On Thursday morning, William Connolly joined the group of protesters who blocked Boston-bound traffic on Interstate 93, chaining themselves to heavy barrels spread across the highway and ignoring pleas to move. It was not the first time he has played a prominent role in a public disruption.
Three years ago, Connolly, part of a large group that tried to shout down speakers at a Tea Party rally on the Boston Common, attempted to throw a vial that appeared to be filled with blood at a speaker, according to a police report. Police prevented him from throwing the vial, and arrested him for disturbing a public assembly. His arrest caused his group “to become riotous,” police said.
Like Connolly, a 26-year-old from Hanson, the protesters who shut down the largest highway into the city on Thursday are well-versed in political activism. They comprise a diverse group of people in their 20s united by an aggressive support of progressive and radical causes. Many have ties to the Occupy Boston movement, police said.
Nearly 30 protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing, and resisting arrest. They have pleaded not guilty and been released.
On Friday, individual protesters declined to discuss what they hoped to accomplish by shutting down the highway at the height of the morning commute. But in a statement, the group said it had acted in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which in recent weeks has rallied against the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers.
“Police in Ferguson are not bad apples — the whole system, Boston included, is rotten to the core,” they wrote, in a reference to Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
In the statement, provided to the Globe by protesters who were arrested, the group described themselves as “a non-black group of Pan-Asians, Latinos, and white people, some of whom are queer and transgender.”
“We hold ourselves accountable, as non-black people, to turn up and disrupt business as usual,” they wrote. “Today, our nonviolent direct action is a manifestation of our long-term commitment to confronting our nation’s racist power structure.”
Police said the demonstrations in Milton and Medford were well organized and obviously coordinated. However, police said, the Medford protesters did not appear to be well acquainted. The human chain they formed with pipe and fasteners is a common protest technique known as a “sleeping dragon,” they said.
There was apparently no discussion on social media about the protests beforehand, and police said they had no advance warning.
Another protester arrested in Milton, 24-year-old Nicole Sullivan of Somerville, was arrested in 2011 after she and others allegedly refused to obey police orders to disperse near the Occupy Boston protest site in downtown Boston, court records show. She was one of 141 people arrested that day. Charges against Sullivan were later dropped and she paid a $50 civil fine, court records show.
In Jamaica Plain, the father of one of the protesters, 28-year-old Noah McKenna, described his son as someone who has a strong sense of social justice and is trying to do the right thing.
“I want him to be safe. I want him to not hurt people, and to be peaceful,” Tim McKenna said from the front door of his home. “I support him.”
Tim McKenna said he did not know much about the protest. His son grew up in an activist neighborhood in Jamaica Plain, he said. Noah McKenna declined to speak to a reporter.
Amid public anger over the protests, two Massachusetts lawmakers have filed bills to toughen penalties for trespassing on state highways.
State Senator Richard Ross, a Wrentham Republican, is calling for violators to be fined at least $5,000 — instead of the current $50 — or face up to six months in jail.
Ross said he began to work on the bill last month after marchers tried to block highways downtown.
“You just can’t wander onto highways,” he said. “They endangered not only themselves, but hundreds of others.”
Colleen Garry, a Dracut Democrat, filed a bill that would make protesters liable for manslaughter or attempted murder in the event that a highway blockade led to a fatal accident.
“This is not about freedom of speech,” she said. “They can go to the State House, they can go to the Common. Anywhere that is safe or reasonable. The middle of the highway is not.”
Governor Charlie Baker expressed general support for the proposals.
“I think raising the stakes in terms of the penalties on that kind of protest is a good idea,” State House News Service quoted Baker as saying.
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