What's Really Going On with Occupy Boston

A five-minute walk from where the Tea Party museum ship used to be moored, the tent encampment that is Occupy Boston now sits, covering most of Dewey Square. The day I visited, the headline in the Boston Herald proclaimed ominously: Tensions Rising in “Occupied” Hub.

Funny, that’s not what I found at all.

Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Boston took over Dewey Square on October 1. In the Media Tent, Ben, a lean and handsome African American man with his hair in short dreadlocks, told me that, on the first night of the occupation, “It rained. It just poured. But still, the people stayed.” The next morning, the occupiers tweeted that they really needed dry socks. And then — just like that — they were overwhelmed with donations and had to tweet again, telling people “Stop — we have enough socks. Thanks.”

The stories of the socks and the donated food reminds me of other events I have covered where people responded to the needs of strangers with a sense of larger common purpose. I encountered it covering 9-11 from Ground Zero, and I saw it on the streets of Oklahoma City after the bombing. Millions of Americans are experiencing what, for them, is an emergency.

Jason Potteiger, a clean-cut young man who identified himself as a media volunteer, addressed a small group. He said the city has been very tolerant and that the Boston Police Department has been nothing but courteous. Jason is an unemployed recent college grad. He said that, compared to New York, the Boston event was more like a festival. A young, ruddy-faced cop stationed nearby shyly smiled when he heard of the kind remarks about the Boston Police. He said that relations between police and the occupiers had indeed been genial, with respect all around.

For a disorganized movement, there seemed to be quite a bit of organization. The tents, though jammed together, are laid out in relatively neat street-like rows, with a makeshift sidewalk made of wooden pallets. Most of the tents are “residential” and filled to the max with mostly young people, but in this small tent city you also find: A media tent; a medical tent; a library tent; a logistics tent; the sacred space host tent, bearing a sign that reads “You are all welcome here”; and a food tent.

There were a handful of young folks wandering around with bandanas over their face and a tie-less man in a three-piece suit holding up a protest sign. There was a priest, medics, and musicians. There were hippies old and young. There were construction workers. If the event in Dewey Square had a music track to it, it would come from the 1960s. Imagine the strains of Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young drifting across the square.

Ellen, a soft-spoken secretary, came to Dewey Square because she thinks we are at a turning point in this country.

Laura, a food co-op worker, came because she said she wants to “encourage others to use the voice they have.”

Nikki, who is unemployed — but has a recently earned college degree and a bejeweled stud in her nose — said she wants the government to fund schools, not wars.

Valerie, a short blond who looks like a soccer mom, came from Plymouth. She works in the health care field and was a holding up a sign up for passing traffic. She’s holding down a full-time job and going to school full time. She was inspired to come by the business ethics class she is taking.

And next to her was Bryan, a carpenter, who says his work is always hard. But the economy now makes it even harder.

Photo by Barry Nolan

There were lots of one-of, handmade signs. Some of them said:

Overturn Citizen United.
I served 8 years in the USMC to protect people — not banks.
Our movement is too big to fail.
We put down our tools to pick up a sign.
We pay taxes, why don’t they?
45,000 Americans die without healthcare each year.
I am the face of homelessness.
All I did wrong is care for my dying mother.

Conservative media types like to say the Occupiers are a mob and their message is muddled. It’s not true. It’s just large and multifaceted group, enjoying the freedoms of assembly and freedom of speech, seeking redress of grievances. There is so much wrong right now that it can’t possibly all fit on a bumper sticker. From the corrosive effects of huge piles of anonymous cash on the political process, to the perverse incentives that led Wall Street down the garden path, there is more that needs fixing than can fit in a sound bite. We need to have long thoughtful conversations — where everybody has some input, not just the lobbyists and the Koch Brothers and the talking heads and screaming right wing ministers. In a nutshell, I suppose that’s what the Occupiers are saying. We, the people, speak out.

Finally, I talked to Deborah. She told me she saw one sign that changed things for her. The sign said, “I am a single mother of 2 toddlers. I eat one meal a day so my children can eat three.”

When Deborah saw that sign, she decided to quit her job as a consumer advocate and go down to New York to join the throng at Occupy Wall Street. She doesn’t know what is going to happen next. She doesn’t know exactly what we have to do next. But she knows something has to change. She’s right. God speed, Deborah. And all those like you.

