Friday, December 9, 2011

Scenes from an Occupation

Photo by Occupy Boston
Last night it was easy to get drunk on the possibilities.

I got to Occupy Boston late - about 11:30 pm, only half an hour before Mayor Menino's "deadline" for the evacuation of Dewey Square (and after having promised the partner unit I was NOT going to get arrested, no matter what, even though I'd been watching all the civil disobedience training on the live feed).

When I arrived, the camp felt slightly schizophrenic - near Summer Street, a brass band was playing, drums were pounding, and people were defiantly dancing; in the camp itself, many tents were down (particularly the expensive ones); and up on Assembly Hill, the mood was serious - though hardly grim. People were debating when the police might arrive, and what the most unbreakable positions were for forming human chains.  Those who were less sure of their commitment to spending the night in a holding cell were being exhorted to cross the street, and take positions in the park before the Federal Reserve.   And the media was everywhere, not asking any questions or gathering any actual data, of course, but instead clasping their earpieces and intoning their insipid impressions into their cameras and klieg lights.  Altogether there were several hundred - maybe a thousand - people on the scene.  Every now and then, the human mic announced "Four minutes to midnight!" or "Three minutes to midnight!"  Overhead, helicopters circled  - two drifting so close to each other they seemed to be kissing in the dark.

Midnight finally arrived - and there was a strange sense of suspended expectancy in the nippy air.  One young woman cried out - echoed by the human mic - "Whatever happens - I want you all to know - that I love you!"  (For a moment, everyone shouted "I LOVE YOU!")  Later the human mic instructed us "Look at the person next to you!  That person is a hero!  Give them a hug!"  (People hugged.)  A circle of chaplains stopped praying and began to sing.  The brass band - led by Emerson's John Bell  (I also saw actor Danny Bryck earlier) - began marching along Atlantic Avenue, playing standards like "When the Saints Come Marchin' In" and just generally raising hell. The vibe was a valiant one; we were going to go down laughing.

But the police continued to not arrive - so the mood began to shift toward relief, and a cautious optimism.  The locus of the crowd moved from Assembly Hill to the curbs of Atlantic Ave, holding up signs and waving to passing cars.  Along the edge of the encampment, the brass band suddenly launched into "Here Comes the Bride," and I pressed forward to find an actual, impromptu marriage in progress - by one of the chaplains - between a pretty girl and her bearded, beaming groom.  They'd brought their vows, which the human mic recited, including a joyful "I DO!" at the end, and then the band gave Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" their best shot as the couple vanished into the crowd amid cheers.  The chaplain shrugged.  "They had their license with them!" she laughed happily.  "So why not?"

Back on Atlantic Avenue, by now folks were over the curb, and a chant had begun: "Out of the camp and into the streets!"  The crowd took all the lanes but one - and then suddenly took that one too.  As flashes popped, a gaggle of young people lay down in the middle of the street, staring up with their best "I'm not goin' ANYWHERE" faces as people cheered.

I thought this might be the beginning of the expected stand-off - that perhaps Menino had simply guessed that eventually in their triumph the occupiers would go too far.  But instead the small police presence wearily retreated, and began waving the stalled traffic back onto Summer Street.  In a few moments, the street had been closed, dozens of more kids were on the pavement, and the mood had become uproarious.  People  scrawled slogans and drew peace signs on the white traffic stripes of Atlantic Ave.  The drummers moved in, and the crowd began dancing in the street as many chanted "Together we're unstoppable/another world is possible!"

The media looked stunned; this wasn't the story they were expecting to cover.  Panicking, they began to dog the police offers ("Attention media: Please do not rush the police!" one impish protester intoned through a bullhorn.)  The police assured them, however, that there were no plans to remove the encampment that night - a message which slowly filtered out to everybody.

That, of course, doesn't mean the struggle is over, or that anyone has "won" anything.  Indeed, in a way the struggle hasn't even begun - Occupy Boston still doesn't have a plan for effective political action (no, shaking your fist at the Federal Reserve and peeing on its flowers doesn't count).

But the moment was still sweet.  And hopeful, yes, hopeful.  When I left the scene (I'm old, after all, I can't stay out all night, my joints will lock) the kids were still dancing, knowing they weren't going to jail after all.  Somebody had blown up a huge bouquet of balloons, and suddenly decided to free them from their tether.  They drifted up into the darkness, toward the waiting helicopters.


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your first-hand account of the Occupy Boston stand-off that was not a stand-off! Your statement that Occupy Boston still does not have a plan for effective political action and that silly misdemeanors do not count reminds me of my recent visit to Athens. The noisy, violent public disorder caused by the protesting crowd accomplished nothing meaningful! However, they did destroy beautiful marble stairs to a theater and 3 leading hotels on Syntagma Square. And they did disrupt trash and garbage collections! This is not effective political action!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mary. But for the record, Occupy Boston hasn't destroyed anything but the grass, which can been replaced (even the major flower beds were protected). And if they've disrupted traffic - well, so has every political action, I think. I also believe that Occupy Boston has changed the discourse - up until now, Republicans owned the "class war" meme in some perverse, backwards way, whereas now people can openly discuss the fact that the upper classes have been steadily waging a war of economic attrition on the rest of us. That in itself counts for a lot. Plus I think the occupy movement has simply opened the eyes of a younger generation to the rigor, the difficulty, and the joy of communal action. The occupiers have demonstrated that they're willing to tough it out for an idea - and not even really an idea yet, but simply the insistence that we have to come UP with an idea. For that we should all be grateful.

  3. A friend of mine posted what her husband saw yesterday: "I just visited Occupy Boston and had a wonderful conversation w a young couple that has been living there in a tent for the last two months. They both had bandanas over their faces and looked like bandits from the American west. Their optimism and complete lack of snarky cynicism made my week. They represent the best of America, individualistic urban cowboys able to sleep on the ground and cook in the snow, determined to stop America's descent into consumerism, barbarism and eternal war......The word is that the police will remove the Occupy Boston tents tonight." I certainly take issue with what Mary says as well. When I took part in the protests at the City Hall over Scott Walker's de-unionization of teachers, I was surrounded by as literate and intelligent a group as you'd find anywhere. As I said to my friend (above), if the Koch Brothers were bankrolling this as they have rabidly conservative "grassroots groups", it would have gotten ten times the coverage from the press-- and a lot more quickly. They know which side their bread is bartered on.

  4. Yes, I did note that Occupy Boston had not defaced, much less destroy, beautiful monuments in contrast to the violent protests in Athens. Your points of what Occupy Boston did demonstrate/accomplish are very well expressed.