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When do protests cross the line? It can depend on your politics.

The boundaries of political protest will always be tested — in court and in the court of public opinion.

Boston Police Sergeant Shana Cottone shouted a question to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu as she left her home for City Hall. Cottone, who has spearheaded the resistance to Wu’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees, is currently on leave during an internal affairs probe.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Another day, another politician targeted for protest. Do they deserve it or not?

The answer often depends on our politics.

Early one September morning, a group of protestors dragged a pink sailboat with “Climate Emergency” painted on its side to the front of Governor Charlie Baker’s home, chained themselves to it, and blocked traffic. After they refused to move, seven people were ultimately arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and trespassing. Sunrise Movement Boston — one of the organizing groups behind the protest — had also endorsed then-mayoral candidate Michelle Wu. So, back in October, I asked the Wu campaign what the candidate thought about it. In a statement issued by a spokeswoman, Wu said then: “People want to see action. Many people, particularly young people, are scared about the future and don’t see elected leaders acting with the urgency this crisis demands.” She expressed no concerns about the location chosen by the protestors.

Now that Wu is mayor, loud, obnoxious protestors have been showing up early in the morning with bullhorns at her house, raising fresh questions about the parameters of protest, which she described as full of “hate.” From a legal standpoint, it’s an easy call, said Harvey Silverglate, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment cases. “Yes, loud demonstrations early in the morning in a residential neighborhood do cross a line, and the demonstrators are subject to arrest. The law on this is very clear,” he told me via e-mail. “With regard to any public demonstrations, tactics are governed by what the Supreme Court has dubbed considerations of ‘time, place, and manner.’ ”


Legally, “the rules that we set for people with whom we agree must be the same for those with whom we disagree,” e-mailed Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. But from a political perspective, it’s another matter, especially in these polarized times.


Wu didn’t have a problem with protesters who said they were putting Baker under a “citizen’s arrest for his repeated crimes against environmental justice communities and climate inaction.” Of course, some will argue that’s not as crude or outrageous as protestors who yelled “Happy Birthday, Hitler” on Wu’s birthday, to express their objections to the vaccine mandates she put in place for city workers and some city businesses. The Hitler comparison is extreme to the point of absurdity, and Wu had to explain it to her young sons. Racist commentary, also aimed at Wu, is always despicable. But incivility, generally, is in the eye of the beholder, and often depends on ideology.

Climate activists taking to the waters around Senator Joe Manchin’s houseboat? For progressives, that’s an amusing invasion of the West Virginia lawmaker’s comfort and privacy, wholly justified by his refusal to yield to their legislative agenda. The same goes for chasing Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema into a public bathroom. Meanwhile, who didn’t smile when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked in June 2018 to leave a Lexington, Va., restaurant by an owner who didn’t like her boss? Answer: the droves of Donald Trump supporters who showed up to protest Sanders’ treatment. Yet how many Democrats graciously thought that raucous MAGA crowd was only exercising its First Amendment rights?


It has become a cliché to state, but the country was founded on protest, and we have spent a lot of time since then litigating what is acceptable. In a free society, the boundaries will always be tested, in court and in the court of public opinion. I wouldn’t want the climate activists in front of my house. But I would be more unhappy about the screaming anti-vaxxers, not just because of the noise level, but because I don’t understand how people can willingly court death and serious illness for themselves and others rather than accept the science behind vaccination.

With that, my ideological bias is showing. Just like Wu’s, when she defended the protestors chained to the sailboat in front of Baker’s house. Like Baker, she will probably have to resign herself to the continued presence of protestors in her neighborhood. For one day, they relocated to the home of City Council President Ed Flynn. But on Wednesday morning they were back, with cowbells, whistles, and drums, after Boston police told them they couldn’t use megaphones.

Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.