It was martial law in Watertown

April 18, 2014

The mainstream media coverage of this year's Boston Marathon is sure to remember the horror and fear of last year, when two explosions ripped through the crowd gathered at the finish line, killing three people and injuring more than 100. They will honor the heartening and courageous response of ordinary people--those who rushed toward the carnage to help the wounded and calm the panicked, those who opened their doors to anyone who wanted to gather, those who flocked to hospitals to donate blood.

But there's another side to the Marathon bombings that won't get the same coverage--the frantic and racist crackdown by authorities that reached a high point on April 19, when heavily armed law enforcement locked down Watertown, Mass., west of Boston during a manhunt for bombing suspects. Gabe Camacho is an activist and a resident of Watertown, who was caught in the lockdown. He talked to Sofia Arias about the horror and fear of another kind on the streets of Watertown that day.

CAN YOU describe what the lockdown of Watertown was like for you last year?

IT STARTED early morning on April 19. We received a call at around 2 a.m. The phone rang, and I wouldn't answer, but I thought maybe it was a relative who was sick. It was an automated message from the Watertown Police Department, saying that there was an incident taking place in our neighborhood, and that we should not open the doors for anyone. And that was it.

I looked outside, and I noticed that there was a police cruiser and two Watertown police officers blocking the road on the corner of Boylston and Nichols Avenue. That's the corner where my wife and I live. I didn't make much of it and went back to sleep, and didn't get up till about 6 a.m.

As we were making coffee, we noticed that there was a lot of police activity all around the neighborhood. I sat on my front porch on the second floor and had my coffee. I had my SLR camera with me, and I started taking pictures as armored vehicles started coming from the west on Boylston Street to the corner of Nichols and Boylston. This went on for hours.

Gabe Camacho took this photo of militarized police besieging the house across from him
Gabe Camacho took this photo of militarized police besieging the house across from him

There were a number of vehicles, many of them SWAT teams, from all over Massachusetts, including Cape Cod. At one point, the military police showed up. At another point, the National Guard showed up. These were soldiers in army fatigues with high-powered rifles. The SWAT teams also had high powered rifles. The neighborhood was being surrounded by helicopters, flying low. There were SWAT teams in our neighbors' backyard and in our backyard. At no time was permission asked to enter our property.

Of course, we put on the TV, the radio and the Internet. We were trying to get every source of information about what exactly was going on. We heard this term "shelter in place" that the governor had asked for. I had never heard of that term before. At one point during the day, we heard that this was voluntary. But you know, quite frankly, when you see a militarized police force--with high-powered rifles, SWAT teams and all kinds of military equipment--that's not a voluntary request. We were under house arrest. That's exactly what it was.

As the afternoon progressed, the SWAT teams and the military surrounded three houses right across the street from where I live. They instructed the residents of one house, through a megaphone, to evacuate and come out with their hands up. My neighbors came out of the house with their hands up. They were asked to turn around with their hands up. And then they were placed in handcuffs--those plastic handcuffs used mostly during crowd-control events.

This happened in three consecutive houses across the street from me--the military and the police and the SWAT teams would surround the house, aiming high-powered rifles at it. They would put an armored vehicle right in front of the house, with a sniper on top, pointing right toward the second-floor window. And then, through a megaphone, people were told to come out of the house.

Some of those who were arrested were told to sit on my lawn, and they were interrogated for approximately two hours. I have no idea if they were read their Miranda rights. I have no idea if they were ever told they were under arrest. But they were certainly under arrest, and they were being interrogated.

I took pictures of these events as they went on. Finally, around 6 p.m., we heard that the so-called "shelter in place" was lifted. It was a relief because by that time, the military vehicles and SWAT teams had already gone, and we were out in the streets. Some of us were talking to our neighbors, some of us were trying to find out what happened to those who were under arrest. Then we heard shots being fired in the distance. We learned later that this was when the second suspect was found hiding in a boat, about a quarter-mile from where I live.

What's interesting, after all is said and done, is that a year later, we found out it wasn't the lockdown that caught the suspect. Quite the opposite--it was when the lockdown was lifted that a neighbor found some blood on his property and called 911. We have a good police department in Watertown. I'm sure that if left to their own normal chain of command and operations, they would have found this individual as a suspect. We didn't need this overwhelmingly militarized state of siege.

I work for the American Friends Service Committee. I mostly do immigrant rights work in the U.S., but I also travel internationally as a human rights observer. I've been to war zones in Colombia and in Palestine. I know what occupation looks like. I know what a state of siege and a coup looks like. I've traveled quite extensively in Guatemala, including living in Santa Cruz del Quiché in Guatemala in 1979. I've been to Ecuador a week after the attempted coup against [President Rafael] Correa [in 2010].

So I know what these things look like. When I saw what was happening in my neighborhood, I really thought it was martial law. What I'd like to know is: First, why are our police becoming increasingly militarized? Second, how did they get this military hardware? Third, by what constitutional authority were we placed under house arrest for 18 hours?

I think everybody should be alarmed that this was a trial run for martial law. That's exactly what I told my wife as these events transpired before our eyes--that this is a practice for martial law. This didn't just come out of the blue. Somebody must have had plans. Somebody must have said, "Okay, we have the hardware, we have the army with us, we have the helicopters. Let's try this out in Watertown. Let's use going after the bombing suspect as an excuse to see how this works."

Unfortunately, you know, many of my neighbors were traumatized and thought what was happening was for their own safety. I can't blame people for thinking that, because the media were reporting all these crazy unsubstantiated theories about what was happening.

AT THE time, there was a reluctance to speak out against the supposedly "voluntary" shelter-in-place order--which was in fact, as you said, an exercise in martial law in Boston and particularly in Watertown. Some of these stories began to come out much later--things you hear about with populations that are under military occupation. There have been stories of people who still suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the raids. What is your general sense of the discussions that have taken place in Watertown?

I THINK the discussions have definitely had a more critical tone and aspect to them. At one point, the ACLU tried to convene a meeting here in Watertown, shortly after the events--and one of the liberal-to-progressive groups in Watertown said that perhaps the timing wasn't right yet. I think that says a lot. But as the months went on, meetings have been held.

I should tell you one thing that I learned about secondhand. The school district invited the Israeli Trauma Unit to talk to school kids about what happened. This is outrageous, because if you know anything about Watertown, there are quite a number of Muslims and Arabs who live here. I have a friend who is Palestinian and who lived in Watertown at the time, and he told me: "This is outrageous, I'm not going to have my kids listen to the oppressor."

It's unfortunate, because this is the way people get re-traumatized. He's seen those armored vehicles, those militarized police, come into civilian areas and take people out of their homes--exactly how it happened at the corner of Boylston and Nichols Avenue. It was quite inappropriate and outrageous for the Watertown school district to do that.

Afterward, the National Lawyers Guild started having some dialogue with community members in Watertown about what occurred. These meetings are definitely taking a much more critical tone about what happened. Still, there's a lot of confusion--I'm not all clear on all the facts. I think there needs to be some litigation in order to get to the bottom of this.

But I think we're beginning to, as a community, open our eyes and see that there was something wrong with what happened--that perhaps the Constitution was trampled on, perhaps our rights were violated. On the one-year anniversary of the bombing, our thoughts should be with the victims and their families and the survivors, but we should also think that there are constitutional guarantees--there's the Fourth Amendment. These things are also worth fighting for and being concerned about.

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