Monday, October 29, 2007

Boston Beat: The Heavy Side of Victory...

Last night/early this morning, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in Denver. The local nine swept the Colorado Rockies defeating them 4-3 in game four.

Minutes after the result was announced, fans began to pour out onto the streets from all quarters of the city. The city had cordoned off Kenmore Square before the game even ended and the barricade kept crowds out of the square.

The extraordinary measures are not surprising given the reputed rowdiness of Boston fans. In addition, the city also has the memory of the 2004 ALCS championship after which Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove was killed by a pepper spray pellet. The city accepted responsibility for Snelgrove's death and paid out over $5 million to her family. A bargain frankly, as macabre as that may sound. Although the pellet was only fired after a mob turned violent, the tactics and weapons employed by the Boston PD were extreme.

During yesterday's ad hoc victory celebrations police stood in formation steadfastly blocking passage by gathering fan into restricted areas. Armed with batons and sporting riot gear, the lines of police remained the most visible and effective deterrent against drunken idiocy on the part of fans. Still, excluding the routes to Kenmore Square and Fenway Park, a number of closed paths seemed suspect.

Around quarter past one, the situation suddenly turned grim. Perhaps spurred to action by an overturned car or a fan-fueled fire, the police marched from their position at the Kenmore Square side of the Beacon Street bridge and over the Turnpike. They held there for a moment. Fans, up to this point were undeterred and did not appear fazed. Then the lines of police became several men deep and enveloped the width of Beacon. Police on horseback led the mass of cops. The crowds got the picture and pulled back, but continued to go about with rear-guard cheering.

It appeared that the Boston Police were going to hold at the Brookline-Boston city line. Instead, the legion of police in dark riot gear turned south onto Park Drive, the heart of Boston University's South Campus. Voices on bullhorns demanded that everyone return to their homes. The line's march remained in semi-formation thundering loudly and ominously as the police rumbled down Park Drive. Some shouted in protest, but most just turned and walked--or ran--away.

Certainly the need to protect property and people last night was necessary. Drunken idiots are dangerous. Closing off Kenmore Square simply made sense. As a wide area, also crawling with never-finished half constructed MBTA structures, the danger was obvious. The same goes for the blocks that border Fenway. We could debate the need for the length and breadth of the barricades, however. The frightening part was the march down the streets. Suddenly, Kenmore Square looked a little more like Red Square twenty years ago. Decked out in all the riot gear, with helicopters buzzing overhead, the scene resembles, minus the gas masks and bayonets, this portion of Diego Rivera's Man Controller of the Universe, which is in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

Rivera's themes are obviously socialist and the military men and the police beating the crowds on horseback represent attacks on Communists like those in 1930's Germany and Italy. Plus it bears noting that Rivera was a pretty crappy Communist. Still weather its Fascists putting down Communists or Communists putting down Democracy or Democracy putting down Democracy it all smacks of a police state. Granted last night it was Democracy putting down Sox-happy anarchy, but the comparison cannot--and should not-- be ignored. Many police departments across the country are too easily prepared to turn into quasi-military garrisons.

All of this is something of a holdover from the Vietnam era. Luckily very rarely do we see incidents such as Kent State anymore (although that was National Guard, not police). Still as Snelgrove's death shows us, it still does happen. It is far too easy to blame the out of control rioters for her death. It is more complicated than that and we can have a debate about the lack of self-control among revelers. Nor can we blame the cops. They are just doing their job and trying to secure the peace. But peace at what cost? That's a politician's problem. And ours.

We cannot help but ask ourselves, is Snelgrove's death even more in vain if we live only a few inches or one drunken idiot away from a night in Rangoon right here in Boston? Put more simply, are we able to balance our need for security and law & order with our democratic ideals without transforming, even for a moment, into the intimidating fascist police state we are so accustomed to seeing "over there" and resisted for 2 and 1/4 centuries?

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