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.

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