The following piece by Amber Eastman Black appeared in the Northampton Media as a follow-up to the censored Ray Luc Levasseur talk last Thursday:
Levasseur Forum Inspires Police Protest
Participants and audience members at a Thursday night forum held at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass entitled “The Great Western Massachusetts Sedition Trial: Twenty Years Later” encountered satellite news trucks from across the region, bomb-sniffing dogs, and hundreds of members of law enforcement and their supporters standing vigil with protest signs emblazoned with slogans such as “UMass Supports Terrorism Recruitment.”
The dramatic scene climaxed a week of twists and turns in what was originally planned as the closing event of the UMass Libraries’ annual “Colloquium on Social Change” at which Ray Luc Levasseur was scheduled to speak.
Levasseur, one of of the Ohio 7, was a leader of the United Freedom Front, a radical group active in the Northeast in the 1970s and 80s. Levasseur served 18 years of a 45-year prison sentence for his role in a series of bombings which were described by Elizabeth Fink, one of last night’s panelists and an attorney for members of the Ohio 7, as “acts of sabotage.”
Fink differentiated sabotage from terrorism, which she said is legally defined as “random acts of violence against a civilian population.” Fink stated that “Terrorism never works; violence never works,” and remarked that acts committed by members of the UFF were “stupid.”
The focus of last night’s protests outside the event was the 1981 killing of New Jersey state trooper Philip Lamonaco by Thomas Manning, also a member of the UFF. Manning remains in prison for that crime, which he committed during a traffic stop. Levasseur was not on the scene of the trooper’s shooting, nor charged in connection with it.
The trooper’s widow, Donna Lamonaco, and law enforcement comrades in attendance maintain that Levasseur is a terrorist who should be held responsible for Manning’s death.
When police groups protested to Governor Deval Patrick and the UMass administration a week ago about Levasseur’s planned appearance, the UMass Libraries cancelled the event.
Levasseur had been scheduled to discuss the Springfield-based 1989 10-month sedition and racketeering trial in which he and other Ohio 7 members were defendants. Neither Levasseur nor his co-defendants were found guilty of any charges at that trial, in which Levasseur represented himself.
In response to protests from UMass alumni, students, faculty, and others who demanded that the University “honor academic freedom and free speech,” several other campus departments stepped into the breach to sponsor and relocate the event.
Shortly before the program was scheduled to occur, the U.S. Parole Commission reversed course from its earlier decision to grant Levasseur permission to attend, and forbade him to travel to Massachusetts for the event—a change of position which Massachusetts Fraternal Order of Police, through President Arnie Larson, took credit for having influenced.
Event organizers responded by assembling a panel that included attorneys from the sedition trial, two members of the trial’s jury, and Levasseur’s former wife, Pat Levasseur, who in the 1980’s served three years and four months of a five-year sentence for harboring her husband as a fugitive.
Pat Levasseur described how the milieu in which she came of age influenced her. She described growing up in a town with a racist climate within a patriotic family that included a father who had been a World War II veteran and a brother who had served in Vietnam. She recounted being deeply affected by the killings of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, and Kent State students, and believing that the U.S. government was lying “when Nixon told us the war [in Vietnam] was over and it wasn’t.”
“We got angry,” she said, “and we got educated.” According to Pat Levasser, this anger led members of the UFF to carry out illegal acts intended to protest and disrupt U.S. government and corporate support for both apartheid in South Africa and corrupt governments in Latin America.
Pat Levasseur acknowledged there were “lots of mistakes in judgment. You could fill a book or two at least.” When asked specifically about whether she felt sympathy for the family of the NJ state trooper, she replied, “Of course. It’s tragic. I’m sorry it happened.”
In the wake of widespread and volatile on-line discussions and irate and hostile calls and emails reportedly received by UMass event organizers in the week leading up to the program, the more than 200 audience members listened attentively and remained civil throughout the 90-minute event. People who had hoped to hear the talk were turned away peacefully when the auditorium reached capacity as the event neared starting time.
During her statements, sedition trial juror Barbara Hubbard (a remedial reading teacher in South Hadley at the time she was selected), recalled the judge giving instructions to her group. “Do not do violence to your conscience,” she quoted him as saying.
Both groups—those who protested the event as a travesty and an insult, and those who endorsed it on grounds of free speech and academic freedom—seemed to want to stake claim to this principle at Thursday night’s forum.