Hard Times at Occupy Boston
Protesters march through downtown Boston, Wednesday, November 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
John Ford signed up for a revolution, but he’s running a clinic.
In the early days of Occupy Boston, Ford, a 30-year-old bookstore owner from the white, blue-collar town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Alex Ingram, a 22-year-old African-American from Georgia who served in the Air Force as a linguist, would stay up late into the night in Occupy Boston’s library. Enveloped by Rousseau and Chomsky, they’d ponder big ideas about how to change the system. But tonight they’re grappling with a different set of issues: How do we deal with Henry, who’s drunk and pissed off again and recently threatened another Occupier with a hammer? What do we say to the furious young woman who’s on a manhunt for the guy who promised her forty bucks for sex and then ran off? And what the hell are we going to do about Phil?
Eviction, of course, is on everyone’s mind. Meetings are held every day to plot emergency evacuation plans. Occupy Boston’s lawyer was able to secure a restraining order that has helped prevent Mayor Thomas Menino from staging a Bloomberg-style raid. On December 1, a Suffolk Superior Court judge upheld that injunction, but it remains full of loopholes. If the camp is found to be in violation of fire and health codes, the city will have legal authority to clear camp. Fire inspectors frequent the site, documenting scores of violations with digital cameras, and Occupiers know this evidence won’t help them in court.
Menino has tolerated the encampment because, unlike some other Occupy sites, Boston hasn’t had any serious violent incidents or deadly overdoses. John, Alex and the Safety Committee are stretching themselves thin to keep it that way. They’re only sleeping a few hours each night, and they look it; John has bags under his eyes the size of banana slugs.
“This probably takes up 80 percent of my time and energy,” says John. “If someone gets raped here, I’ll never forgive myself.”
* * *
Like in other cities, Occupy Boston is much bigger than the encampment at Dewey Square. There are dozens of working groups, allied organizations, unions, cultural and religious groups and sympathetic 99 percenters organizing on everything from local “Move Your Money” initiatives to national campaign finance reform. On December 3, a convergence is being planned that will bring together Occupy Barrio (located in the largely Latino East Boston neighborhood), Occupy the Hood (in the heavily black Dorchester), Occupy Harvard (which seized the Yard) and scores of other area Occupy groups for a Unity Rally in Copley Square. One knowledgeable occupier estimated that as many as 10,000 people have been involved, in some way or another, with Occupy Boston.
But the lifeblood of the movement pumps out of Boston’s Central Artery. Or at least on top of it: the infamous, rusted eyesore of an above-ground highway, which once ran directly through the financial district, was moved underground in Boston’s Big Dig several years ago. Now, a pristine greenway named after Rose Kennedy winds through the 1.5-mile stretch where the Artery once loomed, and it’s much easier on the eyes of the 1 Percent who work there. Except, of course, for Occupy Boston’s Dewey Square encampment, which lies at the southern edge of the park. Skyscrapers, including the Federal Reserve Bank, surround the camp, creating a wind-tunnel that makes cold New England nights even harsher.
Luckily, it’s unseasonably mild when I arrive on site a few days after Thanksgiving. The first person I meet is a 28-year-old named Drake with baggy rave-style gear and a pointy gemstone stud in his lip. He’s riding a stationary bicycle that has been hooked up to a power generator by MIT graduate students and playing a didgeridoo that he brought to camp—and he’s having a fantastic time. “Even the police like this bike,” he says in a thick New England accent. “They say ‘oh my gawd, that’s so imaginative!’ ”
Before Drake got to Dewey Square, he’d spent years crisscrossing Maine and New Hampshire as a “traveling carny,” constructing and deconstructing rides. Along the way, he developed a Vicodin habit, but he says he’s gotten clean since he came to camp. He’s proud of the work he does on the Safety Committee and says that his schooling in psychology helps him de-escalate fights. “I believe in this cause and finally have something else to do with myself that makes me feel good,” he says. “But those guys down there, they have nothing to do with the movement, and they’re hurting us rather than helping us.”
Drake is pointing to Weird Street, a narrow patch of grass on the camp’s periphery so named by the section’s inhabitants. Weird Street is where many of the homeless, mentally ill, alcohol abusers and drug addicts have made their home. Most people I spoke to estimated that these people make up about half of the camp. A middle-aged man with a weathered face, wearing a kilt over his jeans, a large plaid shirt and a wool hat with long flaps, stumbles out of Weird Street and makes his way to the General Assembly microphone at the center of the camp. “Hey hey, ho ho,” he sings, deliberately out of tune, “Nazi facilitation has got to go.” The kilted man repeats the verse louder and louder, and no one at the camp seems to know what to do.
“See what I mean?” Drake sighs.
