and conspiracy,” Vlock said. “The judge sentenced the defendant to…60 hours of community service [over six months], plus $65 monthly probation fee and $90 victim witness fee. Two defendants have a jury trial scheduled for Dec. 2. The remaining defendants are scheduled for a status hearing on Oct. 29.

The Somerville 18 members were unable to comment about the case since its proceedings are ongoing. However, various groups and individuals — including Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone — have called for support of the protesters and petitioned to have the charges facing them dropped.

In an open letter to the public on Sept. 23, Curtatone wrote that he respected the DA’s Office’s responsibility to prosecute but called for the charges to be dropped as he feels the punishments proposed are too severe for the actions they are intended to penalize.

“There is no respect for the right to protest when the punishment proposed is completely disproportionate to the action taken,” Curtatone wrote. “The news cycle has moved on for those inconvenienced by the traffic delays, but the Somerville 18 face excessive charges for that act of protest … [P]eaceful protesters are commonly arrested but never even booked, or at most are given a small fine.”

The mayor cited the historic parallels between the Somerville 18’s mission and the Civil Rights Movement, and noted the irony of the protesters’ case in light of previous Boston-area protests.

“They went beyond the usual sidewalk protest to be sure they would be heard, just as area police and firefighters did when they blocked our interstates and major roadways repeatedly in the early 1980s to protest layoffs,” Curtatone wrote. “Back then, not a single firefighter or police officer was arrested for their actions. The Boston Police Commissioner at the time demonstrated respect for their right to protest. He was right to do so.”

Other supporters organized a #Somerville18 National Week of Action Rally, which included suggestions for supporters to voice their concerns about the charges and potential sentencing of the protesters, such as an organized day of solidarity at the Somerville District Court on Sept. 24, a scripted outline for calling the DA’s office to urge her to drop the charges, Twitter hashtags “#DROPTHECHARGES” and “#BlackLivesMatter” to raise awareness on social media and an online petition. 

This online petition repeated the mission of the protesters and expressed concern regarding the effect that a precedent of severe charges could have on future protests and demonstrations in the Boston area.

“The #Somerville18 believes DA Ryan’s excessive punishments reinforce a nationwide intimidation tactic to suppress demonstrations, particularly those in solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” the petition reads. “Take action now to stand with the #Somerville18 and push back against the criminalization of demonstrations in Boston and beyond. Tell DA Ryan that 90 days jail time, 18 months probation and $14,580 in restitution fines are unreasonable punishments for demonstrations. DA Ryan’s hostile punishments set a dangerous precedent that restricts civic participation and violates First Amendment rights. Tell DA Ryan to drop the charges now!”

The Black Lives Matter movement continues to receive media coverage, and it has carved out space in the national dialogue of the upcoming presidential election, as candidates’ stances on issues such as mass incarceration, policing policies and economic inequalities were discussed during the first Democratic National Debate, as well as within the Republican Party.

“On the Democratic nominee debate…they actually talked about Black Lives Matter,” Orly Clerge, an assistant professor of sociology and Africana studies, said. “I mean this has really been a very long time, when Jesse Jackson was thinking about running for the Rainbow Coalition. Since when has race been talked about? I know we live in an Obama-era, and we have a Black president per se, and he’s brought up these topics. But really to have white politicians take this seriously…that was the result of the Black Lives Matter movement. Them interrupting political rallies and fundraising events and saying, ‘You know what, why aren’t the lives of Black individuals on your political agenda?’”

According to Clerge, who specializes in the study of socioeconomic opportunities and the sociology of race and ethnicity, the Somerville 18’s actions provide an example of what a democracy is meant to allow.

“They have the political will, the drive and courage to interrupt a system that is treating themselves, their families, friends, social networks [and] people in their networks differently, and they’re being essentially punished for that,” Clerge said. “They did break laws, and there needs to be repercussions for it. But as we know in the United States, we won’t have a more perfect democracy unless individuals from the bottom who are systematically disadvantaged…are heard, and oftentimes your voice isn’t heard until you break some laws– until you bring attention to things that are often ignored.”

Clerge believes that the Black Lives Matter movement is contributing to an important historical moment, particularly as it continues its mission to bring race into public and political discussion.

“I think that the time period in which we are living is a fascinating one, and we’ll look back in 25 to 30 years and see this moment as this sort of neo-civil rights movement,” she said.

According to Clerge, the movement’s protests, rallies, calls for social justice and focus on policing policies have largely been recorded, shared and networked through the use of social media, which has been a defining part of the movement.

Black Lives Matter has done a very interesting and unique job of tapping into the ways in which technology can bolster this social moment,” Clerge said. “You can be in Boston protesting police brutality, and at the same time you know what’s going on in L.A., Chicago, Singapore and…Kingston. That in itself is both mind-blowing and revolutionary. As we know, social movements are path-dependent; if they spring up in one area they might spread in other areas, because if one person…or a group of individuals are having the same kind of issue, [they could be] inspired by a movement going on elsewhere [and] can strategize and ask questions to figure out how to organize and replicate what’s going on there.”

Though Boston has not recently gained the level of national attention for police brutality as cases similar to those of Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, MD or Staten Island, NY, Clerge dismissed the idea that Boston was free of problems such as racial discrimination or economic inequalities.

“Boston is a very racial[ly] segregated city; it’s economically stratified,” Clerge said. “As much as people would like to believe that there is not as much police brutality, there is actually significant police brutality that is going on in Boston that is kind of brushed under the radar. Maybe there [haven’t] been as many murders as in other cities, maybe lives haven’t been taken, but to experience issues of stop and frisk, to be targets of police surveillance, that’s the condition of Black communities across the country, and Boston is not immune to that.”

Though Boston did not see unrest on the scale of Ferguson or Baltimore, several demonstrations aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement took place last winter. These included a peaceful protest on the night of Nov. 25, 2014, in which over 80 Tufts students participated, and a city-wide protest organized by Tufts students along with other college students. The goal was to spark four-minute die-in demonstrations as a tribute to Michael Brown, as well as to raise awareness of the movement, according to a Boston Globe story on Dec. 6, 2014

Clerge noted the significant details of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Boston as being shaped greatly by the diversity of the people included within the protests. Clerge explained how she was present at a Black Lives Matter protest in Boston Common during last year’s Christmas tree lighting.

“There were thousands and thousands of people there, and they weren’t all black,” Clerge said. “The majority was non-black. I was fascinated with just how multi-racial and multi-ethnic the Black Lives Matter movement was within the setting. I think Boston as well as several other cities experienced that same kind of protest moment where it brought together all types of people from all walks of life.”

While the Boston community waits to hear about the results of the Somerville 18 case, the demonstrations by the Somerville 18, college student protesters, older generations and multiethnic groups reveal the changes for which many Bostonians are willing to protest and sacrifice, according to Clerge.

“Just like any college town, you have really smart and progressive young people who want to see change,” Clerge said. “And they understand that we live in the Obama era and…although society is construed as post-racial, [many people] still get… — either through the material they are reading in their courses or in their everyday life experiences — that inequality is real and it’s lived.”


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