Prisoners of politics

After organizing an exhibit to spark debate, USM closes it when the talk gets too tough
By RICK WORMWOOD  |  September 14, 2006

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MOVING OUT: Ray Luc Levasseur removes artwork by Thomas Manning, under the watchful eye of a USM police officer.

The giant sucking sound that all of Southern Maine heard coming from Forest Avenue last week was not some accidental draining of a huge milk tank at Oakhurst Dairy, but the integrity and independence of Maine’s largest public university going down the toilet. But that’s only true if people hold them to account.

On Friday, the University of Southern Maine ordered the dismantling of an art exhibit by a self-described political prisoner seven days into its scheduled seven-week run. The show, which had been planned for five months, comprised paintings by Thomas William Manning, serving a life sentence in federal prison for, among other things, his role in a 1981 shootout that left a New Jersey state trooper dead. The exhibit was backed by three organizations within the university, as well as a university corporate sponsor, Fairfield Inns by Marriott.

The exhibit was intended, according to university president Richard Pattenaude, to provoke “discussion on the definition of the term political prisoner, and encourage an examination of the nature of political dissent in a modern society.”

But when Maine’s two largest police unions and the Maine Association of Chiefs of Police objected to Manning’s self-characterization as a “political prisoner” — the very term the exhibit was intended to explore — and demanded the removal of artwork by a man they term a “cop-killer,” and got a New Jersey police union involved as well, Pattenaude closed the exhibit.

The exhibit, called “Can’t Jail the Spirit: Art by Political Prisoner Thomas Manning and Others,” was coordinated by the Portland Victory Gardens Project with the help of Ray Luc Levasseur, a Brunswick resident who is a former federal inmate and one of Manning’s co-defendants on charges of bombing government and corporate installations in the 1970s and ’80s (see “Sanford’s Son,” by Rick Wormwood, December 17, 2004). It was sponsored by USM’s Office of Social Justice Programs, and the university’s Center for Teaching and Department of Criminology.

Pattenaude ordered the work to be taken down immediately after last week’s press conference, but when a show organizer pulled out a camera and said he wanted to “document the repression of free speech at USM,” the exhibit was locked down until later that night, when university officials were able to dismantle it away from public view.

The university’s decision also affected artwork created by its own students, members of a sculpture whose assignments to address political speech, expression, and power were also to be shown in the Woodbury Campus Center gallery.

In a striking statement in which he defended the university’s “longstanding commitment to free speech,” Pattenaude announced the closing of the exhibit and admitted that it had only been agreed to by university officials because “We just did not do our homework.”

But that excuse doesn’t fly when USM students offer it to their professors after failing an important test, and the public should be no less dubious when the USM president offers it as his excuse for not realizing protests could be sparked by portraits of activists, violent protestors, and controversial political figures, painted by a man who epitomizes the potential debate over appropriate methods of political activism.

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