Occupy Boston: What Went Wrong, What Went Right

By Phillip Martin

Dec. 13, 2011

occupy boston dec10

Members of Occupy Boston protest outside the Dec. 10 press conference mayor Tom Menino held after that morning's eviction of the camp at Dewey Square. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

BOSTON —  Google "the Occupy Movement" and 126 million results appear. While it's the most publicized community protest in some time, we're curious why polls show that the majority of Americans — 53 percent — neither support nor oppose the Occupy movement. WGBH News looks into what went right and what went wrong.

Do they stay or do they go?

For weeks, as the public watched from afar, Occupy Boston activists have been arguing among themselves. At issue: Should they continue with a physical occupation — the encampment at Dewey Square.
Some believed the encampment was diverting attention from the 99 percent whose interests the movement struggled to represent. Others thought the encampment's days were numbered, regardless of whether police would close it down.
Protester Alexia Prichard acknowledged this during a meeting on the Boston Common the night after the encampment was cleared out.

“I personally would have encouraged a bunch of my friends to leave because I don’t want them to get sick,” she said. “But it wasn’t about whether camp wasn’t working anymore. It was that that aspect of the protest for the continued evolution of the movement wasn’t viable anymore. We were probably going to shut it down in a couple of days anyway.”

Embracing or rejecting homeless campers

Another challenge inside the movement: how to include the homeless, the addicted and other marginalized people. Many believed their presence at the encampment sped up its demise.

Contrast Occupy Boston with, say Syracuse, N.Y., a much smaller presence than Dewey Square — and with one noticeable difference. The Occupiers there help the homeless people who come by the camp, giving them food and blankets, but they don’t let them camp out.
Paige Gonyea, an unemployed medical assistant, has lived in an army barracks tent in Syracuse for the past two months. She thought that if the homeless were allowed to stay overnight, Occupy Syracuse would risk losing the support it now enjoys from the city and the local public.

“There are places to go if you’re homeless. There are shelters,” she said. “We’re not the Rescue Mission, we’re not the Salvation Army and we can’t provide homes for everybody. The camp is for people who are protesting.”

Occupy Boston included the homeless and even provided 1500 meals a day, many to people without a permanent home, as a necessary condition for living up to the movement’s democratic principles.
One of beneficiaries was Joe Gallivan, a Boston homeless man. He said the camp was “a lot better than living in a shelter. They suck. They tell you when to get up when to go to bed, when to go eat.”

A peril successfully avoided
Everyone agrees that one factor that went right is something that could have gone terribly wrong: the interaction between the protesters and the police. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis.
Davis thanked the protesters — the majority of whom worked with the police, he said.

“The great majority is really dedicated to this issue, a lot of us are sympathetic to the things that they’re saying and it’s important to us,” Davis said.

From the city streets to the front door

Now that the Dewey Square encampment is no more, everyone’s asking: What next?

A Gallup Poll showed that most Americans — 59 percent — still don’t know if they approve of the goals of the Occupy Movement. Maybe that’s because those goals aren't very clear.
One message from the suburbs, volunteer spokesman Philip Anderson said, is that some people agreed with what Occupy is about. “But we want them to change that to say ‘I’m a part of the Occupy Movement,’” he said. Read more about the view from the suburbs.

The movement is responding with several projects including “Weekend Occupy”: an idea to decentralize the movement and engage the broader 99 percent. Those are house parties, Anderson said, that mobilize attendees towards a political goal. 

”We’re compiling something called action items, and these are specific pieces of legislation for statewide or nationwide that people can support, that they can call their representatives about,” Anderson said. “We were inspired a little bit by MoveOn.org, but we’re hoping to have an even more interactive experience.”
Can house parties and YouTube video streams motivate the 50 to 60 percent of Americans who want a clearer directive from the movement? Don Trementozzi, president of the local Communication Workers of America, said the movement could “absolutely have an impact” but only if it moved away from a street encampment to go door-by-door… where the votes are. 


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