The Boston Camp
The night before I leave for a leaf-search trip to Vermont, I take the subway to South Station where instead of seeing the ugly towers of the financial district as usual, I come out of the train into the newest village in Boston in Dewey Square. The front of the Occupy Boston camp is an open paved space that various groups use to demonstrate. This evening it is the anti-war – Jobs Not Wars – folks, with their gray hair and long banners.
Behind this demo is a crowded camp of tents, organized in tight muddy rows and nearly completely filling the triangular park that sits at the doorstep of the Fed. To the left of the demo space is the information tent where a new visitor can receive an orientation and a regular can pick up a copy of the day’s schedule (always a continuous work-in-progress) or ask questions. Heading down the rows are the tents for legal, medical, media, spiritual, labor, queer caucus, logistics, food and drink (too many donations to be consumed – from Ben & Jerry’s to Whole Earth) and more.
Congested as the space is, musicians manage to make music and the grey-bearded head of camp security is putting golf balls with a couple of pals - even in the dark. New medics are being trained and media people are trying to find needed equipment.
I stop to talk to Jason the labor guy – an unemployed ironworker – and identify myself as a member of the National Writers Union (UAW). Jason is thrilled at the two-way support-fest. The Occupy Boston folks welcome the unions, various locals of which turn up with real bodies in marches of solidarity. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m hoping to get out my own Union.
The camp is decorated with home-made signs. As with all the Occupy camps, they are personal and creative. Here is a selection of some delicious ones:
- The Beginning is Near
- Bank of America: Land of the Fee
- Misogyny Hurts Your Mother
- TrickleDown Doesn’t Work (drawing of banker pissing on us)
- Did you enjoy your Lunch Break? Thank the Unions
- The world is a sphere: Not a pyramid
- I can’t Afford a Lobbyist, so I came Here Instead
- Goldman Suchs
The live-in crowd are mostly young people in their 20s/30s and older men – all of whom share the unhappy state of unemployment, as expressed by the signs that say, “Lost my Job: Found an Occupation.” The permanent protestors constitute a couple of hundred folks, swollen daily by people like me: visitors, supporters, people coming to donate, to demonstrate and to be. Among those are many other Boomers – in fact, overall the scene is dominated by the same groups getting the unemployment shaft: the young and the over 50s.
Groups from outside turn up to be a part and to promote their own agendas. On this night, the eve of Yom Kippur, the highest Jewish holiday, and one based on repentance as we enter the New Year, some young Jews called for a public Kol Nidre service. The leaders of the service are three young women – probably the products of a private Jewish education and probably from backgrounds of privilege. But they manage to draw hundreds of Jews of all ages and types into a crowded circle. The male friends of these women come prepared with rolling suitcases full of prayer books, yamulkies (head covering) and talit (prayer shaws) which they lend to all takers.
As is the tradition, the service goes on and on. I watch from the edges for a little while and revisit them several times as I circumnavigate the very small triangle of land on which the Occupy Boston camp is perched.
At one point the lovely guy who collects and serves food at all leftie movement events gathers a huge bag of baguettes in his arms and approaches the circle of Jews – many of whom are fasting as the religious holiday requires – generously offering, “Bread, free bread for all.” Poor guy probably has no idea why there is a stunned pause before general laughter.
I stay for the General Assembly (GA), held each evening at the unfortunate hour of 7:00 – 10:00pm in the darkness. We are all asked to sit down on the ground and I find myself on a bed of sharp gravel. I accept that sleeping on damp ground in a little tent is more or less a young person’s gig, but the GA should be accessible to everyone. I’ve been saying from the start that, while I may be missing the backstory to that scheduling decision, the darkness in such a crowded space puts up unnecessary barriers for elders and people with disabilities. The darkness can also be a deterrent to young women.
In any event, we crowd in and two young moderators begin the arduous process of explaining the process. As one tries to run down the concept of consensus, I am painfully aware that the organizers probably think it was born in NY at Occupy Wall Street. Few know it was the feminism of the late 60s and early 70s that introduced consensus as political process. The notion of a leaderless movement, too, was a feminist contribution, itself based on anarchist principles. Movement history, however, is not one of the skill sets of Occupy Boston. As one demonstrator said on TV, “I’m the product of the American public school system. They didn’t teach us about that.”
Communication between those who are speaking and those who are responding is done by such a complicated system of hand signals that the guys tasked with teaching us that evening are themselves a bundle of confusions. Fingers wiggle, wrists flap, and “Cs” for clarification are formed.
Although there is a mic and a little amplifier, there isn’t enough juice to project to the many hundreds, so the People’s Mic is employed. The speaker says a phrase – the full body repeats it. This was developed in NY where the electricity was turned off.
The first big group to present some proposals are a group of about ten young people (16-19) who call themselves the Urban Youth. They ask for some recognition of how heavily things are affecting their poor communities and of the added burdens to kids of color. They ask for Occupy Boston to make room for their many community groups (offers of shared tent space are immediately forthcoming) and for the movement to do outreach to their neighborhoods. They ask for an understanding that not all the 99% are equal – that there is a bottom 10% to that 99%.
In response, one white male after another begs the body not to “create divisions” among the 99%. I am going nuts – but this is my first visit and I don’t want to start out with an angry point about the assumptions of white men that their experience represents the singular reality. Why don’t they just wear t-shirts that say, “We are all white men.”
Finally, after too many of these guys, a man speaks up to say that the 99% percent are divided, very divided by race, gender and class. To recognize that there are very real differences among us is fundamental to building lasting solidarity. Happily, the vast majority of those sitting in the dark signal their wholehearted agreement with wrist waving to the sky. I forget myself and am the only person among several hundreds cheering and clapping.
I make my way over to where the speaker is standing – a perilous journey among the crowds and tents – to thank him. He turns out to be a minister at Copley Squares’ Community Church. As we’re chatting, he gets a text from the kids (he must have been working with them) asking for his help in formulating their amended proposal.
Meanwhile, other groups report on the people’s University, on security and food and media and medical and legal and all the many sub-committees – each asking for additional volunteers.
I have run into a lot of folks – mostly those from the movement for justice in Palestine, plus one guy I haven’t seen since 1969 when we were in the anti-Viet Nam war movement. There are so many groups I’d like to bring here – from the elders I teach who are themselves very frustrated by the political and economic environment, to my fellow National Writers Union members, to the other Middle East activists. However, I am profoundly exhausted by navigating the camp and leave before the end of the GA to schlep home and soak my feet.
Oy! to Occupy
I wish, I wish, I wish the New Yorkers had picked a different word. Since I started working against the Israeli occupation of Palestine in the 1970s, I have been raging against the Occupation in several languages. I can’t stomach the occupation of Iraq, of Afghanistan, or even of S. Korea for that matter. To occupy a place has a resonance for me of people with power violently imposing their unwanted presence and control over people with none. Sigh.
I don’t know if it is the word or just the accumulated assault on our well-being, but this thing is contagious. From Alaska’s tundra to crowded Dublin, Occupy demonstrations are popping up. The institutional support from groups like big Unions, the sectarian leftists who are hawking their newspapers at camps and the establishment Democrats who are embracing the camps in their own very partial way have not yet managed to co-opt this movement, perhaps because it has more creativity than ideology, more energy than strategy.
Have you visited an Occupy action? Tell me about your experiences at your local gatherings. We can only hope that this movement will become “too big to fail.”
This visit took place on Friday Oct 7, 2011.
All photos thanks to Barry Hock.