Northampton: Handcuffing the Jaywalkers

It's damn near impossible to drive through downtown Northampton without having to slow down for some delinquents who simply can't contain themselves within the limits of the sidewalks and clearly marked crossings. A hundred times a day, somewhere along Main Street you can hear a local say, "Just once, I'd like to see a cop give a moron like that a ticket."

At long last, Friday afternoon, March 13, justice was served up. Big time.

With the assistance of State and Easthampton police, several police vehicles, a detective and an undercover policeman, Northampton police sent out-of-town jaywalkers a clear message. After the suspects were followed through the city by this super-sized police posse, the two young men from Amherst (one a 15-year-old student, the other pushing a wheelchair) were finally apprehended. They were forced to the ground by three gun-carrying officers and handcuffed for their transgressions. As he was forced to the pavement, one suspect allegedly pushed a police officer and also has been charged with assault and battery on the officer. It is believed the officer has made a speedy recovery.

In a story entitled "Rally raised prospect of mass arrests" in last week's Daily Hampshire Gazette, it's reported that, in point of fact, the overwhelming and unnecessary force that was brought to bear on downtown Northampton was only called in after "officers… came to believe organizers [of a rally against the Northampton Business Improvement District (BID)] were contemplating large-scale civil disobedience." Captain Kenneth Patenaude is quoted as explaining, "We didn't have the personnel to handle a mass arrest at that point." No information about the reason for that belief is given, though events proved it wrong.

Internal documents acquired from the rally organizers indicate no such plans were afoot. The flyer used to organize the event is entitled "The Block Party Brigade presents "Down on the Corner" (Because Life is a Musical)." It instructs protesters to "wear costumes, bring instruments and cameras." Notes from the planning session for the rally reveal a proposed song list included works by 2Pac, James Brown, the Beastie Boys and the Doobie Brothers. There is no mention of civil disobedience or arrests.

Sgt. Jody Kasper wrote in a report quoted by the Gazette that many of the protesters were hostile to the "responding" police officers, again not explaining that the officers were responding aggressively to a phantom threat. As evidence for this hostility, the officer cites "curses, and anti-police slogans, taking their pictures and demanding their badge numbers."

The rally was organized by members of Poverty Is Not A Crime (PINAC), and while those interviewed did not witness protesters cursing at the officers, the slogan being shouted was, "Who do you serve? Who do you protect?"—queries which, given the circumstances, seem like pertinent questions. Organizers point out that taking an officer's picture and demanding his badge number is not only every taxpayer's right, but a citizen's obligation if they feel they are being unfairly treated. They wonder what good reason the plainclothes officer had for taking photographs of them.

PINAC, who had notified the police of their intentions prior to the March 13 rally, has held a number of other such rallies in Northampton recently, some with even greater turnout than the between 40 and 60 protesters estimated there on Friday. In the Gazette report, Captain Patenaude stated that the protesters hadn't applied for a parade permit, but rally organizers say that Northampton police chief Russell Sienkiewicz had told them no permit was necessary. Previous rallies were chiefly against the proposed panhandling ordinance. This one was against the BID and a proposed new police station.

No doubt, had the mass arrests actually occurred, there would have been an investigation, the cost for bringing in extra police would be reported, and some would feel it justified to demand that the protesters pay the cost. Given the absence of any justification for the police's aggressive intimidation of a peaceful political rally made up of college students and musicians, shouldn't there still be an investigation? Shouldn't someone be held accountable for this flagrant waste of public resources?

Someone commenting on the Gazette story online felt the protesters had achieved nothing, but given that a goal of the rally organizers was to create a "pre-enactment of what Northampton under a BID would be like" for students, low-income folk and the homeless, and that the BID would lead to a "larger cop presence" and a "loss of democracy," it seems they accomplished precisely what they'd set out to do.

Captain Patenaude did not return the Advocate's call for comment.

Author: Mark Roessler

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