Prisoners of politics

By RICK WORMWOOD  |  September 14, 2006

Levasseur and fellow organizer Jonah Fertig say they told the USM officials they worked with about Manning’s background, including the murder of the state trooper and Manning’s convictions for bombing military and corporate offices as a means of protesting apartheid and violent American involvement in Central American politics.

“We kept telling them this was going to be hot,” Levasseur says.

Michael Shaughnessy, chairman of USM’s art department, said the university had researched Manning’s background in advance of the show, and had no answer when asked how the university’s preparations missed the possibility of such a firestorm of response.

Robert Schwartz, a former South Portland police chief who is now the executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, says Pattenaude “made the right decision,” explaining, “we in law enforcement felt very strongly that this was an issue not of a political prisoner, but an issue of a convicted cop-killer and convicted bombers that they were making heroes of.”

Schwartz, a USM graduate, says his understanding of the term “political prisoner is someone like Nelson Mandela,” whom Schwartz says was a “dissident” in his home country, not a “homegrown terrorist,” as he terms Manning.

It is an ironic comparison: Manning’s actions opposing apartheid in the US landed him on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. Mandela was aggressively pursued by South African police and ultimately imprisoned for plotting the violent overthrow of the South African government.

A statement released Tuesday by the Portland Victory Gardens Project said the university did not notify the group of the premature closing of the exhibit, and called it an example of how “the power of the police . . . is being used . . . to limit free speech and opinions that the government does not approve of.”

The decision to close the exhibit drew criticism from around Maine’s civil-rights and art communities, including public statements by the chairman of the Maine Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who called university leaders “spineless,” and Peaks Island photographer Arthur Fink, who said “hanging the work of Thomas Manning was not an endorsement of his views or of his past behavior. . . . [but] an affirmation that . . . there was something of value in his art.”

Levasseur says he is already fielding offers from several Portland venues willing to display Manning’s work, and the Victory Gardens group is planning a “moving art show” this Friday, starting at 5 pm, with supporters carrying Manning’s paintings from USM’s Woodbury Campus Center up Forest Avenue to Congress Square, where Levasseur and other activists will speak, and where members of the public can also comment on the work and the circumstances.

Jeff Inglis contributed to this report

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Rick Wormwood: rickwormwood@excite.com

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