Editorial: Brown should remove Pokanokets from Bristol land

EastBayRI.com ·

Brown University is under a microscope here, with minority groups, media outlets and internet bullies waiting to see how they will respond to the Pokanoket encampment on their Bristol property.

It should be an easy choice — kick them out.
The members of the Pokanoket tribe who have taken up residence on the Brown land have been peaceful citizens, but they have not been law-abiding. They are trespassers on private property.

In almost any other situation, the property owner would act to remove trespassers. Of course, this situation is not like any other. It is a high-stakes standoff, pitting the victimized minority tribe vs. the multi-billion-dollar Ivy League institution, with the most pristine, undisturbed, waterfront property in southeastern New England in the middle.

This magnificent property has the potential to reshape Bristol (or not), and to impact quality of life in this town for generations to come (or not).

For decades, folks have speculated about what might happen to the Brown land — more than 300 acres bequeathed to the university by the Haffenreffer family. Park? Condos? Casino? Mansions? Affordable housing? Academic research center? … Imaginations run wild.

In reality, every Bristol citizen has an interest in what becomes of this property. So do the Pokanokets, who have been trying to assert their ownership and reclaim their ancestral home through the U.S. judicial system. They have so far been unsuccessful.

Give the Pokanokets credit. For more than 10 years, they have worked peacefully and within the laws of this land to assert their claim. Then they invaded on Sunday, set up their own security forces, and literally barred the gates.

Brown should not allow it. Eminent domain can be a powerful force in land disputes, and Brown's claim is weakened by the fact that it closed the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology to the public in 2008, after the Bristol fire marshal cited numerous fire, safety and environmental violations. Since then, there have been few signs of life or activity on this property.

Despite the sensitive, public spotlight shining on it, Brown has only one choice in the best interests of Bristol and its citizens — use legal means to report trespassers and seek their removal.