Updated 5 pm, Tuesday
Tisbury Police quickly deflated a Thursday morning protest by a conservative pro-business organization against the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), at the busy Five Corners intersection in Vineyard Haven. The protest featured a 25-foot inflatable rat. One young man was arrested.
Just after 8 am, August 25 five members of Americans for Job Security (AJS), began inflating a large brown rat with glowering teeth on the wide expanse of brick pavement in front of the Vineyard Haven post office.
Stephen DeMaura, president of AJS, told The Times the demonstration was to protest a NLRB rules change made without Congressional approval that would give unions an unfair advantage when attempting to organize non-union business through an expedited election process.
The rat was intended to refer to a May NLRB decision in which the board said union use of an inflatable rat when demonstrating against an employer or secondary business is not picketing or coercive and does not violate U.S. labor law, according to an AJS flyer.
The demonstration and rat barely got off the ground when police arrived. Police told the men they could not demonstrate on federal property and that the large rat swaying in the breeze and blocking the sidewalk represented a safety hazard in the congested intersection.
Mr. DeMaura insisted he had spoken to a woman he could not identify in Tisbury town hall who said people often demonstrated at Five Corners.
The conversation went back and forth. Tisbury Police Chief Dan Hanavan explained that the rat had to come down. Members of the group asked why and insisted they had a right to demonstrate. One young man, a member of the group, filmed the entire confrontation with a small video recorder.
A visibly exasperated Chief Hanavan spoke directly to Mr. DeMaura. “I’m telling you to take it down, yes or no,” he said.
Mr. DeMaura began to speak, but Chief Hanavan cut him off. “Yes or no?” he said again.
Mr. DeMaura said the town had said he could demonstrate at Five Corners.
Chief Hanavan told him he was trespassing on federal property. “Yes or no?” he asked again.
“Yes sir, but only because you ask,” Mr. DeMaura said.
There was more conversation. One young man claimed it was a violation of his First Amendment right.
Chief Hanavan turned to the young man videotaping and ordered officer Dustin Shaw to arrest him for recording audio without permission and disturbing the peace.
The young men began deflating the rat.
The young man police arrested was charged with one count of unlawful wiretapping “to wit audio and video camera recording,” and disorderly conduct, according to court records.
The arraignment was not held but continued at the request of the defendant’s attorney and with the consent of the assistant district attorney, until Thursday, September 1.
The young man told The Times he was a volunteer who had taken advantage of the opportunity to visit Martha’s Vineyard and was only doing what he was asked to do.
Mr. DeMaura packed up his van and prepared to find the Dukes County courthouse with directions provided by a State Police trooper who had arrived because the incident took place on federal property. He planned to free his co-worker, and he said he had hoped to demonstrate peacefully against NLRB policy and had not expected any trouble based on his conversation with a town hall staffer.
“We are a conservative, economic issue advocacy group,” Mr. DeMaura said. “We have done demonstrations like this in front of the National Labor Relations Board with no real problem. I was surprised to find trouble here. It’s really a shame they didn’t give us a chance to voice our opinion.”
Chief Hanavan told The Times that the issue was not the demonstration but the location at one of the town’s most dangerous intersections and on federal property without permission. “If the guy is in the right spot, he can fly his mouse all he wants,” he said.
On August 26, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled that the Constitution protects the right to videotape police officers making an arrest.
The decision began with the 2007 arrest by Boston Police of Simon Glik on Boston Common for violating the state’s wiretap law,. Mr. Glik saw three officers arresting a young man and, concerned that the officers might be using excessive force, took out his cell phone and started videotaping the arrest.
The charge was dropped, but Mr. Glik filed a lawsuit, claiming his free speech rights had been violated. The officers claimed they were immune from the suit because they were acting in their official capacity.
A federal trial court and the First Circuit ruled in favor of Mr. Glik.
No fixed objects
Police have acted in the past to remove demonstrators from the bricked area near the post office. In July 2008, the Vineyard Peace Council (VPC) organized a demonstration against the war in Iraq.
VPC set up an exhibit of combat boots and banners on stands on the red brick area that lies between the Vineyard Haven Post Office parking lot and the sidewalk at Five Corners.
Former Tisbury Police Chief John Cashin responded to a call from a vendor located near Five Corners, who questioned whether it was legal for the group to hold a demonstration on federally owned property. Postmaster Joe Massua said that postal regulations did not allow that type of display on the property.
However, moving the exhibit off the red brick area owned by the post office to the public sidewalk meant blocking access for pedestrians, which is not allowed by the town.
The incident was resolved when Gina Stanley, the owner of the ArtCliff Diner, offered an alternative solution and allowed the demonstrators to move their protest and display to her restaurant’s parking lot.
Post office regulations prohibit any stationary objects, which in that case included black lace-up military style boots and poles with weights on them to support banners.
The rules governing conduct on postal property in the Code of Federal Regulations (39CFR232.1), found online at www.gpoaccess.gov, prohibit setting up tables, chairs, freestanding signs or posters, structures, or furniture of any type in postal lobbies or on postal walkways, steps, plazas, lawns or landscaped areas, driveways, parking lots, or other exterior spaces.
In addition, leafleting, distributing literature, picketing, and demonstrating by members of the public are prohibited in lobbies and other interior areas of postal buildings open to the public.
In a Letter to The Times published August 7, 2008, the Tisbury planning board stated that, “Five Corners, for all its faults, is nevertheless the ‘Speakers Corner’ for the Island. If anyone wants to communicate their interest or opinions to the rest of the community, this is the place to do it.”
The planning board also indicated the possibility of acquiring the “corner plaza.”
Tisbury voters at annual town meeting on April 13 approved an article that would use $10,000 from the remaining unexpended funds appropriated at the 2009 annual town meeting to acquire two parcels of land at the Vineyard Haven Post Office on Lagoon Pond Road, which include the bricked area at the corner.
Fred LaPiana, Public Works superintendent, said Thursday in a telephone call with The Times that surveying is complete and the next step is negotiation with the U.S. Postal Service to purchase the property. The parcels will be used to extend the town’s bike path system and to put utility lines underground, he said.