Nov. 29, 2011
BOSTON — Two months into the Occupy Boston protests, a dramatic sea change appears to be taking place. WGBH News has spent several days visiting the encampment in Dewey Square. For the first time, we are hearing the depth of problems directly from the protesters.
By setting up a tent city in the heart of Boston’s financial district, an angry and frustrated segment of the American populace has been attempting to change the country’s obsession from deficit reduction to income inequality and joblessness. At the beginning of the Boston occupation — when tens of hundreds of students, teachers, janitors, electricians, the unemployed and many others converged on Dewey Square and the nearby Federal Reserve building — the movement was full of people chanting and clapping together, “This is what democracy looks like.”
But two months into the encampment, which has grown from four tents to more than 100, democracy looked like this, said one unnamed resident who took to the podium at Occupy Boston’s General Assembly meeting:
“People walk through here on Thanksgiving Day and people see people threatening each other and they don’t think it’s a safe place to bring their kids. They don’t want to recommend their friends come down. I mean, this is an amazing place [where] people have conversations that have been needed to be had for decades. And they’re finally happening here. This is the movement I’ve waited my whole lifetime for. And I see that it’s just going downhill and it’s going to crash into a brick wall real soon,” he said.
Something has happened within the ranks of the Occupy movement in Boston that is deeply troubling to some of its most hardened supporters.
Along with speeches and marches... drugs and fights
“One way you can die easily in the winter is by using alcohol, using opiate kind of drugs like heroin and I think it’s an open secret that such things are being used here," one resident said. "If somebody dies here it would be on my conscience forever. I don’t want that to happen and I know a lot of people here feel the same way.”
In interviews with WGBH News, organizers said that in spite of camp "rules" and attempts to keep the movement focused on the issues that brought residents together in a common cause, drugs and alcohol have been flowing freely in Dewey Square.
On Sunday, Nov. 27, WGBH News saw no fewer than three violent scuffles break out among those camped here, including one that required police intervention.
“He attacked me!” one man yelled, and other responded, “He attacked me!” while others tried to calm them down.
Occupy Boston has brought the middle class, the employed, the jobless and homeless people together, literally under the same tent. But with it comes a host of problems, camp spokesperson Alex Ingram said:
“This is a result of individuals trying to get, you know, the things that they’ve been denied by society, here. And it’s not exactly what we’re for," Ingram said. "Some of them eventually become involved in the community and find it as a way to help themselves. But you know, you will have those who just cause problems.”
When asked whether that kept some people from joining the movement, Ingram said, “It’s a difficult issue. It’s hard to turn anyone away.”
The Occupy Boston camp in Dewey Square is in the midst of a tug-of-war between two factions. The politicized individuals, including some who take part in planning marches and demonstrations but do not stay overnight — called “GAs" by some for their participation in the regular public General Assembly of supporters — are pitted against a guy named Phil.
This internal crisis came to a head over the weekend of Nov. 27 during the General Assembly. A man calling himself only Nelson spoke first:
“My proposal is that we ban Phil from the camp because he’s physically attacked some of the campers,” he said.
Camp resident Phil O’Connor — and a handful of his supporters — defended what he said was his right to remain in the camp, even though by his own admission he did not accept the democratic rules that guide actions and policies within Occupy Boston’s encampment.
“I don’t think people that don’t live here should be running the camp,” O’Connor responded from the podium. “I don’t care about the GAs. I keep on telling these people, GA all you want. Do politics, start proclamations. Make marches. Do anything you can. I only said one thing: You can’t go around evicting people and acting like Nazis. Just let the camp run itself and stop trying to be little rule-and-regulators."
Theresa, a psychologist who lives in Beverly and did not want her last name used, said that the tensions within the Occupy Boston encampment reflected the evolving nature of the camp itself. Many activists have viewed the Dewey Square occupation as symbolic of the “99 percent movement.” But to the homeless, Theresa said, it’s living quarters.
She was worried.
“We’re dealing with more difficult personalities," Theresa said. "[There’s] more aggression we’re seeing than we did then, at the beginning. I’m not sure why. I personally think that having a sense of place to come and gather at, a central location, to me is important. Which is why I try to talk on a smaller basis when people have conflicts to figure out how we can resolve those for the sake of the community.”
During the week of Nov. 28, drug counselors and representatives from Alcoholics Anonymous will visit the Occupy Boston tent city to assist those in need.
THANKSGIVING AT OCCUPY BOSTON