Editor’s note: John Stephen Dwyer, a contributing editor for Blast, has been writing about Occupy Boston and spending several nights a week in Dewey Square since the protest began on September 30. He also reports on Occupy Harvard, the protest that began on November 9 and continues behind the locked and guarded gates of Harvard Yard.
At 5 a.m. Saturday morning, hundreds of Boston Police officers converged on Dewey Square Park to evict the Occupy Boston tent community that was established on September 30 and had become the oldest standing Occupy encampment in the US.
Arrests began with almost three dozen activists, who sat down in the area used for the General Assembly and locked their arms in defiance. Shortly before 5:40 a.m., police arrested five more men who placed themselves on the ground in front of a front-end loader parked on Atlantic Ave on the opposite side of Summer Street. Things were relatively calm from then until just after 6:30 a.m., when four women bolted into the center of the intersection, sat down, and were arrested as well.
A total of 46 arrests were reported — 32 men and 14 women.
Overall, the morning up to the raid was characterized by warm sentiments between activists and uncertainty about how (but not if) Occupy Boston would carry on once the encampment was leveled. When the raid finally took place two hours before dawn, there was no riot gear worn, no tear gas or pepper spray used, and no angry-faced police thrusting or swinging their truncheons at non-violent protestors. Rather, it was clear many people on both sides of the arrest had a certain amount of respect for one another and, in some cases, were even on a friendly, first-name basis.
Although close to 2,000 people gathered around Dewey Square in the early hours of Friday morning in anticipation of a police raid, probably less than two hundred were present Saturday morning to witness the final hours of the Occupy Boston encampment. The atmosphere was one of sentimental camaraderie and triumph with relatively few indications of sadness or anxiety about the looming eviction. People who customarily bumped fists exchanged hugs instead. Looking for words for what they were feeling, they talked about one another as “brothers” and “sisters.”
Around 1 a.m., a couple dozen people gathered in a circle on Dewey Square Plaza, the paved area just outside the entrance to Dewey Square Park. Not disturbed by the noise of heavy traffic or the din of a large crowd, they took turns speaking but didn’t need to rely upon the call and response of the people’s mic. The majority spoke in emotional terms about the transformative experience of being part of Occupy Boston for ten weeks and, in particular, about the friends they had made. Many said that the movement would outlive the encampment but no one dwelt on that point. It was, by this time, a common understanding that no one in Occupy Boston openly voiced doubts about.
Bill, an amiable member of the Medic Team popular with both protestors and police, approached the circle wearing his familiar blue vest with reflective patches and the letters “EMT” on the back. In one hand, he held a cigarette and a can of orange soda, in the other hand, a sign saying “medics want to go home / please start the raid.” His snowy-white goatee framed a grin. Pointing towards his sign, he made patrolmen smile, too, by kidding them about not doing their jobs. Protestors also chuckled at his sign, one murmuring to a comrade “Seriously. The wait is worse than anything.”
A while later, some young men and women began unfolding a huge, parachute-like sack of material they had somehow smuggled into camp. This tent-like structure was designed to be held up by wind, but they didn’t have success in erecting it in the General Assembly area. Patrolmen told them to end their efforts, but they didn’t speak with convincing authority or urgency. Gently teasing the cops, protestors joked about “balloon-gate” as a reference to the more tense and serious “sinkgate” incident of December 1 when police seized a sink and arrests were made.
Playfully defying the police still further, people grabbed the fabric and ran down the gravel path (briefly labeled “Sacco and Vanzetti Avenue” in mid-October but more recently adorned with a sturdy wooden signpost reading “Thoreau-fair St.”) until the light material caught enough breeze to partially inflate. A group of friends entered it, playfully laughing and joking about “occupy the balloon.” Police let them have some fun before insisting it be rolled back up because no new structures were being allowed.
A while later, shouts were heard from Atlantic Avenue and dozens of people on camp ran to investigate. But instead of discovering that the raid had begun, they found police arresting a man in a white shirt and suit coat alleged to have followed, insulted and assaulted Robin Jacks — better known as @caulkthewagon, prominent representative of Occupy Boston’s tongue-in-cheek “Twitter Working Group.” After the man was arrested, Jacks hugged Detective Sergeant Jim O’Connor (a familiar plainclothes officer who had recently added a “I am the 99 percent” button to his outerwear) in gratitude.
