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."