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In The Arena

In the Arena: A very different place

It was a typical Patriot’s Day weekend in New England, save for a rare, extended Saturday session of the Massachusetts Senate.

At issue was a $500 million transportation package that was set to be included in the Senate version of the state budget, a plan that was expected to look drastically different than the one proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick. That debate had resurrected speculation among Beacon Hill watchers that a “rift” had begun to form between the corner office and the legislative leadership over how much of a tax increase Massachusetts residents could reasonably be expected to absorb in a still iffy economy.

What the members didn’t know, and would soon find out, was that an incident was brewing outside the building that would dramatically alter the day’s events — and serve as yet another reminder of the ugliness and division that plagues our society and, by extension, its political discourse.

“We had gotten word that there was a tea party rally going on outside on the Boston Common and that they were heading into the building,” Senate Majority Leader Stan Rosenberg said. “Before we knew it, every seat in the gallery was filled with these protesters.”

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Rosenberg says there are typically visitors in the Senate gallery that holds about 150 people, and it’s not unusual for people to come to the Statehouse on the weekends for tours and other events.

“In the old days, when I was working as a staffer and later as a legislator, there was less security,” Rosenberg said. “But there are now metal detectors and other security you need to go through, but anybody is welcome when we are in session.”

Rosenberg said what happened next was both unexpected and a little scary.

“Within 20 minutes, every seat was filled, and you could hear rumbling and people talking and making noise, which isn’t supposed to happen when debate is under way,” Rosenberg said. “The Senate president (Therese Murray) banged the gavel and called for order, but just before she did that, I overheard her say that she saw a man up in the corner doing a Hitler salute.”

Rosenberg said the scene was “chilling” and got even more heated a few seconds later.

“People started swearing at one of the senators, who was making an argument in favor of higher taxes, and that’s when the president ordered the gallery cleared,” Rosenberg said. “In 25 years, I’ve never seen that happen, but it was warranted, given the lack of civility which was being displayed.”

“They had no discipline and absolutely no compunction about behaving in a way which is totally unrepresentative of what we should expect to see in a representative democracy,” Rosenberg added.

It’s entirely possible that the protesters in question weren’t actual tea party members. There have been reports recently of groups of anti-tea party activists staging incidents like this in an effort to publicly discredit that particular movement. But it almost doesn’t matter who was in the gallery or what their motivation may have been, because their actions are symptomatic of society where fewer and fewer people seem to be able to disagree without being disagreeable, sometimes violently so.

“I don’t expect everyone to agree on everything, but I do expect some semblance of decorum, and it seems to have gotten worse and worse over the years,” Rosenberg said. “I’ve had people yell at me because they are emotional about an issue, but there is a difference between impassioned debate and sitting in a gallery and swearing at people who are trying to serve their constituents.”

It’s somewhat ironic that this incident happened in the same city that 48 hours later was the site of the second-worst act of domestic terror in our nation’s history. It’s impossible to conflate the two in terms of severity and psychological impact, but both, it could be argued, are a byproduct of a culture of intolerance and inhumanity that needs to change if this republic is to survive.

“We’ll get past this,” Rosenberg said of the bombing. “We grieve and mourn that this could happen here in our state and our city, but it is a reminder that the world is a very different place than the one we grew up in, where war comes to our neighborhoods.”

That war can come in many forms, and the only one who can stop it is the person we see staring back at us in the mirror each morning.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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