A 2007 anti-war event at a Jamaica Plain church was labeled a possible “criminal act” by “extremists” in a secret Boston Police Department (BPD) file, according to a report that accuses BPD of illegal spying on peaceful protest groups for years.
Speakers at the event included famed activist Cindy Sheehan as well as City Councilor Felix D. Arroyo, father of current Councilor Felix G. Arroyo; a former candidate for governor; and the stepmother of a Marine killed in Iraq whose name is now on the JP post office.
“It looks like BPD was the one who engaged in criminal activity,” said Brian O’Connell, the JP resident who organized the event at the former Central Congregational Church, now called Hope Central Church.
Councilor Felix G. Arroyo told the Gazette today that the BPD made a “mistake” and was wrong to label the JP event as extremist, and Arredondo called it a “waste of taxpayer dollars.”
The police file on the JP event is the centerpiece of “Policing Dissent,” a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) released Oct. 18. The report accuses BPD and its antiterrorism Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) of violating the Constitution by spying on and tracking groups and individuals involved in peaceful political activity. The ACLU and NLG sued BPD last year to access the files.
In a press statement, BPD denied most of the accusations and said it investigates political activity only when there is a reasonable suspicion that it involves crime.
“The BRIC does not maintain continued surveillance or documentation on peace protest groups,” the statement reads. “Boston residents should confidently participate in any lawful, peaceful protest or demonstration knowing the Boston Police Department is not monitoring the events without specific information on suspected criminal activity.”
BPD spokesperson Cheryl Fiandaca said that BPD will have no further comment when asked by the Gazette about what exactly was suspected to be criminal or extremist about the JP event.
A copy of the brief police file on the event available on the ACLU website does not state the origin of the report. The file was created prior to the event, and it is unclear whether police attended it or continued to investigate. The file essentially just said the event was happening and reported incorrectly that Felix D. Arroyo organized it. The file also reports in gossip fashion that organizers of the next day’s Boston Common rally were attempting to get such movie stars as Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon to attend. Nothing in the file describes any form of illegal activity. The ACLU and NLG obtained the file only by suing the BPD under public records laws.
O’Connell, a JP resident who works at the local Red Sun Press, told the Gazette he organized the March 23, 2007 “Speak Out Against the Iraq War” event as a tie-in to what turned out to be a massive anti-war rally on the Boston Common the next day. He was involved in the Stop the Wars Coalition, which organized the rally.
The event was covered by the Gazette and publicized in its “JP Agenda” calendar listing. Speakers included Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq; Arroyo, who was locally popular and a longtime JP resident; former Green-Rainbow gubernatorial candidate Grace Ross; and Melida Arredondo, whose stepson Alexander, a former JP resident, was killed in action in Iraq. Alexander Arredondo is now memorialized in a JP street sign and a dedication at the post office. Melida and her husband Carlos continue to be anti-war activists and community volunteers and have been profiled in the New York Times and other national media.
“We suspected it for years,” Melida Arredondo said today about police spying on protests. Asked about the 2007 being labeled “criminal” and “extremist” by police, she laughed and said, “I think their priorities are confused and that it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
“According to those very loose definitions of ‘extremist,’ we never would have had a United States of America. Everyone would have been afraid to go out and fight England,” she said with a laugh, adding that she and Carlos are inspired by historical peaceful protesters. “It goes back to Gandhi. It goes back to Jesus,” she said.
Melida Arredondo said that she and Carlos have had other brushes with authorities that they are now seeing in a new light. At one point, the Secret Service visited their Roslindale home after they joined a rally near former President George W. Bush’s family home in Maine. And during the 2009 funeral procession of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, an ally of the Arredondos, Carlos was arrested outside Boston Police headquarters in Roxbury while attempting to display a flag and pro-Kennedy signs like many other people lining the street, Melida said, adding that the charges were dropped.
“Now I wonder if we were on a watch list,” she said.
Felix D. Arroyo is now retired and lives in Uruguay, where he avoids questions from the Boston media. His son, current JP resident and at-large City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo, told the Gazette that BPD was wrong in the way it labeled the 2007 event. He added that it is possible the BPD has improved its practices since then.
“We should reserve those titles for actual criminals and extremists and not people exercising their constitutional right to protest,” he said, adding that political protesting is “very patriotic” and part of what makes America special. Using the term “extremist” is “not only a mistake, but untrue to our history as a country,” he said.
Councilor Felix G. Arroyo also noted that the event was public and that in 2007, the Iraq War was already opposed by a majority of the American people. Future president Barack Obama was already campaigning on a promise to end the war.
“You didn’t need a lot of undercover work to find out my father was against the war. He passionately and proudly did not support the war, and frankly, neither did I,” he said. “Calling this [anti-war stance] extremist–the guy who won the presidential election used it as key to his foreign policy.”
Sheehan was a house guest of the Arrendondos at the time of the JP event. Sheehan continues to be a left-wing activist and is currently the U.S. vice-presidential nominee on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.
About 100 to 150 “mostly older people” attended the 2007 event, said O’Connell. “We had some cider and cheese afterward, as I recall.”
He said there were no incidents at the event and he recalls no police officers there. The only thing even close to illegal activity was Sheehan’s call for people to stop paying taxes to protest the wars, according to the Gazette’s report at the time. Melida Arrendondo said she spoke at the event about how the money spent on wars could be spent domestically on such programs as treatment for people with HIV, a field she was working in at the time.
O’Connell more recently was involved in the Occupy JP movement and this year staged a rock opera about a JP resident who becomes politically radical. Melida Arredondo and Hope Central also became active in the Occupy Boston movement.
O’Connell said he does not understand why the police would have investigated the 2007 event.
“I have, as far as I know, no criminal record. I’ve never been arrested,” said O’Connell.
O’Connell said he wants to find out “who was spying on who, when and why. It should be confronted.”
O’Connell said the report is already raising concerns among local activists about possible police informants infiltrating groups. In retrospect, he and others recall “people who did appear suddenly and caused some trouble and then disappeared,” he said.
“I never let myself get too paranoid about it, because that’s what it’s intended to do,” he added.
The ACLU/NLG “Policing Dissent” report calls for BPD to stop its alleged spying on peaceful groups, and for the state to increase police oversight and defund BRIC and its State Police counterpart, calling them inefficient aside from their possible legal issues. The report and related documents can be seen at aclum.org/policing_dissent.
Updated version: This story has been updated with comments from City Councilor Felix G. Arroyo and Melida Arredondo.