Anti-Protest Move Ignites, er, Protest

Patriotism rampant: City's zeal to support Gulf war effort backfires . . . a letter from Medford, Mass.

CITY officials of this close-knit community north of Boston find themselves in the midst of an unexpected battle over civil disobedience. Tensions have been high here ever since the Medford City Council passed what was originally meant as a simple statement of support for the American troops in the Gulf. It was only after the City Council decided to add a second part to the resolution that things got a tad out of hand.

That was one Tuesday night when City Councillor Fran Giordano proposed that all government benefits - like student loans, housing subsidies, and welfare payments - should be withheld from peace protesters who break the law.

Mr. Giordano suggested that a resolution be sent to the Massachusetts congressional delegation recommending national legislation. The resolution was quietly approved by a City Council vote of 5 to 2 last month.

Two weeks later, several peace demonstrators descended on the City Council to protest the resolution. Members of the Mystic Valley Peace Action Group passed out copies of the United States Bill of Rights.

Tufts University students from the Tufts Initiative for Peace and Justice were also present. The demonstrators, saying the resolution was unfair and a violation of the constitutional right to protest, asked the City Council to rescind the resolution. Their request was refused.

The outcry came as a surprise to some residents of this middle-class suburban city of 58,000. Medford, a New England community rich in history, was founded in 1630. Next year it will commemorate its 1892 designation as a city.

Medford early became a major north-south route for travelers. City histories tell of Paul Revere's famous ride through the community to points north and west on April 18, 1775.

In the 1800s, Medford was well-known for its shipbuilding industry along the Mystic River. Best known these days as the site of Tufts University, the city also is home to a large Italian community.

Residents say Medford has about as much military spirit as any other typical community.

But some here feel Councillor Giordano got carried away with the feeling of patriotism.

Giordano believes that people arrested for ``illegal protesting'' - those who destroy property, or engage in disorderly conduct - must pay for the consequences. He cites a major peace demonstration Jan. 17, the day after the start of the Gulf war, in which some 2,500 protesters blocked many parts of downtown Boston during rush hour. There were a few minor scuffles with police.

Giordano says such protests - which require the calling out of extra police patrolmen on overtime pay - cost the taxpayers money that could be used for other things such as AIDS research and programs for the poor and elderly.

But not everyone agrees with the City Council resolution - particularly the only two members of the seven-member council who voted against the resolution, both of whom are war veterans.

Councillor James Harte, who runs his own Medford jewelry store, served in the Korean War. He says he voted against the resolution because he simply felt it was not an appropriate issue for the City Council. Mr. Harte and others note, for example, that all peace protests within Medford have been quiet and orderly. Besides, he asks, how can you attach the word ``illegal'' to protesting?

Councillor Alfred Pompeo, who was a World War II prisoner of war, says he voted against the resolution because he believes protesting is a First Amendment privilege.

He adds that the resolution doesn't reflect the kind freedom he fought for.

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