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OPINION

Who called the cops on the East Boston substation protesters?

The police response raises questions about disparate treatment of protesters, depending on the cause.

Six climate activists and community residents were arrested in East Boston on Jan. 17 while protesting the construction of a controversial electrical substation.Extinction Rebellion Boston

On July 4, about 100 members of a white supremacist group called the Patriot Front marched through downtown Boston and allegedly got into an altercation with one person who crossed paths with them. There were no arrests and police said they had no advance knowledge of that group’s protest plan.

Compare that situation to what happened on Jan. 17, when a dozen environmental activists started arriving at the East Boston site where the utility, Eversource, is moving forward with plans to build a controversial electrical substation. Shortly before 7 a.m., as protesters were still arriving, police assigned to the Boston Emergency Deployment Team — a special unit organized to respond to terrorist attacks among other serious emergencies — showed up and quickly arrested six of them. Their hands were secured behind their backs and they were transported downtown. Three were charged with trespassing and three were charged with disorderly conduct.

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According to the police report — shared with me by two of the protest participants — the arrests were made because some protesters were blocking a gate and ignored police requests to move across the street. One woman was also seen taking items out of a car, including a Kryptonite lock, which protesters use to attach themselves to fences and other objects. But the two protesters I met with said they were not blocking any entrance or gate and had no locks in their possession.

Alex DeFronzo, the executive director of the Piers Park Sailing Center, a nonprofit organization that teaches kids how to sail, said he was standing on the sidewalk and holding one end of a banner that said “No Eastie Substation.” Sandra Nijjar, the founder and director of the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen, said she was holding a poster that said “EFSB [Energy Facilities Siting Board] and Eversource have sentenced us, East Boston Community, to DEATH!!” Both DeFronzo and Nijjar said they were charged with disorderly conduct.

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Sandra Nijjar, left, the founder and director of the East Boston Community Soup Kitchen; and Alex DeFronzo, right, the executive director of the Piers Park Sailing Center, were arrested Jan. 17 while protesting against the construction of an electrical substation.Joan Vennochi/Globe staff

Protests that turn violent threaten the public and police. But this was a case of a protest barely underway, and the police response raises questions about disparate treatment of protesters, depending on the cause. Also, as state Senator Lydia Edwards, whose district includes East Boston, asked, “Who called the cops? Eversource?” According to the police report, four officers on patrol saw a group of people who appeared to be protesters and decided “to activate the Emergency Deployment Team.” An Eversource spokesperson said the company did not call police.

As reported by WBUR, the battle over this substation has been going on since 2014, when Eversource first proposed it as part of a larger energy project. The utility insists it’s safe and necessary to support an increased demand for electricity. But community activists question its need and argue that its location on lowlands near fuel tanks could create a dangerous situation.

Some of the state’s most powerful politicians have backed up those concerns. In February 2020, Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, along with other members of the state’s congressional delegation, asked the state office of energy and environmental affairs to reopen its determination of need inquiry. When Boston Mayor Michelle Wu was a city councilor and candidate for mayor, she called the substation “unnecessary, unjust, and dangerous.” As attorney general, now-Governor Maura Healey said there was “no justice” in the decision to approve the substation. But in November, during the waning days of the administration of former governor Charlie Baker, Eversource got the go-ahead it needed. The company was given a special waiver that allowed it to bypass the 14 remaining state and local permits needed for the project.

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“They [the Baker administration] did it on the way out,” said Edwards. While environmental advocates are appealing the waiver, Edwards said, “legally, that’s probably very hard to do, but morally, ethically ... there’s a hope that the court realizes this is unnecessary and a bad process.”

With construction set to begin on the site, activists from two groups, GreenRoots and Extinction Rebellion Boston, joined together for last week’s protest. In response to their demand that she stop the substation, Healey issued a statement that said, “Our administration is reviewing the situation and listening to the concerns raised by the community.”

Meanwhile, the swiftness of the police action shocked DeFronzo and Nijjar, who live in East Boston and are well-known for their commitment to community. Said DeFronzo: “The Boston police shouldn’t be dedicating resources to intimidating and harassing local people who have been fighting for a cause that has been ongoing for over eight years. A sincere concern for me is the disproportionate response in the way they handle groups like Patriot Front and white supremacist groups and groups like ours that are trying to protect the residents of our community.” Nijjar, who has partnered with police on many local community activities, said, “We were not doing anything wrong. We were just voicing our concerns about this electrical substation coming to our residential community.”

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Members a group bearing insignias of the white supremacist Patriot Front shoved Charles Murrell with metal shields during a march through Boston on Saturday, July 2, 2022.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

After several hours in holding cells, DeFronzo and Nijjar said they were taken, along with the others who were arrested, to East Boston District Court. With their legs shackled, they appeared before a judge who told them if they were not arrested again between then and April 3, the charges would be dismissed.

Do those arrests make you safer, while the white supremacists faced no charges — or does it just make Eversource happier?


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