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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Joan Vennochi

Kennedys would approve of protests

HOW STRANGE that the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway could be deemed inappropriate for protest.

Has Boston already forgotten Rose Kennedy’s three famous sons and their eloquent advocacy for civil disobedience?

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“The Constitution does not just protect those whose views we share; it also protects those with whose views we disagree,’’ said Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who leveraged formidable political power to get the Greenway named after his mother.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope,’’ declared Robert F. Kennedy, in an address at the University of Cape Town, in June 1966.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,’’ proclaimed President John F. Kennedy, in a 1962 speech at the White House.

Today, those words spoken by the Kennedy brothers sound terribly old-fashioned.

A country founded in the blood of brave revolutionaries can be inspired by dramatic efforts to overthrow brutal regimes. But, depending on political ideology, Americans are sometimes uncomfortable with protests at home, including the modern-day Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Boston, the birthplace of the American Revolution, has seen its share of demonstrations - from the original Tea Party and organized colonial protest to more recent anti-war and anti-busing protests. With that history comes a challenge to modern political leaders to strike a balance between public safety and public outrage.

In October 1979, some 200 demonstrators, angry after they were barred from holding an anti-busing rally at Boston City Hall, marched to the Mt. Vernon Street home of Mayor Kevin H. White. According to a UPI report, two were arrested for failure to disperse. But then, police cordoned off the street, and demonstrators were allowed to stay, as long as they didn’t cross police lines.

Times surely have changed when a mayor cares more about grass than grassroots activists. Mayor Thomas M. Menino sent that message when Boston police arrested 141 Occupy Boston protesters earlier this week. It was necessary, city officials said, to preserve public order. The mayor said he sympathized with Occupy Boston goals, but “civil disobedience will not be tolerated.’’ Fresh landscaping was also said to be a concern.

As the Greenway has struggled for an identity over recent years, critics often derided it as lifeless and dull. Despite pressures to energize the area, Menino refused to consider development that didn’t fit his vision. The arrests he ordered up are another illustration of how he sees the strip of grass that connects the financial district to the city’s harbor.

Tourists from nearby hotels and employees from adjacent office towers are welcome. Upscale produce vendors are fine. But people with a cause other than a pleasurable stroll are problems, especially if their cause challenges the economic status quo.

That probably wouldn’t surprise Robert F. Kennedy, who back in 1965 observed, “In many ways, Wall Street is closer to London than it is to Harlem, a few miles uptown.’’

Today, Wall Street is worlds removed not only from poor black neighborhoods but from neighborhoods that used to be launching pads for an upwardly mobile middle class. Now, Wall Street and its political brokers are trying to contain their anger. In Boston, they are trying to contain it to one strip of downtown grass.

Thrust into the spotlight, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, which oversees the area, seems torn between legacy and law enforcement. On Oct. 6, Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Conservancy, issued a statement saying that the Greenway is a public park, and available by law for the expression of free speech. But, citing Greenway guidelines, Brennan also noted that if a protest or other expression of free speech requires tables, chairs, tents, podiums, or sound, a city permit is required. “No one asked for permission. No one gave permission,’’ the statement said.

In updated statement issued on Oct. 11, Brennan said the Greenway Conservancy “continues to support the right to free speech’’ but also supports the decision by police not to let protesters expand to areas beyond Dewey Square.

Public safety matters. Some boundaries make sense. But the decision to move on demonstrators in the early morning hours and arrest scores does not, especially given the Kennedy name and all the family history that goes with it.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@Joan_Vennochi

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