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Levasseur's Latest Blowup

Twenty years after his sedition trial, another explosion ignites around bomber Ray Luc Levasseur.

Comments (5)
Thursday, November 19, 2009

The firestorm surrounding a scheduled speech by radical Ray Luc Levasseur at UMass last week just kept getting bigger and bigger.

It was a storm of voices: the voice of Levasseur, a mill worker and Vietnam vet from Maine, who in response to what he saw as killings of people by workplace conditions at home and military violence in Asia formed a violent revolutionary group in the 1970s; the voices of police, furious that the leader of a group that killed a New Jersey state trooper decades ago was being given talking time; the voices of free speech advocates outraged that the appearance was cancelled for political reasons; the voice of university officials in siege mode.

Even, perhaps, the voice of a hopeful office seeker consolidating his constituency

*

The man invited to speak November 12 at the Fifth Annual Colloquium on Social Change, organized by the UMass Amherst Libraries' Department of Special Collections and University Archives, is not a stranger to Western Massachusetts. Levasseur was acquitted of sedition charges here after a highly publicized trial in federal court in Springfield in 1989. He and the others in his organization, the United Freedom Front, decided in light of their experience with war, racism and other social ills that violence was the only way accomplish what Thoreau called stopping the machine.

In protest against the U.S.'s support for apartheid in South Africa and death squads in Central America, they engaged in bank robberies and bombings of government and corporate sites in the Northeast. They always called in warnings, but when they bombed the Suffolk County courthouse in Boston in 1976, a worker lost a leg and 21 other people were injured. For his involvement in the bombings, Levasseur served 18 years in prison.

Members of the UFF were also charged with attempting to murder a state police officer in Massachusetts. And one killed a New Jersey state policeman. (Levasseur was not on the scene and was not charged in the murder; UFF member Tom Manning, who was charged and pleaded self-defense, was sentenced to life in prison.)

Police have long memories for cop killers. They barraged UMass with phone calls and letters. They made their feelings known to Chris Donelan of Orange, state rep for the Second Franklin District and vice-chair of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. Donelan, a former policeman, narcotics detective and probation officer, just happens to be running for sheriff of Franklin County and has already received an endorsement from the Police Chiefs of Franklin County.

Donelan demanded that UMass officials cancel the speech. Asked if his action had anything to do with his campaign for sheriff, Donelan said, "No. My intervention was two-pronged. First and foremost, I was contacted by a constituent." And because of his position on the Public Safety and Homeland Security committee, he said, "police groups are constantly in touch with me."

The Advocate reminded Donelan that Levasseur had been acquitted of sedition and that he did not kill the state policeman.

"No," he replied, "but this is a guy who's a convicted domestic terrorist. He bombed courthouses. He robbed banks. He gave safe haven to the people who did [kill the state trooper] until they were caught. That's splitting hairs as far as I'm concerned."

After the cops, Donelan, Gov. Deval Patrick and others had scolded UMass for inviting a "terrorist" to speak, UMass officials decided they had no choice but to cancel the appearance. Then tensions heightened as free speech advocates, including academics from other institutions, protested vehemently.

A cohort of faculty from the Social Thought and Political Economy program renewed the invitation to Levasseur to speak, this time at the Isenberg School of Management, on the same evening as his originally scheduled appearance. They were supported by the Rosenberg Fund for Children, Amherst's Food for Thought Books, Vermont Action for Political Prisoners and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities.

*

The second invitation infuriated the police more, if possible, than the first one had. A plan to come to the meeting and protest in force, bringing Donna Lamonaco, the widow of the New Jersey state policeman, solidified; carpools were organized. Those in favor of the appearance turned up the heat from their side; the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Association of University Professors, the National Coalition Against Censorship and renowned historian Howard Zinn joined the fray.

Levasseur is still on parole after serving 18 years of a 45-year sentence. Before he was due to leave his home in Maine and go to Amherst for the controversial appearance, the U.S. Parole Commission, lobbied by the police, refused him permission to travel to UMass.

Even without him, the meeting went on. His former wife (and ex-UFF member) Pat Levasseur attended to speak and answer questions, flanked by two defense lawyers and a juror from the Springfield trial. Protesters stood outside the School of Management holding signs with slogans like "UMass supports terrorism recruitment."

The incident has been a showcase for free speech issues and a crucible for arguments on both sides of the question of whether violence is justified for the purpose of protesting injustices that may amount to violence in themselves. Besides planning the actions that made him a wanted criminal, Levasseur worked as a union organizer, anti-war activist and organizer of literacy and tenants' rights programs. Yet the presence of Lamonaco's widow at the UMass event was a reminder that violence is a cycle often leading to grievous unintended consequences.

One victim, however, disagreed with those who thought Levasseur should not have his time at the podium. Edmund Narine, now 72, is the man who lost his leg in the Boston courthouse bombing.

"I think the public can learn from someone who's carried out these sorts of heinous acts," Narine told the Boston Globe. "It's important for us to hear why they did it, what motivated them."