* * *
Occupy Boston’s library is immaculate; books are neatly shelved and organized in sections ranging from “Philosophy” to “Hollow Political Rhetoric” (which includes Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason). Nonetheless, John Ford keeps apologizing for the mess.
When Occupy Boston started, John locked up the independent bookstore he runs in Plymouth, packed about half of his inventory in a truck and set up the soon-to-be-named-by-consensus Howard Zinn/Audre Lorde Library inside a military tent at Dewey Square.
Like many of the campers, John’s life before the Occupation was anything but conventional. An autodidact, John passed up college and bounced from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job. He worked at companies he loathed like McDonald’s and Jiffy Lube and “tried to intentionally slow the process from within.” When he found that strategy ineffective, he set out on his own as a “street hustler” and eventually helped start the enormously successful (if legally shady) Yankees Suck empire, which has sold tens of thousands of T-shirts to rabid Red Sox fans outside of Fenway Park. Two of his friends from the business, Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann, used the small fortune they made to travel to Iraq in 2005. They finagled their way into jobs with the Coalition Provisional Authority and wrote a book about it, Babylon By Bus. John was inspired by their adventurism and thought about joining them but opted to hitchhike across America instead. When he returned to several years later, tragedy struck. His father, a carpenter, was installing eaves on a wealthy client’s boathouse when he fell to his death. John inherited his father’s home and opened the Metacomet bookstore, named after the Wampanoag chief who led the Native American uprising against the British colonists.
John won’t say the word, but it’s clear that he’s the de facto leader of Occupy Boston. When he talks, other Occupiers listen. When problems arise at camp, people go to John. “If certain people are producing good ideas, they get noticed here. But the deference is to practicality, not personality,” says John with forced modesty. One camper told me that Occupy is less a “leaderless” movement than a “lower-archy”; power is never seized, he explained, but when you show wisdom, people grant you power, and that power can be taken away at any moment if you act irresponsibly.
John’s big power play was to take control of the Safety Committee with the help of Alex and others. “The Safety Committee was a complete joke at first,” he recalls. “If you wanted to join, all you had to be was an alcoholic with an authoritarian complex.” His team helped set up a “Good Neighbor Policy,” which required campers to keep their sites clean and comply with community rules against drug use and fighting. They have torn down dozens of abandoned and neglected tents, many of which were covered in mold and excrement, and fill garbage bags daily with detritus that includes discarded needles. “Most people ignored the druggies and were placated by false notions of security, but things got bad,” he says. “Vagrants were taking over abandoned tents and even cracking into occupied ones; meanwhile we were turning away activists who wanted to sleep here because there was no space.”
Occupiers are deeply aware of the fact that their critics seize on every report of violence and drug abuse, acting as though the movement has created a criminal culture that didn’t previously exist. The reality is that drugs and violence are mainstays of American cities, especially in tough economic times, and it would be shocking if these problems didn’t bleed into the encampments. But the unforgiving scrutiny of the right-wing press has accelerated the pace of crackdowns across America, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and Boston’s Safety team is doing everything it can to preserve one of the largest remaining encampments in the country.
Much of John and Alex’s time is spent on individuals like Henry, who they say they’ve spent dozens of hours trying to pacify. “We try to explain that their violent behavior is hurting the movement. We try to educate them about why we’re all here,” says Alex. “We want them to be awed by this,” John adds.
Why spend so much time on individuals who show no progress, I ask, why not just kick them out? “The problems people like Henry are facing aren’t being adequately dealt with by society, and I don’t think we’d be philosophically satisfied if we didn’t totally exhaust ourselves,” John replies, noting that the one time they got Henry to leave, he returned soon afterwards. “The social services and prison system are terrible; we don’t wanna just kick someone out into the wilds of society,” says John.
John has made a lot of enemies, especially on Weird Street. A police detective recently told him that he was being specifically targeted for violence, which has given him some pause. “I realize I need to tone down my ego,” he says, aware of his own authoritarian streak. “And in a way, it is really presumptuous of us to think we can save people. We’re not trained for this.”
* * *
It turns out that the kilted guy who railed against “Nazi facilitation” is the infamous Phil. He’s a dead ringer for Mel Gibson’s William Wallace, and it seems likely that he’s self-consciously fashioned himself as Occupy Boston’s Braveheart. He’s lashing out against “the fascists” again, and this time, he’s charging towards Sage Radachowsky.
Sage, who works as a molecular biology researcher by day at Harvard, is a polite, sweet-tempered man who quotes Thoreau and Gandhi. But he’s sent Phil into a rage after tearing down a “fathers’ rights” poster protesting child support laws that Sage believed was sexist and didn’t represent Occupy Boston’s values. Earlier in the day, Phil threatened to shoot Sage if he didn’t put the poster back up, and now he’s screaming, “You deserve to have your face broken, according to street rules!”
