Depending on who is telling the story, last weekend a person either “flashed a knife at” or “pulled a knife on” a group of people at Occupy Boston. Someone felt threatened enough to let the Boston Police know. The accused person was apprehended by police and was reportedly discovered to be carrying a knife and a hypodermic needle. They were released because no one wanted to press charges.
In the lead up to this, one or more people at the Medic Tent were threatened with needles after confronting people buying and using heroin more-or-less openly in the tent city. In the wake of it, there was heated debate among protestors about whether getting law enforcement involved was appropriate or not. Some said that handing someone over to the same police force that arrested 141 protestors just days before was an act of betrayal. Others argued that if a person feels threatened, turning to the police rather than Occupy Boston’s own Safety Team was certainly their prerogative.
The urinating offender
The “knife incident” happened at about the same time as a young man who was evidently either very drunk or very high (like heroin or pills high, not marijuana high) urinated on someone’s tent, protesters said. While several news sources reported that this person and the knife wielder were the same, multiple witnesses told Blast that this person and the knife wielder were two different people. As the gravelly voices of women who’ve spent winters on the streets repeatedly yelled “he pissed on the tent!,” an 18-year homeless occupier took control of the commotion, calmed people down, and ejected the urinating offender from the camp. “I’ve been breaking up squatter fights for a long time,” he boasted.
This wasn’t the first argument over someone urinating in camp. Minor squabbles such as this happen almost daily, and almost all of them are defused quickly. Many of them involve people whose homelessness is more directly related to addictions and mental health problems than the recent economic crash. A member of the Safety Team who asked not to be identified asked, “What do you expect? They set this place up at ‘ground zero’ of the homeless in Boston…besides, look, people get into trouble anywhere. You go to a game, you see fights. Anywhere you got hundreds of people, there’s something going on. What’d you expect here? Nothing to happen?”
Walking away with laptops
There have been thefts. Many may be attributed to the country mouse naivety of those protestors who lacked a hardened Bostonian’s matter-of-fact assumption: anything of value left unattended will disappear.
Martin Dagoberto, 27, briefly left a tent and returned to find his laptop gone. After working cheerfully for the Occupy Boston Faith and Spirituality Group for several rainy days in a row, Thursday morning he explained on Facebook that he was “cold, wet, tired, and quite sad…had someone walk away with my laptop last night…this is tough.”
The theft happened in the Sacred Space — Occupy Boston’s interdenominational prayer and meditation tent – and the violation of such a churchy spot bothered many.
This same torrential week, Media (the working group within Occupy Boston that deals with the press) also reported some of its laptops stolen. They made an online request for security cables to keep them from walking away in the future, and some donors responded. Similarly, the Spirituality Group responded to the theft of Dagoberto’s laptop not only by sending him lots of love and good vibes, but also by starting to scrape together some funds to buy a new one.
There have been other thefts: shoes, clothes, wallets, phones, etc. This week, after a decision was reached at General Assembly, little padlocks began appearing on the zippers of tents. Backpacks aren’t being left in the open. People, in many ways, are demonstrating less innocence and more caution.
This week, crime at Occupy Boston made headlines across the city. The same day Dagoberto lost his laptop, the Boston Herald ran a fairly sensational article which began, “A confrontation with a knife-wielding junkie at Occupy Boston and rampant thefts have tensions simmering between the protesters and the homeless.”
The article quotes protestor Andrew Warner, 36, saying “the homeless come in here and they’re looking at it as a way of getting a free meal and a place to crash…but they don’t bring anything to the table at all.”
While many occupiers winced at Wagner’s statement, Occupy Boston’s detractors floated on a cloud of Schadenfreude. The Boston Phoenix commented (that same day) on the Herald readers’ obvious delight. A blogger called Pumabydesign001 re-posted the Herald article annotated with barbs against “Trust fund Marxists” and “loathsome, entitlement minded Marxist hypocrites.” One of the Herald article’s main aspects, ex-mayor Ray Flynn blustering “[Occupy Boston] should have been given one day — 24 hours and that’s it” received relatively little comment.
By the next day, Friday, this particular Boston Herald piece had gained a bit of infamy among people at the Occupy Boston campsite. Whether they read it or just heard about it, people complained that the prevalence of crime and the rift between the homeless and other people at camp was being exaggerated. Suspicion against the press spiked as established contacts declined to be interviewed because, as one person said, “I don’t want you to ‘pull a Herald’ on me.”