When Jacks told her tale of ordeal to fellow activists and asked for a “temperature check” on the Boston Police, she received a positive consensus of “twinkle fingers” (the same hands-up, finger wiggling gesture used in American Sign Language to indicate applause) from the crowd. Elsewhere in camp, a stalwart who boasted about defending his tent (but ended up fleeing anyway when police arrived) had erected a small sign saying “no pigs allowed.” Reaction to it was primarily negative.
Police move in
As it got close to 5 a.m., few thought a raid was imminent and most expected the raid wouldn’t happen until Sunday morning. Robin Jacks, sharing her thoughts about the situation, said “It’s been a waiting game, not really knowing what’s happening. Seeing a lot of people here. That’s good. I mean, for an overnight, this is a lot of people, especially people who are out and active and not just people sleeping. Usually if you were to come here at this point on a Friday night, It’d be dead. Just Safety would be out. So, it’s been nice…[seeing] people I haven’t seen in a while. It’s been nice. I might go home and get some Z’s in like 15 minutes.”
Holding an icepack to her face, she then described how she was attacked earlier in the night but was interrupted by the calm voice of her girlfriend, Meghann Sheridan, saying, “Robin, it’s happening” and the raspy voice of Alex “Troll” De Luca shouting “form up!” a split second later. Her head turning, Jacks said “shit” as she ran to see dozens of police vehicles — including prisoner transport vehicles and the white vans of the Special Operations Unit — coming down Atlantic Avenue.
Police, mostly in yellow vests or coats, lined up along Atlantic Ave spacing themselves at arms’ length away from one another as both similarly-dressed patrolmen and black-garbed Special Ops police approached from Summer Street. Soon Captain Bernard O’Rourke, the tall and stern-faced head of District A-1 who has been present at most of Occupy Boston’s marches and direct actions, walked through the camp with a megaphone, sometimes stopping to point it at a tent while saying, “Good morning. This is the Boston Police Department. You are trespassing on Greenway property. If you do not leave the park you will be subject to arrest.”
O’Rourke didn’t respond when a male voice coming from a tent asked how long would be given to collect his belongings but rather continued walking, repeating the above message, and adding, “Please leave the park in the direction of Summer Street and South Station.” Approaching the Medical Tent, O’Rourke gave his direction, “…leave in the direction of South Station, towards Summer Street, please,” without electronic amplification.
Walking along the path of what had been called “Main Street,” O’Rourke resumed his use of the megaphone while adding “…take your property with you” to his message. As a confused camper exited his camp O’Rourke pointed and said, “Go out towards South Station. You don’t want to be arrested.” Lifting the megaphone again, he urged haste saying “Let’s go, guys. Let’s go, gents. Head towards South Station, you won’t be arrested. Head towards South Station, you will not be arrested. Let’s go.”
Then, coming from the North side of the park, came the call-and-response of the people’s mic and the defiant Occupy chant, “Show me what democracy looks like? This is what democracy looks like!” The noise was originating from the General Assembly area where the occupation had held its horizontally democratic meetings — many long and fairly boring, others long and filled with drama too overblown for film or stage. Now, some three dozen activist sat, facing Atlantic Avenue, on the zigzag paving stones. They locked arms, a gesture understood by many to invite a charge of unlawful assembly or, even, resisting arrest.
When asked what would happen to their remaining tents and other property, Superintendent William Evans — the small-built police official who had walked through Dewey Square building relationships with protestors almost daily — answered them through a megaphone saying, “We’re going to throw it away…unfortunately…so if you have property, if you have valuables, anything that might disappear, please get it….we don’t want confrontation.”
John Ford questioned Evans further. Ford, with auburn sideburns and military surplus clothing, is the ever-impassioned “library guy” and “safety guy” whose larger-than-life personality caused a writer for “The Nation” to say, “it’s clear that he’s the de facto leader of Occupy Boston.” This statement ruffled many feathers among the devoutly leaderless occupiers of Dewey Square. Ford’s too. But it didn’t cost him any respect among the many people who rely upon his help, council and ability to, as he puts in, “to do things that need to be done. It’s not that hard. Fuck.”
Ford – who fought at Thursday’s General Assembly for the idea that Occupy Boston might leave the park better than it was found – asked Evans to give occupiers until morning to clean the camp themselves if they promised to leave. “We’ve given you two days to get your stuff out, John,” Evans replied, “No, John, We’ve given you two days. Alright? You had plenty of time. You work with us; I know you tried to help. But people have chosen to stay. If that’s what their choice is, unfortunately…”
Interrupted by Ford’s insistent pleas, Evan’s amplified voice stammering a bit saying, “you guys…want to get arrested. We’re doing this nicely as possible, Alright? Please. We don’t want to have to force on anyone or anyone hurt. Alright? We’re gonna use as least force as we have to. Alright? So please. Go easily, if you can.”