In an attempt to diffuse the situation, I ask Phil if I can interview him. “Who are you?” he barks. When I respond that I’m working for The Nation, he tells me to follow him to his “office” on Weird Street. We sit on folding chairs, and Phil says that he’s been reading The Nation for twenty-five years. He’s angry about the culture of political correctness in Dewey Square, but he’s even angrier with the facilitators who run the General Assemblies. He rants eloquently: “It’s a constant battle to keep this place free. The GA is a rubber stamp to legitimize the power of the laptop revolutionaries. The Good Neighbor Policy is the same thing as the Patriot Act. It sounds good, but it’s evil. They’re trying to scrub away this part of camp, but we have every right to be here.”
A young man named Duncan, one of a handful of Occupiers who respect Phil’s passion and principle—and don’t seem to mind his violent side—is standing next to us and nodding along to Phil’s soliloquy. I overhear another young person say, “Phil is a really good activist, he’s really important to the movement.” There’s no doubt that Phil has a base of support among those Occupiers who views effort to organize the movement in a more disciplined manner as just soulless routinization, and at first it’s hard to dismiss entirely what he’s saying. But Phil gets progressively angrier and louder and closer, and after he descends into a string of racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and sexist slurs in the span of a minute, I decide it’s time to go.
Later, I reconnect with Sage, who tells me that he’s planning to speak up at tonight’s General Assembly. A skilled carpenter, he’s quietly focused his energy on winterizing the encampment, and this will be his first time addressing the occupation as a whole.
By 7:30 pm, various activists, many of them “offsite Occupiers” (so labeled with a hint of derision by hardcore campers), have begun to show up for the GA. Announcements begin, and a woman excitedly introduces her new project, Occupy Boston Radio, asking for volunteers. Three people ask the GA for permission to launch a phone-banking campaign to state Representatives in Occupy Boston’s name, but the audience is finding it hard to pay attention. Phil is threatening to “face-break” yet another Occupier, and his voice is louder than the amp. The crowd converges on Phil, but the de-escalation tactics aren’t working. Eventually, Phil storms back off to Weird Street, and the GA continues.
Sage takes the stage. He tells the crowd that he met with Menino’s adviser on homeless issues earlier in the day; the adviser said he saw clear signs of heroin use and warned that opiates and alcohol combined with cold weather could lead to deadly hypothermia. “If anyone dies here,” Sage says softly, “it would weigh on my conscience forever.” Then, without calling him out by name, Sage addresses Phil: “We have a culture of violence here every day. We have to get serious about it, or we’re going to implode as a movement. This is the movement I’ve been waiting for my whole life, and I don’t want to see it die.”
Later in the GA, which normally lasts for a few hours, the issue of Phil is directly addressed. After a couple additional hours of intense, awkward deliberation, marred by serial interruptions and stage-rushes by Phil himself, the GA decides to vote on whether or not to “shun” him. If the motion passes, they will not physically touch him—that’s against the rules—but they will no longer offer him Occupy Boston’s resources, including food, and they will refuse to socially engage him. The motion requires a three-quarters majority to pass, but Phil’s backers stand tall. The vote fails, with 72 percent approval.
* * *
Allison Nevitt is a 48-year-old small-business owner and Daily Kos diarist who had been very active in Occupy Boston’s Facilitation Working Group. But after Phil threatened her while she was leading the GA, she fled the camp and says she won’t go back. She fears for her personal safety in an environment that she says has become increasingly hostile to women. She also feels like the process is failing Phil. “It’s not compassionate to continue like this,” she says. “It’s cruel to let Phil go up there in front of the GA, and I don’t think the people who voted to let Phil stay really care about him either. He needs help outside of Dewey Square.”
The problem, Allison believes, stems from the fact that “somewhere along the way, people started to view encampments not as a space for unfiltered political conversation but as models of exemplary society. You can’t create an alternative society—and that’s what Occupy Boston tried to do—without a lot of planning and preparation. Our intention was to address the system, not the individuals who got caught in the system.”
To Allison, the only solution is exclusivity. “I closely followed Tahrir,” she says, “and one of the ways they were successful is because activists used barricades to prevent people displaying weapons or violent behavior from coming into the square.”
Allison isn’t the only one who is advocating for a dramatic shift in strategy. Many others I spoke to, including John, are intrigued by the idea of creating a separate camp with selective standards for serious activists. John says if such a move took place, he would still spend a significant amount of time at Dewey Square and probably even leave the library there in some form.
Sage, however, doesn’t want to leave the original site; instead, he proposes that small tents be banned and that activists share large, open military tents so that they can police against drug use and build a tighter-knit web of support. Sage believes making it through the winter at Dewey Square will be a symbolic act of purification that can culminate with the spring equinox, when campers would pack their belongings, help replant the grass and flowers that were destroyed by the Occupation and move on.