On Friday, though occupiers were reviling the Boston Herald, many had good words concerning a Metro Boston article released that morning and favorably describing the work of the Safety Team. The piece had some pretty harsh quotes about “rounding up junkies and trying to kick them out” and so on, but these were mitigated by a protestor saying “crime here is no different than society in general” and an article subtitle assuring that “Despite confrontations, Occupiers feel safe.” A member of the Safety Team said, “You gotta read it. It’s on page three.”
An ongoing drug situation
Signs declaring drugs and alcohol to be off limits had sprung up around the camp last Monday, but some were ignoring them. On Friday, around the same time as protestors readied for a trip to Roxbury to rendezvous with the Occupy the Hood people, a small swarm of police at one corner of Dewey Park indicated trouble. Two people, a man and a woman said to have been dealing heroin from their tent behind the Info Tent, were arrested. Police tore down the alleged offenders’ tent, rifled through it, and eventually threw the whole thing in a police wagon and drove it away.
One protester asserted that the arrestees “weren’t part of Occupy Boston” — a statement which is true in one way but not true entirely. Within hours, the rumor around camp was that someone had suffered a lethal overdose and the people arrested had sold to them. Meanwhile an old woman in a wheelchair, said to have gotten drunk and possibly to be suffering from a reaction to her medicine, was being cared for by the Safety Team as they waited for Boston EMS. The relationship between Safety and the Boston Police seemed cordial and familiar.
Many protestors at Occupy Boston insist the sort of crimes occurring in Dewey Square, and the minor flare ups between homeless people staying at the camp, are things that happen year in and year out without the attention they are getting now getting that Occupy Boston is present. Despite frustrations, the majority of demonstrators show no interesting in building a social wall between those that are there to protest injustice and those there for a free meal and a warm blanket.
And many protestors acknowledge what might not be obvious to a visitor: Some of the hardest-working members of the Occupy Boston community are, in fact, seasoned “street people” who had been living outside for years before the protest started. Scott Ellis, 60, a man whose been homeless for forty years, comes to mind as an example. Long before most of the 20-somethings have emerged from their sleeping bags, Ellis (an articulate man with a Santa-like beard) can be seen circling the camp, picking up trash, uprighting whatever has been knocked over by the wind, and just generally making the tent city a better place to be. Come back sixteen hours later and he’s still doing it.
Everyone knows someone
Barry Knight, 43, has been at Occupy Boston for the greater part of the last three weeks. For much of that time, he was one of the people in camp most likely to be holding a sign next to Atlantic Avenue both day and night. More recently, he’s assumed duties watching after the Sign Tent and asking people to return whatever supplies they borrow.
Knight sees the signs of addiction and abuse at Occupy Boston as reflections of a society-wide problem.
“Everyone has been touched by [addiction], everyone knows someone affected by drugs and alcohol,” he said.
Responding to Warner’s comments in the Boston Herald, Knight said “Regardless of whether someone thinks [addicted people] bring anything to the table, they are part of the 99 percent and that’s one of the things we are concerned about. In our country we treat a dependency issue as criminal when, in fact, it’s a health issue. If we treated it as a health issue rather than a criminal issue, you’d see a lot less of these type of situations escalating until they become violent and, in fact, a criminal issue. Addicts need to be helped, not punished.”
Talking about the “no drugs, no alcohol” signs that sprung up around camp, Knight guessed “I think word is getting out that this isn’t such a good place to do that sort of thing” while acknowledging the Boston Phoenix report of a rowdy drunk causing trouble at 9 a.m. one recent morning. Knight judged that the camp was now sheltering “fewer instances of drug and alcohol use” but said the occasional smell of marijuana — a substance include in the community ban against drugs — was proof the ban wasn’t being universally heeded.
“A lot of the people with dependency issues have taken the time to reflect on themselves. Others have been ejected from the camp…[some addicts] aren’t helping themselves and aren’t helping the movement, so unfortunately, at present, the options are limited at how and where they can get the help they need,” Knight said before adding, “the first step is admitting you have a problem.”
The Sign Tent is almost adjacent to the Safety Tent, and Knight had no complaints about how the Safety Team was handling crimes and conflicts. “Based on what they have to deal with,” he said, “They are doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances. In the past week, it’s gotten a lot better. It will continue to improve as those with dependency issues realize this community can offer them help if they chose to accept it.”