Why the masks? 

Pausing on Beacon Street, protestors send a message to Bank of America exec Robert E. Gallery (Blast Staff photo/John Stephen Dwyer)

Pausing on Beacon Street, protestors send a message to Bank of America exec Robert E. Gallery (Blast Staff photo/John Stephen Dwyer)

A protest that almost fizzled turned into a successful one through the tenacity of the DA working group, one of the most interesting and whispered-about circles within Occupy Boston.  Despite (or because of) their masks and swagger, DA’s presence is essential in keeping Occupy Boston protests, for one full month without exception, non-violent.

While their appearance seems designed to frighten your grandparents, apparently nothing gets the DA group angrier than violence.  These peaceful warriors say they hate it and there’s no evidence they’re not honest.  And it was largely DA members who introduced Occupy Boston to the people of Harvard Square on Sunday, explained the reason for the commotion, and picked up their trash before leaving.  If these actions are indicative of their character, people needn’t worry.

While not everyone who wears a mask is associated with DA (and vice versa), this working group does gets criticism, from both outside the camp and within, because some hide their faces.  “Why the masks?” was a question asked by a young woman in the crowd at Harvard Square, on Sunday.  Two days later, a uniformed postal worker said to fellow on-lookers, “This is great, I support them entirely…but I wish they didn’t wear the masks, I don’t like the masks” before he loudly cheered the passing protestors.  And in heated moments following the “knife incident” in which Occupy Boston protestors were threatened two weeks ago, someone suggested that the masks especially favored by some in DA and the Safety Team foster an environment in which ugly things happen.

People give different reasons for wearing masks in and out of camp.  When things get tense, many occupiers don masks and other gear for protection against tear gas, pepper spray, and other chemicals used by law enforcement.  Some wear masks because they fear losing their jobs if their managers or bosses see them in the news – a legitimate concern, judging by stories.  One young man said he goes masked to reinforce the idea that he’s an “everyman” marching on behalf of people who aren’t there in person.  A few people — not DA but some older, street-hardened guys around camp — have indicated personal histories that make them wary of cameras.

Some argue that wearing a mask, in itself, challenges society norms and invites discussion about personal liberty.  But maybe the main reason masks are worn by so many Occupy Boston protestors, especially the younger ones, is simple:  It’s fun to dress in cool-looking paramilitary attire while fermenting a revolution, even a peaceful one.

It’s always possible the General Assembly of Occupy Boston or some other occupation will decide the masks are too much and reach a consensus against them.  For now they remain a popular form of self-expression throughout the global movement and judging DA, or anyone within the occupation, by their attire rather than their track record seems misguided.

Response to Oakland 

At some point on Sunday, as the protestors paused on the Cambridge side of the Charles, someone suggested that marches should be daily.  While Blast can’t confirm they marched on Monday, this was probably the busiest week for public protest since Occupy Boston began.

Tuesday, in response to the first major raid against Occupy Oakland, an emergency march was called by DA for rush hour that evening.  The march started down Atlantic Ave before people up front decided to turn around and enter South Station instead.  There, about 80 protestors stood in front of the giant schedule sign, waving flags and using the people’s mic to talk about what happened in Oakland.

They did the same thing in Downtown Crossing before climbing up Beacon Hill to FOX News studio on the corner of Park Street and Beacon Street.  Here, they made noise against the glass, used the people’s mic to accuse FOX of not talking about police violence against Occupy Oakland, and chanted “tell the truth.” Even in this, one of Occupy Boston’s more aggressive moments, the group showed restraint; when one young man climbed up the window, his compatriots quickly urged him down.

Having taunted FOX News to its satisfaction, the group crossed the street to the State House.  Here, they held their banner in front of the gate and flagbearers climbed atop the huge gateposts without interference from Massachusetts State Police who were watching their every move.  Protestors chanted “this is what a photo op looks like,” a humorous reference to their popular saying, “this is what democracy looks like,” before moving on.

After a stop at Robert E. Gallery’s townhouse, the protest ended up on Charles Street between Boston Common and the Public Garden.  Night had fully fallen by now, and occupation medics waved their hands in the headlights of oncoming traffic to signal the demonstrations approach.  This relatively hazardous traffic situation has become normal for smaller protests.  The demonstrators stopped again in Chinatown, at the Paifang, and this time they turned and verbally confronted the bike-mounted police following them.

Brendan, a person who had spoken in South Station, used the people’s mic to say “…police, you have a choice, you can continue to follow the orders of the state, which protects this miserable system, which tramples on democracy, or you can be courageous, you can be human beings, and make choices like the police in Albany, who chose to stand with people, if you don’t chose that, you are violent cowards, and enemies of democracy.”

