Report From the Front: Occupy Boston gets serious

Photo by Molly Geiger

While they're a long way from defeating American plutocracy, Occupy Boston has accomplished a great deal in its first week. The grassroots group's downtown presence inspired not just reporters but columnists from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald to get off their ergonomic chairs and write from the field - a testament to just how far into the mainstream Occupy has buzzed since activists hit Wall Street three weeks ago. In an even greater feat, the Dewey Square squatters also spurred Fox 25 News to break from American Idol coverage long enough to delve into some weighty investigative reporting; on Monday, after its Beacon Hill studio was picketed by occupiers, the station filed a Freedom of Information Act request with City Hall in an effort to expose how much the occupation will cost taxpayers.

That's not all. The socially and politically diverse front of more than 100 around-the-clock occupants - plus the hundreds more who join by day or attend nighttime general assemblies (known as GAs) - established a functional frontier town on the southern tip of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Like their Wall Street counterparts, Occupy Boston's mini-city is complete with a food pantry, infirmary, spiritual center, and media command post.

Most impressive, though, may be the group's relationship with municipal officials. In stark contrast to Manhattan, where hundreds have been arrested, here there's been real communication between agencies and occupiers, which has so far kept people safe and traffic flowing.

"We've dealt with demonstrators in the past, and we always respect their message - as long as they don't break the law," says Mayor Tom Menino. "They have to give an expression of the issues they believe in, and some of them I may happen to agree with . . . As mayor of the city, I have to respect their right to express themselves, and we'll have our police go down and work with them every day. That relationship has gone really well for us so far."

The Phoenix has been keeping tabs on Occupy since day zero - last Wednesday - when more than 200 people turned out at the Boston Common bandstand for a first planning meeting. As we reported in a series of blog posts and photo spreads, in those early stages we observed an intelligent, albeit frustrated, army of mostly college students, peppered with career activists of all ages and enough other types of characters to dispel the generic "hipster" label that some outlets have used to characterize the Wall Street occupiers.

>> READ MORE: Complete #OccupyBoston coverage <<

It's been fascinating to watch the movement mature locally. In just three days, the leaderless pack went from having no clue when or where to occupy, to negotiating with City Hall and taking Dewey Square responsibly on Friday (activists even worked with the city to arrange trash pick-up). As you read this, other sleep-ins are beginning all across the country, and the Boston group is a model assembly - the first to establish an Occupy franchise based on the Wall Street offensive. Many of their muses and organizers came directly from the New York action, where some spent more than a week in Liberty Square; but Occupy Boston has certainly taken on a unique attitude.

As has been evident at GAs - live-streamed every night on - this group has its weaknesses. Whereas communication breakdowns in New York have been largely attributed to the sheer size of that occupation, Dewey Square's biggest problem appears to be finding consensus among its small but philosophically contentious gang of intellectuals and egomaniacs. Meetings often become mired in bickering over processes, while the passive-aggressive tone that dominates GAs could rival anything you've seen on Keeping up with the Kardashians, or on the floor of the United States Senate for that matter.

It's hard to guess how long Occupy Boston will sustain. Its soldiers have already trudged through several days of rain and mud, not to mention a hailstorm of dismissive tweets from business brats who don't like having campgrounds visible from their financial district windows. What we do know, however, is that this movement has the potential to be the most significant populist uprising in decades, as it's already expanded to dozens of cities nationwide. Among them all, considering how things have gone so far, the Boston legion seems well-positioned for an extended haul.

Menino says Occupy Boston can stay - "as long as they don't disrupt the peace and tranquility of our city, and as long as they don't break windows and [they continue to] march with the police department overseeing them." Adds Hizzoner: "They're sending a message, like when there were demonstrations down there during Franklin Roosevelt's time. There are people getting frustrated because it seems like the government is not listening to their concerns, and this is their way of expressing themselves."

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