  • Rick in Duxbury

    I’ll make a deal with you Barry. You stop the Koch Brothers monomania and I’ll forget about Bill Ayers and the little people ruined by George Soros’s China-esque currency manipulations. Like you, I was there in 1968 the last time we thought we could change the world. (And we had goals that were, all due respect, a bit more focused and prioritized.) When a “consumer advocate” isn’t doing enough to rage against the machine, as you say: Godspeed. For every right wing nut you cite, there are corresponding left wing nuts (unless Nancy Pelosi’s free family plane was a GOOD idea). It is called anecdotal information, in addition to being “multifaceted”. The people that claim to be “the 99%” are nothing of the kind. (Go ahead. Ask Nancy if she wants to pay the same airfare or insurance premiums as the rest of us as a gesture of solidarity. You will find out who the “1%” is in a hurry.) The only people who have ever benefitted from class warfare are politicians.
    The root cause of all this is financial illiteracy. Very few know where their money comes from and where it goes. A high school level economics class on capital formation and budgets would mitigate a lot of fears and allow people to change the things they can and wait on the balance. But then Nancy wouldn’t get her airplane.

    • Eileen

      Thank you Barry, for a well written article explaining Occupy Boston, and your response to the attack on the original explanation.

      Please do not be discouraged by Rick, and his attack. He has overdosed on FAUX Stories, and needs a recovery program.


  • Barry Nolan

    Dear Rick,

    Well I absolutely agree with you on one thing – financial literacy is sorely lacking and should be taught along with some basic economics in all public high schools. But the lack of financial literacy on the part of some is not at all the root cause of our current woe.

    You seem like a highly literate soul so permit me to recommend some books you might enjoy – first – one I just finished written by a former derivatives trader.” F.I.A.S.C.O. – The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader” by Frank Partnoy. Or you may prefer T”he Big Short” or “Liars Poker” by former trader Michael Lewis. All paint a true and vivid picture of the big lie of Wall Street. It is no longer about “investing” in anything that America does or makes or innovates – it is all just about making money trading. And most of the time the trading is just about gambling. At the time of the Great Meltdown – the notional value of the global derivatives markets was more than 10 times the total GDP of the earth. Much of it was just huge bets on things people did not own or intend to own. The positions are not hedges – they are bets. And most trading in currency and futures done today are not done to hedge against real risk – its purely a play – a gamble. The great meltdown came about because traders came to believe that they could take those gambles (not investments – mind you – gambles) without real risk. So they just kept making bigger, riskier bets. And all that happend – not because of some dim bulb high school drop outs bought houses they couldn’t afford – It happened because Wall Street went out recruiting and paid huge sums to lure brilliant mathematicians from MIT and Stamford away from more meaningful work – to produce financial products supported by 600 page prospectuses with proofs that only a handful of people in the country could really understand – showing that there was no risk in this product because housing prices would never go down all across the country all at once. And so – unregulated and unseen – giant bets were taken with the money of widows and orphans because the wild bets were labled Triple A investments – and – well we are living with the results now.

    It is of course even more complicated than that- Derivatives had been de-regulated because of the corrosive effects of money in politics – on both sides. That’s because neither side will be the first to really push campaign finance reform. The SEC was willfully blind – the ratings agencies were culpable – and the right wing media was pimping for the whole rotten system. The laughable conceit that corporations are people continues to be perpetuated by the Supreme Court – and then there are folks like David Koch – who made his early money stealing oil from impoverished native americans and ran for President on a platform that included doing away altogether with social security, medicare, the FBI and public schools among other things. His notion of how America is supposed to work is that it would in effect be ruled by unelected corporate titans. I happen to disagree.

    And – yeah – that is just part of it and it is already far too much to try to put in a sound bite for TV. And the subject about the stuff that needs fixing is so large and complicated and tedious that nobody but you will ever likely read even this far into the explanation of what “those” people are all upset about.

    The silly stuff about bogey man conspirator Sorros and Nancy Pelosi is the stuff of a Glenn Beck fever dream – important only as a means to distract people who are suffering from an economic calamity that was not of their making.

    But yeah, I am with you 100% on more financial literacy.

    Barry Nolan

    • Rick in Duxbury

      Barry, thanks for the kind words about my soul. Notwithstanding the nice lady who considers opposing viewpoints to be “attacks” from “Faux News”, I know whereof I speak, having spent a number of years with the FDIC. Telling me there was insufficient enforcement is preaching to the choir. Try telling that to an affordable housing advocate using CRA as a political weapon. The fact that I am no longer there speaks to the role of politics in government oversight. Let’s just say there is plenty of blame to go around for both parties. It’s just that around here, it’s pretty much one party. Again, for every crooked Koch there is a crooked Tommy D’Alesandro of Baltimore (Nancy’s Pelosi’s dad.) Two wrongs don’t make a right.

  • Jen Deaderick

    Terrific, thoughtful piece. This is exactly what I’ve found on my visits to Occupy Boston. There is a real mix of people, and they are engaged in genuine discussion. I’m not sure what the end game will be, but this is a true example of grass-roots demonstrating.