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News :: Human Rights : Police and Prisons
Watertown Residents Break Silence about April 19th Lockdown
12 Dec 2013
Reposted from Cradle of Liberty.

On Thursday, November 14th at 6:30pm, close to 30 Watertown residents and legal experts gathered at the Watertown Free Public Library to discuss the police lock-down and manhunt of April 19th, 2013. Three days after the marathon bombing which killed three and injured 264, police engaged bombing suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, in a shootout in Watertown just after midnight. Tamerlan died in the firefight, but his wounded brother escaped in a Sports Utility Vehicle before disappearing on foot. Governor Deval Patrick enacted a “shelter in place” order for all of Boston, Belmont, Brookline, Cambridge, Newton, Waltham, and Watertown, the MBTA shut down, and police departments and military units from around Massachusetts executed an unprecedented general lockdown of the greater Boston area. 9000 police officers and soldiers occupied Watertown. They created a twenty-block cordon, and armed with heavy military equipment, searched door to door. The lockdown lasted into the evening.
Click on image for a larger version

Watertown-Forum-on-April-Lockdown-Photo-by-E.-Mackintosh.jpg
Photo by E. MacIntosh
The event, organized by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and facilitated by three lawyers from the Guild, brought out the voices and experiences of Watertown residents who previously had no public venue in which to express themselves. Michael Avery, a law professor at Suffolk University and the former president of the NLG, moderated the discussion, saying, “It’s an age old question, between the needs of law enforcement and the rights of citizens.” Susan Church, criminal defense attorney and partner at Demissie and Church in Cambridge, and Benjamin Falkner, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney at Krasnoo Klehm, joined Avery on the panel, raising discussion topics and answering residents’ questions about laws and precedents.

Attendees expressed a wide range of emotions and experiences. Some had been terrified and angered by the actions of the police, yet others were thankful and felt safe because of the police. One resident described the different perspectives among her immediate neighbors. “After 18 hours of lockdown,” she recalled, “we all came outside and hugged each other to make sure everyone was all right. We had a very different reaction than our neighbors, who said they felt safe with the cops. We were all traumatized, but they felt safe.”

Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, president of Watertown Citizens for Peace, Justice and the Environment, said her organization considered holding a public event sometime after the lockdown in order to allow Watertown residents an opportunity to discuss the experience; but the group decided not to. She remarked, “Most people needed to express appreciation for all the heroic actions, and we feared residents might be upset by any criticism so soon after the bombings. So we’re grateful that NLG organized this discussion tonight.”

Church, whose husband was planning to be at the marathon, said that it is important to consider “when, where, and how we speak out and do we reach anyone beyond” the small community of activists in the Boston area. “Yes I’m pissed. The police take advantage of our fear and push more and more against our civil liberties. But to me [a public forum in] Watertown is not where we talk about this. Instead, we should talk about this at our Thanksgiving dinner tables, at Hanukkah. We should talk with the middle-of-the-road people in our lives, about our subservience to figures of authority, about how you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than by a terrorist.”

Regardless, attendees held a civil and open discourse, leaving room for every perspective. Abby Yanow said she lives “about 600 yards” from the boat where a neighbor discovered Tsarnaev after police lifted the lockdown. “I ducked when I heard the shots. When police came down my driveway perhaps I felt protected. But when I saw the videos of the armored personnel carriers and heard there were 9000 cops, I felt outraged. I’m concerned about the increasing militarization of the police force. There has to be some balance.”

Many Watertown residents supported the police and their actions, and throngs of people lined Main Street cheering “USA! USA!” after Tsarnaev’s arrest. According to J. Davis, “Our experiences were different [than others expressed at the forum]. I was asked to leave my apartment with my roommates and several of our neighbors. Yes, it did feel like a war zone, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for the officer that escorted us down the street. He said they didn’t really know what they were doing, but they think it’s safest [to leave the apartment]. The [getaway] vehicle was parked out front and they were worried there was a bomb in it.” Davis and her roommate were evacuated around 1:30am, an hour and a half after the shootout. They waited down the road until 4am, when police used MBTA buses to transport them to the Watertown Police Station. From there, Davis phoned a friend outside of the city who picked her up. When asked about the long wait and lack of information, Davis responded, “It felt like they were doing the best they could do. I didn’t want to be in Watertown anymore.”

Factors other than political beliefs and proximity to the action also governed people’s disparate experiences. Gabriel Camacho, who lives with his wife Merrie Najimy at Boylston St. and Nichols Ave., just blocks away from the scene of the gunfight, said, “Another issue is racism and Islamophobia. I’m Latino and I grew up in the South Bronx and I got beat up as a kid for the color of my skin. If you are a person of color, you get the harshest response from police. That is what happened to us in Watertown and it has to be part of our discussion.” Camacho and Najimy awoke at 2am to an “automated call from the Watertown Police which said ‘an incident is happening, please stay in your home and don’t answer the door.’” They went back to sleep and when they awoke at 7am, police and soldiers had cordoned off their street. Camacho says at 8am, “armored vehicles arrived, and by the afternoon, there were military police, National Guard, SWAT teams from all over Massachusetts, and military helicopters overhead. Across the street, we watched three houses in a row evacuated by force.”

Najimy added, “I was not afraid of the Tsarnaevs, I was afraid of what was happening on our street. One of our neighbors is Russian. One of the kids was Skyping his sister in Russia, and they targeted them [with forced evacuation]. How did they know [about the Skype conversation]?” Camacho, who said Facebook even removed live photos of the occupation he’d posted, described watching the forced evacuation: “They were surrounded by national guards, an armored vehicle with a sniper on top aiming into the house, and a loudspeaker ordering everyone out. Then twenty or fifty national guards would enter the house. The residents were put in handcuffs, some were interrogated on our lawn.”

One neighbor asked, “Why did 9,000 police not find someone hiding two blocks away from the getaway car? Why were they searching elsewhere, and why were there so many bullets?” Najimy raised a similar question of her own: “If there was no lockdown, would someone have gone out for a cigarette and found [Dzhokhar Tsarnaev] in the boat first thing in the morning or at noon?”

The lawyers, after short introductory remarks, listened to residents’ experiences and added commentary. Falkner said, “Basically, what the government did was put everyone into prison in their own homes. Can Gabe come outside his house? No, there are men with guns there telling him not to. This action falls under federal Search and Seizure.” Falkner argued police assumed privileges far beyond the call of the circumstances, violating residents’ Fourth Amendment rights on an unprecedented scale. “Rather than chase a fleeing felon directly into someone’s home, the police lost track of a suspect, and basically occupied, in almost a military style, blocks and blocks of the city. They entered some people’s homes and not others, without real suspicion the suspect was there. This is not behavior we have seen from our government. It’s not how we track down suspects historically. There’s no constitutional precedent. This strategy will likely come up again, that’s why we are starting this discussion.”

Avery added, “Chasing a dangerous suspect is what police do and have done thousands of times for many years. This is the first time that the police have shut down a whole city.”

This work is in the public domain.
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