United by differences

John Carlos, an athlete who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics, received a warm reception when he visited Friday afternoon.  (Blast Staff photo/John Stephen Dwyer)

John Carlos, an athlete who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics, received a warm reception when he visited Friday afternoon. (Blast Staff photo/John Stephen Dwyer)

Much of people’s time in the camp is spent discussing “the way society has been screwed by the ultra-rich and the government it seems to have by the cajones.”

On this level, people are quick to agree with one another. Beyond this level, differences are deep.

The Ron Paul supporters are widely regarded with horror because of their belief that civil rights issues should be decided on the state level (“yeah, great, just like when we had slavery”).

The anarchists are exchanging emails saying things like: “The problem, as usual, is liberals. We’ve been scrambling frantically since the first planning meetings to keep them from co-opting the whole process and turning the occupation into a Democratic Party-themed camp-out.”

If the wrong person gets wind that you’ve said something nice about Obama, or Al Gore, or the unions, you might discover there’s a certain crowd who now considers you an infiltrator rather than an ally.

And all around camp, at any given time, one can find political conversations in which both participants clearly think the other person is a complete idiot.

So far, the group has kept it together. There always seems to be at least one person at a given General Assembly meeting willing to remind the group to concentrate on that which is agreed upon rather than than which isn’t.

Organizers from Occupy Wall Street arrived earlier this week and held meetings to instruct protesters to organize themselves into “affinity groups” of like-minded individuals.

Keenly wary of anything that might divide its ranks, the Occupy Boston community has been so-far successful in redirecting the frustration of its members away from each other and against the super-rich 1 percent whenever things get too hairy. Protestors mostly — but not always — do a serviceable job evaluating each other’s ideas on a point-by-point basis rather than damning an idea because it came from a person with different politics. At any rate, the differences between protestors are both a problem that is wrestled daily and a source of strength and pride for the group.

It takes a village

Occupied Boston, as mentioned, has its own versions of what you might find in any of the towns around Boston.

Its police force is a security team that reacts to conflicts such as arguments over sleeping space by calming people down and drawing them into compromise.

Its government is the General Assembly, a democratic legislature willing to move in slow motion to make sure it really does reflect the will of the people.

One doesn’t need money to go to the “restaurant” — actually a food tent where donations ranging from fresh baked bread to boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee are distributed freely to anyone who wants them. This spot is sometimes staffed by vegans with a tendency to decide that certain food donations — especially junk foods — should be hidden away rather than handed out. But this doesn’t mean you won’t discover sweet desserts or a big pile of ham and cheese sandwiches here if your timing is right.

Logistics (the “home goods store” of the camp) is the place to go if you need warm clothes and blankets.

The medical tent has useful supplies (such as cough drops and toothpaste) as well as people trained to deal with minor issues such as dehydration and over-exposure.

There’s also a “Sacred Space” where people of all faiths go to pray, a tent solely devoted to sign-making and the materials used for it, and so on.

To a very few idealists, the various institutions within Occupy Boston should replace their hierarchical or profit-based counterparts in the larger society beyond Dewey Square. To more, they are simply evidence of people’s ability to come together in a crisis and to provide essential needs without the assistance of corporations or governments. As expressed by one college-age woman wearing the red cross symbol of a medical volunteer, “our medical tent can’t replace a hospital…but the way you get treated as a person when you show up at the medical tent should definitely replace the way you get treated as a problem when you show up at the hospital.”

Looking forward and back

Members of the Occupy Boston seem to be aware that they have a place in history between those who came before them and those who will follow. The massive civil rights movement of the 1960s is mentioned often, as are the struggles of Native Americans, LGBT people, and other groups throughout the ages.

John Carlos, an athlete who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics, received a warm reception when he visited Friday afternoon. On the other side of the coin, children passing through the camp have been told, “pay attention. You’re the next generation of this struggle.”

This awareness extends even into their leisure. On Music Row, for example, people stay up well into the night to socialize and play tunes. The tend to talk about funny things that happened to them in high school, what a jerk their old boss is — anything except the exhausting politics which occupies the attention of many throughout the day.

But even here, the context of history seems inescapable as the big Gandhi from the Peace Abbey seems to watch them from the corner of his eye. One morning, around 3 a.m., a college kid with a guitar sang a beautiful and unhurried rendition of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” a song commemorating a union leader who was executed almost 100 years ago. Whatever else happens to it, it seems likely that Occupy Boston will also be long-remembered.

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About The Author

Contributing editor John Stephen Dwyer is in love with his native Boston but has also done work in Amsterdam, London, New York, Paris and other cool cities. In recent months he's photographed notables including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Rosalynn Carter.

