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The political context of Victoria Snelgrove's death
by Dennis Rahkonen
27 Oct 2004
Modified: 10:13:23 PM
Deja Vu All Over Again
October 27, 2004—There are greater and more heart-wrenching tragedies to be sure, with the unrelentingly chaotic mayhem that is Iraq under George Bush's "liberation" certainly occupying the top spot. But innocent bystander Victoria Snelgrove's death via a Boston police officer's discharge of a supposedly non-lethal pepper spray weapon—while she happily stood in a crowd of thrilled Red Sox fans who'd just seen their long denied baseball team finally win the American League pennant—moistens all observers' eyes.
Not to mention those of the 21-year-old Emerson College journalism major's anguished father, who poignantly appeared before news cameras holding a large color photograph of his dear daughter, asking how such a cruel thing could happen.
Granted, some of those fans were intoxicated and rowdy. A few revelers may have engaged in petty vandalism, fueled by a mixture of alcohol and high-octane emotion.
But was what Boston cops were confronting a full-blown "riot" warranting shooting someone dead in the street to preserve law and order?
Hardly. ABC News and other media outlets have amply quoted participants in the post game gathering who've uniformly said there was no credible basis for police resorting to SWAT/paramilitary tactics and armament to keep matters in hand.
It was simply a group of folks ecstatic over their sport team's triumph.
Which necessarily raises a fundamental question.
If a young woman in the wrong spot at the wrong moment can get killed precisely while her spirit wells with warranted joy, what can political demonstrators, who have compelling reason to protest the pervasive reaction of our present era, expect when their marching front lines come up against blue phalanxes that won't let them pass?
Ms. Snelgrove's killing, in its indiscriminate essence, is harrowingly similar to one of America's most infamous incidents, the Kent State Massacre, May 4, 1970. Among its victims were entirely innocent students far removed from the campus anti-war demonstration's immediate flashpoint. They were picked off at a distance.
Back then it was National Guard live ammunition that took lives (and wounded others), and some say the recent switch to plastic bullets, propelled bean bags, electric-shock apparatus, etc., is a decided improvement. But—as the Boston travesty proves—such replacements can kill, and seriously injure.
Because of their advertised non-lethalness, these new weapons are more prone to be readily employed than real bullets. More likely to see action with no-holds-barred, repressive intent.
In fact, Boston acquired the paint-ball style pepper spray ammo that killed Victoria Snelgrove in anticipation of street violence at the Democratic National Convention this past summer. Because protests ultimately turned out to be quite mellow, they were never used at that juncture.
Members of the anti-globalization community, however, have often been targets of these weapons, in several cities. Urban minorities in conflict with the police are also quite familiar with how dangerously hurtful they can be. It's no exaggeration to say they've been "tested out" on hapless victims in ghettos, with their secretive use coming to public awareness only in such prominent instances as the Cincinnati rebellion in April 2001.
In the final analysis, however, it isn't the type of weapons that are used to try to beat back dissent.
The real problem is the open repression that's increasingly viewed by conservative police and government establishments as a permissible, even expected, means to deal with restive masses.
Especially with its USA PATRIOT Act sanction, heavy-handed police excess stands a disturbing likelihood of becoming American freedom's greatest enemy in the months ahead, surpassing whatever threat foreign terrorism poses.
In a few days, for instance, we'll experience very close and intensely partisan presidential balloting. There's reason to fear that the widespread use of touch screen voting machines, which leave no paper trail, could lead to pervasive "irregularities," and the second stolen election in four years.
Should a worst-case electoral scenario indeed transpire, thousands of our angry citizens would take to the streets to defend their precious democracy. The American people won't stand for another Florida 2000 outrage.
Would they be met with a fusillade of high-tech crowd control projectiles, all supposedly incapable of killing, along with more traditional tear gas, and flailed police batons?
And what can the Iraq war's growing peace movement expect as the situation there deteriorates into inevitable catastrophe?
Isn't it logical to think we'll see many more dead and wounded on our own streets in the period ahead, not in a context of purportedly out-of-control sports excitement, but as an authoritarian reaction to good citizens acting in First Amendment compliance with their right to redress official wrongs?
I came of age in the '60s, and Victoria Snelgrove's death immediately made me think of the routine police brutality and even riots (Chicago, 1968) that civil rights and peace activists had to contend with during that turbulent era.
As Sixties' musical icon John Fogerty observes in a new song entitled Deja Vu All Over Again, history is repeating itself, on several levels.
Street protest will soon become as necessary as it was more than 30 years ago.
I'm enormously saddened that the repression we encountered back then will likewise return, probably more savage than before, under a propagandized perception that it's "safe" and not really that bad.
Think of Victoria Snelgrove when you're told that manipulative falsehood.
Dennis Rahkonen of Superior, Wisc., has been writing commentary and verse for various progressive outlets since the '60s. He can be reached at dennisr (at) cp.duluth.mn.us.
This work is in the public domain