One cop’s shoulders shook with laughter as someone yelled, “this is not a joking matter.”   The crowd broke into the chant “who do you protect?  who do you serve?” before proceeding back to Dewey Square.

Though Tuesday’s March wasn’t planned ahead, there were two demonstrations scheduled for Wednesday: one at 1 pm to protest the Patriot Act and the expanding prison-industrial complex, another at 5 pm in solidarity with Verizon workers.  These gatherings, however, were intensified by news that Scott Olsen, a Veterans of Peace member that had served two terms with the USMC in Iraq, had suffered a fractured skull from being hit by a tear gas canister in Oakland’s second night of violence.  The photo circulating online was graphic:  Olsen, carried by fellow occupiers, wore his desert fatigues over a shirt with an emblem of a dove.  His eyes were half-open and blood ran down his face.

For whatever reason, the 5 pm march was postponed to 9 p.m..  By then, police had parked an armored vehicle on the cobblestones near the Info Tent, fueling rumor of a raid.  The appearance of several police wagons didn’t help.  Someone at Occupy Boston announced via Facebook “Boston Police Dept. has switched to private channels and can’t be monitored on the scanner. Be alert and safe…The Boston Police Department has moved a special operations command vehicle into place near Dewey Park for the first time…Reports of large numbers of police at Dewey Park” and so on.  An urgent call for people to come to Dewey Square was widely interpreted to mean a raid was imminent but panic was avoided by the message soon after that “The police presence at Dewey is for the march. No need for concerns.”

According to reports, the Wednesday night march was similar to the previous night’s protest but bigger, (over 200 people) and angrier.  Again, they stopped at the FOX News studio to vent their aggression.  Again, they stopped at Robert E. Gallery’s house on Beacon Street and, reportedly, rang the doorbell.  Again they chanted “from Oakland to Greece, fuck the police” and “hey hey, ho ho, police brutality has got to go.”

And, as on Tuesday night, they walked into the headlights of oncoming traffic as they made their way through the city.  Ayesha Kazmi, a blogger and journalist, tweeted her worry “if motorcycles not assisting march then the police may have an excuse to clamp down on protest saying its a public order hazard…No bpd motorcycles visible following the march not a good sign… they are allowing motorists to get pissed…”

Despite these tensions, and scattered reports of outrageous words from people not involved with DA and ideologically out-of-synch with the movement, the march ended without major incident with the biggest news of the night being (once again) someone back at camp being intoxicated and causing a scene before being ejected.

To the trial of Tarek Mehanna 

At 7:30 the next morning, carrying umbrellas in the rain, a more conservatively-dressed group of protestors left the Occupy Boston site for US District Court in Boston where Tarek Mehanna, 28, a Sudbury pharmacist accused of supporting Al-Queda, was starting trial.  Mehanna’s name isn’t even known to some activists in camp, and others aren’t fond of him for the violent ideas he’s said to  espouse.  But there are some with a passionate belief that Mehanna was acting within his right to exercise free speech and is getting railroaded.

Jacob Dinklage, 22, explained via the Boston Anarchists Against Militarism (BAAM) announcement list, “The FBI and the Massachusetts US Attorney are accusing Dr. Mehanna of ‘material support for terrorism’ and related charges. His real offense in the eyes of the US government was his courage as a Muslim and a man of conscience: his opposition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; his vocal support for other Muslims falsely imprisoned by the US government and; his refusal to work as an informant for the FBI in the Muslim community. For these stands he now faces the possibility of life in prison.”

Since an October 9 event on Dewey Square resulted in Glenn Beck’s website announcing “Occupy Boston Holds Rally for Accused Terrorist,” there’s been certain people (including Tea Party supporters) who repeatedly accuse Occupy Boston of supporting anti-American terrorism.  The non-violent occupiers of Boston, in turn, generally consider that accusation too laughable to answer and “refuse to engage in that level of dialogue.”

Marching forward 

For Saturday, October 28, Occupy Boston is planning a 1 p.m. “New England Solidarity” march with allied organizations and communities including Occupy New Hampshire, Occupy Worcester, and others.  But, weather permitting, DA may call for a march before then.

Occupy Boston is, first and foremost, a protest community.  While on-site activities such as concerts and seminars can be fun and do indirectly serve goals of the movement, the first business of protest is protest.  Occupy Boston chose Dewey Square not just because it’s surrounded by financial giants; they chose it because it’s in the heart of Boston and outside the busiest transportation hub in New England.     That allows excellent opportunities to be seen by people.

As long as Occupy Boston continues to be seen it will continue to be talked about and will likely remain on track in its mission of harnessing popular frustration against corporatism.  If the occupation goes into hiding, for the winter or otherwise, the attention and support they’ve won over the past four weeks may quickly dissolve.

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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.

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