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Occupy’s support divided, poll says

Backing in Mass. split on political, geographic lines

By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / December 5, 2011
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Massachusetts residents are starkly divided over the Occupy movement, splitting along political, economic, and geographic lines, according to a new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll.

The survey found that 41 percent approved of the movement, 38 percent disapproved, and 21 percent were undecided or would not answer the question. Though the survey did not ask residents directly about their party affiliation, it found a strong correlation between support for the Occupy movement and approval of President Obama’s handling of the economy.

Forty-six percent approved of the president’s economic policies, 42 percent disapproved.

Women, blacks, younger adults, renters, and Suffolk County residents - all key Democratic constituencies - tended to hold more favorable views of the Occupy movement, which has taken over parks across the country and clashed with police in some cities. In Boston, police arrested 141 protesters in October after demonstrators tried to expand their tent city. “When you break up the demographics, it’s clear as a bell,’’ said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “The left-leaning residents are lining up behind both Obama’s approval rating and the Occupy movement’s approval rating.’’

The poll of 400 Bay State residents was conducted last week. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

The Occupy movement began in September, when protesters took over Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district to protest corporate power, the influence of Wall Street, and growing stratification of wealth in the country. Similar tent cities soon sprouted in cities around the world, including Boston, where protesters have been camped in Dewey Square, across from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, for more than two months.

Most of the protests have been relatively peaceful, but have caused friction with neighbors. Many cities have complained the encampments have become health hazards and sought to evict protesters. Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston has said he does not have immediate plans to evict the protesters, but his administration has asked a Suffolk Superior Court judge to lift a temporary court order barring the city from doing so.

Jill O’Loughlin, a 47-year-old crossing guard from Norwell, said the Occupy protests have largely had a positive impact, encouraging people to focus on issues such as the role of the financial sector in the financial crisis.

“The banks are too big to fail, so they got bailed out by the government,’’ O’Loughlin said. “I think Occupy Boston is bringing that to the attention of people.’’

But Peter Bekarian, 43, a commercial real estate broker, said he has a negative view of the protests because they do not seem to have clear objectives.

“I have yet to find a single person that could articulate why these people are camping out in a public park and what they hope to achieve,’’ said Bekarian, who lives in Boston. “It seems like a protest for protest’s sake.’’

As with Bekarian and O’Loughlin, the women polled were generally more sympathetic to the movement than men. About 44 percent of women expressed approval, compared with 37 percent of men.

About 53 percent of residents in Suffolk County (comprising Boston primarily) said they approved of the movement, compared with just 35 percent in Southeastern Massachusetts. Overall, the movement had more support in Massachusetts, known for its liberal leanings, than the nation as a whole. A Quinnipiac University survey last month found that only 29 percent of American voters polled had a favorable opinion of the Occupy movement, about the same percentage that had a positive impression of the Tea Party.

Only 23 percent of blacks interviewed expressed disapproval with the movement, compared with 40 percent of whites and Hispanics. Just 25 percent of renters frowned on the movement, compared with 41 percent of homeowners. Only 28 percent of unemployed workers expressed disapproval, compared with 41 percent of full-time employees.

Ariel Oshinsky, a spokeswoman for Occupy Boston, said the movement transcends ideological and political lines. It has attracted conservatives, unhappy with corporate subsidies, as well as liberals worried about the growing concentration of wealth.

“There’s a lot of strong diversity down there,’’ Oshinsky said. “We have more support from the left, but I have stood here arm and arm with people who are very much on the right, but also see the practices at banks and financial institutions have really disabled parts of our economy.’’

Oshinsky said she was not discouraged that so many have negative opinions of the movement. She said it is more important that it has sparked debate on the economy and other issues.

“We are creating a dialogue that didn’t exist three months ago,’’ she said. “Even if people don’t come down here or agree with the movement, it’s a win that they are talking about the movement.’’

But as the protest drags on, views of Occupy Boston may be changing. Claire Cheevers, 61, an employee benefits manager from Shrewsbury, said she was initially sympathetic, but now believes the occupations have become counterproductive. They are generating some negative headlines, she said, and forcing cities to spend money on police overtime and other expenses - money that could be used instead for programs that could help the poor, unemployed, and others.

“It’s time for them to disperse now and focus their energy somewhere where it’s going to do some good,’’ Cheevers said. “I don’t think anybody is going to go out to a tent and say ‘Here you go. Here’s a job.’ ’’

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.

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