* * *
When I return to Dewey Square the next day, the weather is even warmer and there’s a sea change in mood.
I bump into Sage, who’s just received a free trim from activist barbers who want the big banks to take a haircut. He’s on his way to a purely social, off-site coffee meet-up with other facilitators, and he invites me along. On the way out, we pass Phil, who is smiling and talking at a perfectly normal decibel level to a couple of young female Occupiers.
There are about a dozen people at the café, and they go around the table to introduce themselves even though most of them know each other well by now. Jorge, who worked for a decade at a major mutual fund until it made him sick, says he’s spent much of the last five years hiking the Appalachian Trail. Eli, a burly, tank-topped anarchist who helped run a cooperatively owned radical pizza shop in Boston’s Allston neighborhood, is cracking jokes: “Why do anarchists drink herbal tea? Because all proper tea is theft!” Angela, an older woman who several people described to me as “the movement’s grandma,” introduces herself as a lesbian with an African-American partner and a biracial child who’s spent much of her professional life doing anti-racist organizing. “I’m poor,” she says, “but I love life.”
When I get back to Dewey Square, I see Alex Ingram, the young Air Force vet, and three other members (including one woman) of the just-formed “Bro Working Group,” dedicated to improving communal spirit at the camp. They’ve planned a surprise a cappella performance of “Lean On Me” at tomorrow’s GA. “Let’s try that one more time,” says Alex. Please, swallow your pride, if I have things, you need to borrow. For, no one can fill, those of your needs, that you won’t let show.
At around midnight the Safety Committee meets to train new members. John is far more relaxed than he was yesterday, and he stands aside as a young woman named Ana shows the new recruits the ropes. Ana is a confident leader who doesn’t take shit from anyone, especially the newbie who’s obviously had a few and keeps interrupting. “OK, everybody, this is Safety 2.0,” she says. “This is not the ‘fake Safety’ you’re used to.”
“It’s an amazing thing to see all of these people willing to put up with the bullshit,” John says. “But we’re doing this to keep that dialog alive. The campground may not be doing so well, but the movement is doing well.”
Indeed, the movement is thriving. Every day there is new evidence that Occupy has changed the political conversation, from the surge in Google searches for the word “inequality” to GOP messaging guru Frank Luntz’s admonishment to Republican presidential candidates to avoid the word “capitalism” because, he says, the public thinks it is “immoral.” Without the physical encampments, would Occupy been able to capture the imaginations of the country and alter the discourse so quickly? And if they disappear, will that conversation die too?
Henry arrives. He’s been drinking again, and he’s baiting some other guys who are clearly on stuff too. As usual, John swoops into de-escalate, and he introduces me as a Nation reporter. “We are the people,” Henry slowly tells me, pausing to catch his balance. “We’re here… for… everybody!” he rambles on, eyes wide with zeal. John shakes his head and smiles warmly like the parent of a troubled child who, despite the daily exasperation, can’t help but melt with familial love.
It’s true that the burden of maintaining Occupy Boston’s physical encampment has channeled its organizers’ energies into an improvised version of social work. But there is something deeply impressive about what these activists have accomplished on that front too. They’re spending day in and day out with the ninety-ninth of the 99 percent, the people the rest of us work so hard to forget about. They may be enabling substance abuse, but they’re providing a haven that’s far safer than a back alley; they’re serving a thousand meals a day, and the food is far better than it is in the shelters; they’re listening and talking to the people everyone else ignores. I think to myself: If any of these young leaders ever held elected office—the idea of which is anathema to everyone I spoke to—they’ll be so much more equipped to deal with our biggest problems, because they intimately know the poorest of the poor.
It’s past 1 am and I go to the library, where John has offered to let me crash. Two young campers are inside, drafting a new mission statement for Occupy Boston.
“We need to tell people what we want. We need to move on from just talking about ‘democracy.’ ”
“Yeah, but the old statement is general for a reason. It’s what’s brought everyone in.”
“But the Media Team is begging us for new material. We need to tell people what we specifically want.… OK, how’s this part? ‘We want a society that that prioritizes the needs of all before the profits of a few.’ ”
“I’m trying to say, we want capitalism under control.”
“That’s an oxymoron.”
“Yeah, but saying something like ‘end capitalism’ is divisive.”
They continue till well past 2:00 am.
As I drift off to sleep, I’m awoken repeatedly by a mix of giggles and gossip from the next tent and shouts coming from outside. Some of the shouts descend into fights. One gets so close to the library that my tent-mate bounds outside to break it up.
Somehow, it’s not worrisome at all. Safety is used to it, and they will handle it. It feels like turbulence: it can be a terrifying reminder that you’re at 30,000 feet—in unfamiliar, dangerous, maybe even deadly territory—but when it settles, as it almost always does, you’re reminded of the miracle that you’re actually flying.