Comments (5)
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Patrick is a disgrace to the commonwealth for attempting to excerszise prior restraint to stifle not just Levasseur's right to freedom of speech (which cannot be abridged in any citizen by virtue of being on parole), but the massive disservice to the UMass community by denying all a chance to learn what motivates such individuals to violence, as well as his frontal attack on academic freedom. Governor Patrick is the bigger threat here, than Levasseur ever was, and certainly should have known better being an attorney sworn to uphold the rule of law. I know there are campaigns afoot to file formal complaints with the bar association to censure him, and I certainly look forward to the day he loses his election. It sadly makes me pine for the days of governors that actually stood on principle, instead of wavering in the wind like a coward. Duakakis, where are you now that we need you?
Posted by Greg on 11.18.09 at 11:47
The debate about free speech obscures a deeper layer. To twist a phrase the introduction of deeply flawed actors into great cases is a purposeful attempt to make bad law. The UFF are one of the worst representatives of radical left wing dissent imaginable. They engaged in some of the most reckless, ill conceived adventurism of the era. In fact, their actions could not have been more perfectly crafted to discredit by association the rest of the left, and give credibility to the argument for weakening constitutional protections. Their role was to disrupt and divide, and that legacy continues today, as evidenced by the comments appended to the various news articles and blog posts. At a time in this country when many leftists talk of the rebirth of fascism, you would think that people who call themselves left or leftish would be trying to reach out to the undecided middle, the people around them everyday, working to counteract any right wing populism. You would think they would be interested in encouraging a mass movement for social change, etc., etc. But noooo, instead they seem to happily embrace polarizing postures, lending their support to the worst faces of social change. It is worth noting that, at the time, the UFF was considered by some people within the left to be a creation of police agents themselves. They were seen as dangerous gangs, consisting of a combination of professional agent provocateurs and manipulated dupes, organized under a government program referred to colloquially as Cointelpro, or counter intelligence program. It is believed that groups such as these were infiltrated into the left wing movement for the reasons stated above. At the very least, the overwhelming probability of this having occurred should be obvious to any honest historian of the left or the right, who studies history and tactics, going back to Clausewitz, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, etc., etc. Its important to try and make a distinction between some of the earlier groups, such as the original Black Panthers or American Indian activists. Whatever personal pathologies they had, whatever mistakes they made, and whatever directions they eventually went in, it is clear that, for the most part, they were well intentioned in their actions, and honest about their political beliefs. By the time the late 60s rolled around, however, infiltration and disruption were the norm. By 1975, the radical lefts political landscape was littered with the corpses of burnt out groups, political cults, false leaders, and wrecked dreams. The air was thick with desperation and frustration. Unfortunately, to ascribe everything to Cointelpro ignores another part of the reality. Too many people are philosophically attracted to this form of ultra militancy...the young, the macho, the immature, the hopeless, the rightfully frustrated, those with nowhere else to turn, and even sometimes the mentally ill. They naturally gravitate to these types of groups and actions, and in turn are often manipulated by more sophisticated actors, whether simply flawed prophets, power tripping gurus, or genuine agent provocateurs. Most often some murky, toxic stew of all three. It also does not explain the numbers of leftists that refuse to exercise any discrimination, or do any deeper research, into those they defend as legitimate, empowering the very repression that is visited upon them. It would seem like it would be the calling of any person who calls themselves progressive to offer vocal opposition and a distinct alternative to this kind of political infantilism, which so obviously plays into the hands of the system they claim to be working to change. I have a feeling that this post will be deleted. I hope not. I do understand it is a very complex situation, I barely scratched the surface, I was not there, and I do not purport to have anything up on the people that were, on any side of the case. I just felt like this part of the picture was not out there, and needed to be.
Posted by Nonmaleficence on 11.18.09 at 14:51
Free speech allows the convicted criminals the right to speak, write books, etc. However, the public has the right to deny that criminal the ability to conduct his free speech at a State University. Let him speak in Maine, not UMASS.
Posted by Jerry on 11.18.09 at 19:35
Nonmaleficence - great post. I agree with Jerry as well. Over and over and over again, people incorrectly say this is a free speech issue. These events affirm the power of free speech, they don't show its downfall. You can say anything you want online, to a friend, on your front lawn, or on a street corner. No one has the right to be invited to speak in front of a student body. And per usual, the advocate writing staff writes a piece basically defending his actions at worst... claiming they are morally ambiguous at best. They are so hip.
Posted by Joe on 11.19.09 at 9:39
While I agree with Nonmaleficence on the topic that there are far better examples of legal and legitimate leftist thought in practice today, and I appreciate the historical perpspective of the times in which the UFF operated within, I have to disagree with his conclusions. First, the point of his speaking was neither to promote a leftist point of view, nor to attempt to prosletyze the student community. It was simply to allow students to probe into the mind of an individual (as much as he was willing) who adopted a militant position against the status quo of the illegal actions of our government at the time. Secondly, the point that is failing to be properly addressed, is the ability of the academic community to excerzise what is traditionally called academic freedom, insulated against the wishes/prejudices/hidden agendas of those in power at the state and national level at the time. The actions of Patrick in concert with those of the probation board (I've filed a FOIA for the truth to surface), are excersizing prior restraint in attempting to stifle the freedom that academia needs in order to present a balanced and unbiased viewpoint. I find this especially ironic in light of Deval's past as an assistant attorney general of the US civil rights division, what a twoface!
Posted by Greg on 11.23.09 at 7:05
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