Somerville Divestment Revisited – 4400

This piece was written after the Somerville Divestment Project (precursors to the part of today’s BDS “movement” dedicated to municipal divestment) lost their attempt to sue an anti-Israel tirade onto the official ballot in Somerville, MA.  A blow-by-blow of that court decision will appear tomorrow.

With divestment on November’s ballot looking less and less likely, the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) has turned its attention towards mythmaking.

“The Somerville Divestment Project collected 4,400 signatures…” cried SC-SDP member John Spritzler when notice went out to supporters last weekend delivering the bad news that the Cambridge Superior Court upheld the city’s right to reject petitions they considered to have been illegally gathered. (Interestingly, that numbered climbed to 4500 when the same notice was posted on the SDP Web site on Wednesday night.)

In the pro-divestment storyline, these 4400 (or more, or less – see below) alleged signatures represent the voice of the people supporting “[t]he fact,” says Mr. Spritzler, “that over 4,500 Somerville voters want a democratic vote on divestment from Israel.”  And who prevented the people’s will from being acted upon?  The city, Mayor Joe “Israel” Curtatone, and no doubt behind them, operating in the shadows, the “You Know Whos.”

Angered that the people will not get to vote on this important issue, Mr. Spritzler bitterly declares that “our so-called democracy is a sham” (forgetting that he once wrote “urging people to vote is the opposite of urging them to join a revolutionary movement”).  But who can blame this momentary lapse in consistency when the clearly stated will of 4000+ citizens has been thwarted.

Or has it?  Forgive me for not taking the SC-SDP at its word, especially with regard to quantitative information.  During last year’s alderman’s debate, the organization frequently alluded to a petition signed by over 1500 Somerville citizens that triggered their political action.  But when a ward-by-ward count of those signatures appeared in the paper months later, that number turned out to actually be 540.  Looking at how the SDP treats statistics related to the Arab-Israeli conflict (see Numbers), they seem to demonstrate an uncanny tendency to multiply all numbers that benefit them by a factor of 3 (and reduce all numbers that harm their case – like the 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands – to zero).

Consider the following:

  • The SDP – by its own admission – has been collecting signatures for their ballot petition since March of this year.  And by August 29th, they had managed to submit 999 of them to the city’s election board.  And now, less than a month later, they somehow managed to collect more than three times that number of new signatures, all during a period when (unlike March through August), they faced organized opposition on the street.
  • The city reported that of the 999 petitions submitted in August, only 692 were from valid Somerville voters (a reduction of more than 20%).  Presuming this percentage drop-off continued, this means that even if they actually had 4400 (or even 4500 names), a continued 20% level of invalidation would still have meant they failed to collect a sufficient number of names to get onto the ballot.
  • Part of the opposition (to which, it should be noted in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member) involved phone banking to several thousand Somerville residents, during which time opposition to divestment outpolled support by ten to one.  Interestingly enough, this trend exactly mirrors other progressive communities, such as Harvard University, where opposition to divestment out-petitioned support by the same ten to one ratio.

While not scientific, I can also provide anecdotal information based on the little time I spent holding a sign in Davis Square.  During that period, over a dozen people let me know they supported our anti-divestment stand, or did so after hearing our side of the story.  This was balanced by two divestment supporters who gave me the finger as they drove by in their cars.

And then there is that drifting total that, even in the SDP storyline, refuses to stand still.  Did they collect 4200 signatures (as was mentioned in court last Thursday), or 4400 (as they announced over the weekend) or 4500 (as they state in their current press releases)?  Given the criticality of numbers to this debate, how difficult can it be to get a precise count?

Now it could be that through extraordinary effort, the SDP reached out to 3500 people in one month’s time, despite the opposition, and made it past the finish line.  Forgive me if I say I’m just not seeing it.

Nor has anyone else, for that matter.  In court, SDP carried in several cardboard cartons, supposedly stuffed with legitimately signed documents.  And at their press conference, they stood next to several thick bundles of forms.  Yet I have piles of paper on my desk at least as tall as those.  Was the city’s refusal to accept the SDP petitions and the court’s subsequent support for that refusal the outrage claimed by divestment’s supporters, or was it a relief that freed the SDP from having to have their 4200/4400/4500 names verified?  Was the crown of martyrdom the goal all along (or at least the goal once it was clear they were never going to be able to reach the number of legitimate names they needed)?

Of course, all this is speculative, and Justice Houston (who presided over the SDP vs. Somerville trial last week in Cambridge Court) would cast me a withering gaze if this were my presentation in his courtroom.  And yet we are similarly being asked to take at face value that the SDP has reached remarkably challenging goals in the face of significant evidence, including the fact that they were less than 25% the way there less then 30 days ago.

USA Network had a successful hit on their hands last year, a sci-fi thriller series called The 4400.  The show concerns a group of (you guessed it) 4400 people deposited on a beach by a comet, people who had disappeared from the planet years or decades earlier.  While fans spent last season discussing if the 4400 were taken and returned by aliens or men from the future, the series has yet to explain how this entire group made a stop in Somerville during the last thirty days to hand the SDP a supposed victory that the numbers would not seem to support.

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