Editorial: Whole Foods arrests a bad sign of the times

Everyone has a prediction about what kind of changes Whole Foods will bring to the neighborhood. Well, the first change is here, and it’s a bad one indeed: It is now illegal to display a protest banner in Jamaica Plain.

Three JP residents were arrested for unfurling banners at Whole Foods’ first community meeting on June 2, and everyone ultimately was kicked out due to a “dangerous environment,” though exactly what danger remains unclear. That was courtesy of a Boston Police detail hired by Whole Foods.

Such debate-stifling actions have no place in this country, let alone in this neighborhood.

Whole Foods brought a police force where it simply needed a professional moderator. And the police officers forgot their responsibility is to the Constitution, overreacting to a passionate debate.

These are terrible, frightening precedents for a neighborhood that thrives on vigorous dissent and is better for it. They must not be repeated.

This is not about the debatable merits of the protesters’ claims. It is about the indisputable merits of free speech in our society.

Many people at the Whole Foods meeting were loud and rude. The banner displays were peaceful, but impolite and distracting. Distracting actions at a meeting themselves can be a way of stifling debate. But they can also be a way of speaking truth to power, and in any case are part of JP’s rich history of activism.

The last major controversy to divide JP was the proposal to restore Green Line trolley service on neighborhood streets. At a crucial 2003 meeting, trolley opponents unfurled a giant banner, chanted, engaged in shouting matches with trolley supporters, and staged a temporary mass walkout. Police did not drag these neighbors away in chains. Instead, state officials heard them out.

Indeed, a police presence is a rare thing at JP meetings. Where officers have been on duty, the badge has not taken the place of the gavel in ending a meeting. Last fall, JP hosted the key Boston School Committee meeting on a plan to shutter public schools. At least 700 people waved signs, hurled vicious accusations and engaged in all manner of disruption. The police, quite properly, did nothing more than warn one particularly stubborn microphone-grabber.

But at the Whole Foods meeting, displaying a banner was worthy of arrest for “disrupting a public assembly”—even though the meeting continued after the displays, and nearly everyone in the audience was waving some type of sign, including material provided by Whole Foods itself. Ultimately, it was the police who disrupted this public assembly.

Two of the arrestees invited trouble by hanging their banner from an off-limits balcony. But the police were bothered by something more than prankish trespass, seizing that banner and tearing another from protesters’ hands in the audience in a moment best described as un-American.

Just as heavy-handed was the meeting shutdown by officers who mistook debate for anarchy and a PR crisis for violence. The main activists for and against Whole Foods are vegan bakers and nonprofit PR professionals, community organizers and respected bloggers. The notion that they were going to erupt into a gang brawl is the stuff of comedy.

Whole Foods is now considering forgoing public meetings altogether. That would only compound the damage. Whole Foods is coming—guaranteed. It will bring good food and good jobs. It has promised to donate to local organizations and to be a good neighbor. If all of those things are true—and most of them obviously are—what does Whole Foods have to fear from reading a banner or two?

Whole Foods should commit to holding another public meeting with a professional moderator. It should clearly state a sign policy beforehand, one that is appropriately lenient. And it should advocate for the dropping of charges against its banner-waving neighbors.

The Boston Police Department should review the conduct of detail officers at public meetings and ensure that they are truly enforcing both public order and free speech.

We also counsel everyone in the Whole Foods debate to behave in a civil manner (and certainly not to trespass). But the fact is, important public debates are never totally civil. The powers that be must be as tolerant as possible of non-violent protest.

The public peril comes not when democracy is messy and rude. The public peril comes when democracy does not happen at all.

5 comments for “Editorial: Whole Foods arrests a bad sign of the times

  1. Joe
    June 12, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    Whole Foods should commit to holding another public meeting…

    The Boston Police Department should review the conduct of detail officers…

    The public peril comes not when democracy is messy and rude. The public peril comes when democracy does not happen at all.

    Hear hear.
    And to add: The BPD should drop all charges against the banner holders; the arrests were over the top, charges are ridiculous.

  2. Anon
    June 12, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    This is an incredible editorial. It’s the most well-written and powerful statement about the June 2nd arrests that I’ve heard. Thank you so much, Gazette staff, for your clarity.

    And I agree, that if Whole Foods forgoes public meetings altogether it will only compound the damage.

    Thank you again for your words.

    • Em
      June 13, 2011 at 8:01 pm

      Seriously? How can you blame WF for not wanting to meet with us if members of the community are going to act like idiots?

  3. Em
    June 12, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    It’s unfortunate that we as a community weren’t able to hear what WF had to say. Instead of offering up an informational town meeting, the childish antics by Whose Foods and those anti-WF ruined it for everyone.

    This dramatic editorial is messy and rude, bordering on public peril.

  4. June 12, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    When I moved to Boston in 1993 and bought a home on South Huntington next to Angell, my (mostly older, Irish) co-workers looked at me like I had two heads. “Jamaica Plain used to be great before it all went to s***” was about the most printable opinion I heard about my choice of neighborhood.

    These were the folks who were “displaced” the last time the neighborhood _really_ changed. Admittedly, they left of their own volition, not because home prices and rents forced them out. But the fact remains they were affected by demographic shifts, and no number of “Save JP for Blue Collar Irish” protests could stop it.

    I define _real_ change above because Jamaica Plain has been flirting with gentrification for decades. Pondside has stayed pretty stable, but the rest of JP has seen property values creep up and slip back again for years. What I liked most about JP was the way it retained its patchwork character of cultures and affluence.

    The advent of Whole Foods is a good thing for JP. Compared to Stop & Shop and its ruthless pricing zone strategy, Whole Foods is a white knight. The chain started in Texas, so they know about serving a mixed Latino audience. They may not have Hi Lo’s “aisle of rice,” but there will be more variety and better pricing than at Stoppy. In addition, having Whole Foods will help keep more JP cash in JP. Pondside residents will welcome a closer alternative for grocery shopping.

    I’ve read multiple accounts of this meeting and the majority have concluded that the blue-shirted activists were out of line. Could the police have used more restraint in dealing with the situation? Sure. Should WF/WC only have members who are actual tax-paying community residents? Abso-freakin-lutely.

    Shift happens. How will my former neighbors leverage the opportunity?

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