A Small Victory For Occupy Boston, And A Big Win For The 99 Percent

I didn't expect more than 40 people to turn up at the anniversary of Occupy Boston. Some formerly hyperactive participants told me they were too frustrated with their comrades to attend, while others declared online that the movement failed not just them but the community. On top of that, it was butt ugly out and raining, plus I heard that some of the group's recurring characters work weekends, or couldn't make it in from out of town.

So I was seriously surprised when I arrived outside the Statehouse Sunday, and found well over 100 shouting heads. Many were familiar faces, with signs and slogans that I'd seen: “End The Fed,” and so forth. Some were people who had camped at Dewey Square, but for any number of reasons deserted Occupy Boston – for jobs in other cities, out of frustration, and in some cases, to join the larger front in New York. Finally, there were a few new stragglers attending their first Occupy rally.

And then there were the cops. A few dozen of them, posted up in uniforms and in plain clothes (i.e. mom jeans and white cross-trainers), and rolling bikes and cruisers alongside and behind activists who marched from Beacon Hill to Dewey. Once Occupiers arrived at their former camp, officers even literally circled a wagon a few times, presumably to communicate what consequences there would be if tents popped. It was just like the old days, with BPD tolerating free speech . . . up to a certain point.

Down at Dewey, I spoke with the square's original occupiers, as in the homeless crew that's been hanging in that area since way before the rest arrived. They told me that the prospect of a re-occupation screwed their last few weeks severely; year-round Dewey resident John says authorities have been harassing him and the rest of the local homeless population, booting them from benches where they usually relax in peace, and even tossing their belongings while they're in the bathroom at South Station.

As for the returning Occupiers; though there were serious speeches near the Statehouse, and countless conversations about things that Occupy did right and wrong, the anniversary was more of a party than anything else – there was even lots of cake to grub. This, of course, was worlds apart from what happened in New York two weeks earlier, when affinity groups planned and executed pointed direct actions, many of which landed them in jail.

Toward the end of the gathering, there seemed to be some agreement between factions – Ron Paul supporters and Socialist Alternative types; older organizers and young radicals; everyday activists and peripheral players. Specifically, they felt that it was possible to shelve some stale animosity toward one another, and perhaps begin communicating again. In the least, it was unlike their dialogues on Twitter, where Occupiers bicker endlessly, and where those on the antiquated side of the digital divide are not represented.

It would be a stretch to say that Occupiers had anything more than a spiritual win on Sunday, though that's significant. Just the reminder of what they once had may be enough to spark cooperation if the lot of them decide to put the band back together. As for connecting with the larger public that they ultimately failed to reach – that's still the main challenge. To quote a twenty-something yuppie who walked by marchers on Sunday: “Is this the same thing as last year, when they stayed overnight and stuff? What are they all about again?”

Of course, Occupy was hardly the biggest Boston protest story of the past week. While that group reminisced down at Dewey, more than 1000 janitors from all around New England gathered in East Boston to count the hours down to their contracts expiring. Banded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 615, the group was riled and ready to go, bolstered by big endorsements from the likes of Mayor Tom Menino and State Treasurer Steve Grossman, the latter of whom energized the crowd at LoPresti Park.

Following the rally at LoPresti, janitors filled the Church of the Holy Redeemer near Maverick Square. This was no average mass; the priest offered a politically charged homily about working class family values, and agonized over the number of families that lose sons and daughters for the simple reason that their parents work long hours, and are unable to keep them off the block. This message, it seemed, underlined the demands of all those in attendance.

As a priest and the powers-that-be ceremoniously blessed the janitors' brooms – a tradition on the night before this kind of strike – word around the church was that a deal was imminent. Still the workers seemed prepared to picket. Even as the mass cleared out, there was a significant degree of uncertainty about where they'd be the next day – carrying protest signs on city streets, or wielding mops like they do on most mornings.

In the end, the SEIU came through for its members, while New England building owners showed a slice of humanity. It took the threat of a strike – and of having to clean up after themselves during that strike – but the suits finally agreed to a 200 percent increase in full-time work, pay boosts that exceed 10 percent, increased job security measures, and to establish an official outlet for janitors to air grievances about excessive workloads, among other things. So far it's just tentative, but member voting starts tomorrow, and the 30-person bargaining committee recommends the deal.

Back at the church in Eastie, I noticed that the SEIU workers were sporting shirts with a familiar motto: “The 99 Percent.” For all the talk about how bad of a job Occupiers did of attracting people of color – and of reaching out to the larger population – they did engage the hearts and minds of many, including service workers and others who've been beaten badly by the current system. So while Occupy struggles to maintain relevance in its original form, on the Boston theater's first birthday, it was clear that its fight to empower mass movements rages on. Because a victory for janitors, no matter how you dice it, is a huge win for the 99 percent.

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