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.