5 Responses

  1. Robert Allen Schledwitz

    OWS has won the first great battle by getting world wide Media attention and name recognition last Saturday. Time to move onto voter registration and education for next year’s pivotal election. We are still a Democracy. Winter is coming too and you cannot be camped out in blizzards and sub-zero temps. Declare victory now and move up to the next stage of the movement’s evolution. Hound politicians where they work. In the Spring the voters will join you in the occupations and protest marches once again. Americans have short attention spans. You need to be constantly morphing into something new or they will become bored and turn to another channel. Peace.

    Robert Allen Schledwitz
    Newburyport, MA

    • John Stephen Dwyer

      I can’t gauge the opinions of armchair supporters, but I know that among those living in and visiting Dewey Square, neither a winter hiatus, nor a plan to divert people’s passion for reform into another “business as usual” election, are popular ideas whatsoever. Protestors are quick to note that people live on the streets of Boston year-round with far less community support than Occupy Boston receives. Protestors also tend to react negatively to suggestions that they should keep themselves or their causes entertaining or palatable to the disinterested masses. In these matters, and others, the community constantly strives to maintain a useful balance of pragmatism and idealism. How well they succeed will only be revealed by the passage of time.

      • Robert Allen Schledwitz

        Well, I write this about a month later and my armchair predictions seem to be holding water. OWS is increasingly being seen in light of the few violent anarchists among you, police are forcing you off encampments and pundits in the Media are still trying to figure out how you expect to bring about the noble and correct goals you expound. No one doubts your sincerity or resolve. Just your using the same occupy tactics over and over expecting different results. Time to try new tactics to obtain your goals. And please do not put down elderly or others physically unable to join you in the encampments as “armchair” observers. We are strong supporters of you and your goals helping out in our own ways. Where the hell do you think the $500,000 cash and donations of food, clothing, etc. in contributions to the NYC OWS came from? The Tooth Fairy? Robert Allen Schledwitz Newburyport, MA

      • John Stephen Dwyer

        Who are these “violent anarchists?” Are you talking about people who break windows? Anarchism is a specific political viewpoint and if you think vandalism and anarchism are synonymous you need to educate yourself. At any rate, anarchist were vilified since week one and pundits in the media have been critical of Occupy since week one. These are not developments. Your statement “No one doubts your sincerity or resolve” is completely untrue; there are many who doubt both. Sometimes they even physically come to camp to jeer at the occupiers.

        You take a very hostile tone when you ask “Where the hell do you think the $500,000 cash and donations of food, clothing, etc. in contributions to the NYC OWS came from? The Tooth Fairy?” I don’t appreciate that. Further, I have not “put down” armchair supporters and I resent that implication. Do you know what I say to people who put $1 in the donation box? I tell them they needn’t consider themselves mere supporters and encourage them to fully consider themselves “occupiers” even if they never enter a tent. I suggest they “occupy your car or front lawn with a homemade sign, occupy your lunchroom at work with good conversations about this, occupy Facebook…”

        I will, however, maintain that the opinions of those experiencing Occupy “3-D, in real time, on the ground” are more relevant when deciding certain issues. This doesn’t make some people more important than others, it’s merely acknowledging that some people have more intimate knowledge of challenges facing Occupy encampments. This weekend, Occupy Boston had visitors from OWS, Occupy Burlington VA and elsewhere. They shared suggestions but no one presumed their opinion about how to run a given encampment was superior to the opinion of those who had actually lived there.

        I am glad if my articles help you understand somewhat Occupy Boston is like, but I reject the suggestion that you understand it as well as those weary people who simultaneously deal with hostile police, hostile addicts and hostile drunks passing by Occupy Boston at (for example) 3 am on a weekend night. The lives of Boston’s occupiers are in danger nightly. It’s palpable. They know this and believe the cause is worth it. They also know more subtleties of the situation than anyone could ever put in writing. I think that gives their opinion more weight in certain tactical matters (like whether to stay or go) than that of a financial donor.

        You also say that doing something “over and over expecting different results” isn’t good. If this concerns you, why do you make essentially the same comment again and again, repeatedly, here and on Facebook, to me for over a month? If you detect some short-temperedness in my above response to you from October 18, it may be because even back then your pattern of repeating yourself (despite having already been responded to) was well-established. However, as a supporter of free speech, I also support your right to continue to resemble a broken record repeating itself over and over. I wish, however, you’d give it a rest.

        Last night I made a comment on Facebook about the painfully serious challenges Occupy Boston faces. I asked that people who haven’t spent time there dealing with the life-or-death realities of it not respond. When I made that request, I was thinking of you, specifically, because you’ve been badgering me so much. I speculate that you read that and came here to give your 2 cents instead. That’s annoying as hell and makes me feel a bit like I’m being stalked. Thanks.

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