After it was initially canceled, a controversial talk by a radical activist will go on Thursday at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Ray Luc Levasseur, who grew up in Sanford, Maine, and became a radical in part due to his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, will talk on campus in connection with a symposium on “social change.”
Levasseur’s perspective is rare, given that he is the former leader of the United Freedom Front, an activist group that engaged in violence to protest the US government’s involvement with Central American death squads and South Africa’s racist apartheid policies. The UFF claimed responsibility for 19 bombings of banks, corporate offices, courthouses, and military installations between 1976 and 1984, including the April 1976 bombing of the Suffolk County Courthouse in downtown Boston. After each bombing, the UFF issued a communiqué advocating the overthrow of the US government.
He was placed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, and a 1981 incident involving other UFF members left New Jersey state trooper Philip Lamonaco dead. Levasseur, who was never charged in Lamonaco’s death, was captured in 1984 and convicted of several bombings in 1986. He spent 18 years in federal prison, much of it in solitary confinement, before being paroled to Maine in 2004.
In 1987, Levasseur and two other UFF members were tried on charges of sedition. Levasseur represented himself, and was ultimately acquitted two years later, in what became the longest trial in the history of the Commonwealth. It was in part in connection with the 20th anniversary of that landmark trial that he had been invited to speak on November 12 at the university’s fifth annual Colloquium on Social Change.
That invitation drew protests from fraternal-police organizations in several states, and Governor Deval Patrick’s administration last week pressured UMass officials to withdraw Levasseur’s invitation to speak. But on Tuesday, the university announced that the talk would go on, despite protests from Patrick and the law-enforcement community. “While the university administration does not approve, endorse, or support the decision to invite this individual to campus, academic freedom must be paramount for the university community,” the school wrote in a news release on its Web site.
This is a different outcome than in 2006, when Levasseur helped organize an art exhibit at the University of Southern Maine in Portland around the question of what the term “political prisoner” meant. Then, that university, also a public institution, caved to pressure from police and lawmakers and dismantled the show.
Levasseur says that UMass knew of the USM events, and organizers felt that, because UMass is larger, it would be less likely to give in to outside pressure. But he says he’s not shocked that critics have dismissed him as a terrorist: “It’s never surprised me when corporate media label me as a ‘terrorist’ while ignoring the massive violations of life and human rights perpetrated by state terrorism, particularly the USA, its hired henchmen, and proxies, some of whom have been speakers and receivers of accolades at UMass,” he tells the Phoenix. “Given the opportunity to speak, I will address the issue of who are the real terrorists.” (You can read a full transcript of the interview below.)