Behind this scene, among the many police assembled, a protestor stood with a wooden sign that had been displayed prominently in Dewey Square since early October. Its square, black letters on a white background spelled out a phrase used by many occupiers with military or law enforcement experience. It read, “I took an oath to defend the Constitution / So here I am!”
Parting mic checks
Waiting for arrest, a male occupier shouted for and got the people’s mic. He then yelled, “the officers…are enforcing…the law…in the past…people have…stood up against…laws…so their voice…could be heard…It’s sad…that this…is what it took…for us…to get our voice…but now…we have a voice…and we’re not going to…shut up…we are relevant…listen to us!”
Seconds later, a female occupier mic checked saying, “we have a right…to assemble…it is not up to them…to tell us when…to stop assembling!” Another male voice, mic checking as well, complained that the press had been pushed too far back to record what transpired. A fourth voice, belonging to a person holding a camera and weaving between the police, assured his comrades that the live stream was broadcasting it and had thousand of viewers. Someone yelled, happily, “Thank you, Internet!”
Ford spoke again, standing, mic checking, and calling to his fellows “I am now…going to protest…[using] my individual right here…to not give them my [bail?] money…I have given you my sweat…my blood…my tears…my advice…but I will not give you any here…that’s what I will say…’you will not get another dime from me today’…but I’m right here.” He walked away down Atlantic Avenue, head characteristically bowed, fists characteristically clenched. It looked like he was leaving but returned after passing his car keys off to Robin Jacks and was arrested along with his comrades.
Al Suarez, an activist who had joined Occupy Boston after the Occupy Burlington encampment was leveled by police, had rushed back from the “Take Back the Capitol” action in Washington, DC when he heard Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s ominous words about a midnight Thursday deadline. Suarez mic checked, “I’d like to give a shout out…to Occupy Vermont…we were shut down then…this time…I’m ready to be arrested…for my country…and for the future of this country…for all of our children.”
Another man, indicating that many occupiers called Dewey Square home and had no where else to go to, mic checked, “how do you think…Menino would feel…if we took his home…out from under his feet…and threw all his things away?…He’d sing a whole different song!”
Air Force vet Alex Ingram yelled his mic check so loud it forced the molassasy twang from his thick Georgia accent as he declared, “We are all witnesses…we were witnesses when…they were taking homes…we were witnesses when…the financial system collapsed…we were witness when…we watched other Occupys across the country…taken down one by one…and tonight…we are witnesses…to solidarity…as long as our eyes and ears are open…we will be a witness…to the good…and the evil…through all the world.”
A woman’s mic check, her voice possessing less volume but no less message than her male comrades, declared, “what does…President Obama…have to say…about the over 4,000…arrests of…peaceful assembly…in the United States…when he encouraged….assembly in…Tahrir…Hamas, Syria…Bahrain…Yemen…Tunisia…and Libya…why are they…getting more support from him…than we are?”
Arrests and dismantling of the camp
Their combined voices booming, the demonstrators call-and-response chanted “from Mattapan to Allston…Occupy Boston!” again and again as sanitation workers and police began dismantling tents and throwing them into a garbage truck. Arriving on site, Commissioner Ed Davis told reporters “…just some arrests being made, that’s all” and wouldn’t say much else.
Among these uniformed men and woman was Sgt. Robert Merner, an officer with a shaved head who was around Dewey Square all the time for the first month and a half or so of the occupation. Merner took a small flag that had fallen off a tent and carried it over to where the fire extinguisher near the sign tent once rested. He planted the flag at eye level, displaying it next to an identical one atop a sign reading “Occupy is the highest form of patriotism.” But this tableau, too, eventually made it into the trash truck. Whether the flags were ultimately rescued or just tossed in with the rest isn’t known.
As press was lined up on Atlantic Avenue waiting for those arrested to be filed past their cameras, some occupiers felt it was the bankers, not the people protesting corruption, who deserved a perp walk. “We are not here,” said the people’s mic, “for a publicity stunt…we are here…to voice our voices!” Perhaps in reaction to this, or perhaps as part of a plan to avoid media scrutiny, the police backed their transport vehicles into the General Assembly area, loaded them with hand-tied protestors, then drove them away.