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Lawrence Harmon

‘Occupy’ has a lot to learn, a lot to teach

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / October 15, 2011

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A PROTESTER in a gas mask crowned by a metallic Mohawk headdress doesn’t rate a second look in the Occupy Boston tent encampment in Dewey Square. Neither do the dervishes whirling to a fiddle tune in the shadow of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. But beneath the offbeat surface, democracy is in top form. And no amount of dismissing the protesters as hippie throwbacks will change that fact.

Occupy Boston, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York’s financial district, is just a few weeks old. It will take more time to make the leap from protest movement to policy shaper. Maybe Occupy Boston will never get across that gulf. But the protesters’ chants about income disparity between the country’s top 1 percent of income earners and everyone else have deep resonance. And when it comes to fairness and equality, they practice what they preach.

On Tuesday night, the camp was buzzing with news of the earlier arrest of 141 protesters who had expanded their camp from a previously agreed-upon space in Dewey Square to a nearby section of the Greenway. More than a dozen protesters approached the microphone at the evening “general assembly’’ to describe their arrests, praise the courage of the arrested, and deride the police and mayor. Like-minded protesters cheered.

Then it got interesting. Stephanie Clarkson, a Quincy bartender, approached the lone microphone and chided the protesters for violating the spirit of an agreement by expanding the camp to where they weren’t welcome. Another protester dressed down the assembly more harshly, accusing some protesters of provoking the police. He decried the “hyperbolic propaganda’’ on the Occupy Boston website that mischaracterized the arrests as police brutality.

Such truth-telling by minority-opinion voices in a charged environment might be expected to generate catcalls, at the very least. There were none. Just polite applause after each speaker had said their piece. Occupy Boston protesters know better than many that free expression dies in an atmosphere of group intimidation as surely as it does in cases of government censorship.

The rest of Boston should only be so tolerant. Packed public meetings on passionate issues in this city - such as proposed school closures - often suffer from a lack of minority opinion. People are afraid to speak up for fear of heckling. Occupy Boston might have a lot to learn. But it also has a lot to teach.

It’s not just what the protesters say, but how they say it. With 1,000 people stretched over a wide area and limited capabilities for electronic amplification, communication is a challenge. What has developed at Occupy Boston and dozens of similar sites across the country is the “people’s microphone.’’ Someone many yards away from the podium who wants to be heard rises with a “point of information’’ expressed in small sentence blocks of three or four words that are repeated in unison by everyone within earshot. It’s surprisingly effective and resonant. Best of all, it only works if speakers make their points clearly and briefly. And it creates cohesiveness when people who may not agree with a statement participate in passing it along to those at the other end of the encampment.

The protesters’ message of disgust at corporate practices, bank bailouts, and tax policies that enrich a few while failing to generate economic productivity is starting to catch on with unions, religious groups, and members of the middle class. It was just as easy to locate teachers and architects in the Occupy Boston encampment as it was anarchists. And there is a sense that the movement could swell, fed by home foreclosures, joblessness, and simple economic indignities such as new fees on debit card transactions.

“They [the protesters] shouldn’t be underestimated,’’ said Chai Ling, an author and founder of a Boston education software company. She should know. As a leader of the 1989 student-led protest in China’s Tiananmen Square, she was responsible for providing tens of thousands of demonstrators with tents, food, water, and sanitation. On this night in Dewey Square, she was advising protesters on strategies for expanding their encampment and warning of the consequences when a nation’s young people lose hope for a better society.

“I feel their desire,’’ said Ling. “If it’s channeled properly, they can change America.’’

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.