Who is occupying Boston, and why? 2

Sacred Space

About 100 people participated in the assembly while an unguessable number remained distributed among the five dozen or so tents. In the medical tent, people were still going over some basic issues such as the liability difference between giving out aspirin and telling someone where a bottle of aspirin was located. In a tent zipped tight against the elements, what might have been an inquiry about interest in catching the end of the assembly was answered with a bellowing “assemblies suuuuuuck!”

In another public tent, this one known as the “Sacred Space,” a statuette of the Buddha was surrounded by battery-lit tea lights. One of those inside was Mike Zahniser, 29, of Jamaica Plain. Mike, a software engineer who works in the Leather District, called the journey from protest to work and back “the shortest commute of my life.” He’d been to enough assemblies to know he’d rather spend this time in the Sacred Space instead. But despite the creeping frustration with assemblies, neither Mike nor anyone else was down on the protest itself. He said “We’ve created an economy of generosity. There’s a sense here, ‘share what we have and there’s going to be enough.’”

A member of the Protest Chaplains (a group with ties to Harvard Divinity School and professing that “The love of Christ calls us to pursue God’s justice for all people”), Mike explained that he wanted to demonstrate a positive Christian example, especially to those liberals whose primary image of a Christian is a person criticizing them and what they believe. He was also there to attest to the necessity of non-violence. When asked if the possibility that the Occupy Movement might turn into something like the UK riots had crossed his mind, he admitted it had and added “I know from history that violent protests mostly don’t work and non-violent protests do…they’re twice as effective.”

The Bagel Man

From a distance, he can be most easily identified by a sort of cop hat covered with slogan buttons. At age 51, Dan Kontuff – known around the city as “Dan the Bagel Man” – has been called everything from “King of Boston’s Fringe Left” to “one of these people that protest just for the sake of protest.” Either way, Occupy Boston is something he’s waited years for and he doesn’t want to miss the opportunity.

He describes himself as an “old time activist” and says “to me, everyone who walks the streets of Boston could potentially be an activist too.” He describes Occupy Boston as having “Good energy…lots of good people from all walks of life.” The turn out delights him. “We have a protest against the war? We get 50 people. But look how many people we got here!”

Unsurprisingly, Kontuff wasn’t among those who could prioritize a few top demands. “Heath care, jobs, housing, climate change, the war…you can’t just say one thing.” As for the supposed “media blackout” on the Occupy Movement, especially when compared to the intense coverage given to the nascent Tea Party just a couple years ago? Kontuff says “media has been good. How many times have we had a protest and there’s no media? This is building.”

As someone who has spent so much of his life advocating for something similar to Occupy Boston, he’s made it his top priority. “I’ve lost my business twice because of my politics, but it’s all good…I’m ready to go to jail again for my country.”

An occupied world

As the sun rises over day five of Occupy Boston, the website “occupytogether.org” lists almost 150 communities across the United States that are hosting some version of what’s happening in New York and Boston. There are also just under 50 under cities outside the US listed, but a look on Facebook indicates there are many more where things are happening. It’s not certain which of these cities have a physical community of protestors gathered in some public space and which (if any) remain expressions of solidarity still existing solely in the cyber-realm. Neither “Occupy Boston” nor the “Occupy Movement” itself have Wikipedia pages yet and it feels weird to see something unfold faster and with more enthusiasm than people can talk about it on the Internet.

Vis-a-vis the miniscule percentage of the population that even seems interested in what’s happening, it’s both easy and tempting to minimize or dismiss this movement. But there are indications one shouldn’t. Some are based on certainty, like the fact that Transportation Workers Union Local-100 – an NYC labor union representing over 40,000 bus drivers, conductors and others who work the transportation lines – has given Occupy Wall Street it’s official support. Some are based on uncertainly, such as questions about how the Occupy Movement will be remembered in the context of riots and revolutions that have flared up across the globe in 2011.

The little encampments that have sprung up cites like Chicago, Denver and our nation’s capitol could wither with the first frost of winter. Or those same tent cities, like the Hoovervilles of the great Depression, might remain standing long enough to serve as the symbols of the malaise of their era. If simply ignored long enough, some of these protest areas might conceivably come to resemble Christiania, the self-governing “free town” in Copenhagen established in 1971 that still endures.

For now, it is enough to know the Occupy Boston protest is there. Thousands of people each day see it on the way to and from South Station. Thousands of tinted windows look down from huge towers of metal and stone to its comparatively tiny jumble of fabric, cardboard, and rope. If nothing else, a small group of people have physically brought themselves to the symbolic feet of the corporate giants and financial institutions they blame for much of their misery. The least of their goals? For those giants to acknowledge the flea-like beings at their toes as humans who deserve to benefit from the fruits of their own labor.