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Needham

Protest finding backers in burbs

Activists strategize to support Occupy

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / October 27, 2011

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The sign by the front door of Artie Crocker’s Needham home bore a plain message: “I am the 99 percent.’’

At 52, the graphic designer and engineer still lives in the town where he was born and raised. He has two grown daughters, an aging cat, and a growing sense that somehow the America around him is just not right anymore.

Like others in support of Occupy protests on Wall Street and elsewhere around the globe, Crocker feels that America’s richest 1 percent have benefited fabulously in recent years while the other 99 percent have seen their wages and living standards stagnate.

“I saw what was going on on Wall Street and then I heard it was going on in Boston and I said, ‘I just can’t sit here and do nothing. I just can’t do it,’ ’’ Crocker said during a lull in the action at his home Sunday night.

There, crammed on green floral-patterned couches and folding chairs in the small living room were about 30 like-minded men and women from Boston’s suburbs who wanted to help keep the message of the Occupy protest in Boston and all around the nation alive - without having to actually camp out downtown.

The gathering was a pilot meeting, Crocker explained, for an expansion of the downtown-centered protests against big-money influence in politics to the suburbs.

Needham isn’t the only suburb where frustration with economic inequality has taken root.

A newly formed Occupy Salem organization rallied Tuesday afternoon at Riley Plaza in downtown Salem to support Occupy Boston, protest the role that banks played in the 2008 financial crisis, and ensure that regulations are in place to prevent a repeat of the problems.

“We just want to get started and hope people notice,’’ said Sue Kirby, 61, a member of the group. “In Salem we’re not talking about setting up tents yet, but we want to start the dialogue about what banks are doing and what needs to happen to straighten out the situation.’’

Kirby said the group is hoping to work with a similar organization that has been created at Salem State University.

In Needham, Crocker and local community activist Harmony Wu had sent out e-mail invitations and expected only a dozen people to show up.

Instead, they wound up with a standing-room-only event that drew people from Arlington, Belmont, Dedham, Newton, Norwood, Waltham, Weston, Westwood, and elsewhere to a tiny house on a cul-de-sac near Needham High School.

With a marker in each hand and her iPhone on a lanyard around her neck, Wu took questions and jotted suggestions on a note board.

“Who thinks we should meet again?’’ Hands flew up.

“Who wants to take part in one of these visibility actions?’’ More hands.

“Maybe we can put together a LISTSERV to keep us all updated,’’ one man suggested.

“How about a Facebook page?’’ a woman proposed.

“Make sure to sign the e-mail list!’’ Wu urged.

The 40-year-old mother of 8-year-old twins urged the sometimes boisterous crowd to organize letter-writing campaigns, make trips to the tent city in Boston’s Financial District and even pitch tents in their own yards. But most importantly, she said, they had to talk to friends and neighbors who may have written off the mass campouts as showy but unfocused demonstrations.

“The message is not vague. It is actually very precise: The economy is broken and our political system is broken and they are demanding we do something to change it,’’ Wu said. “We are the normals. We are the soccer moms. We are the PTA. Whatever. We’re not weirdos because we live in Needham with the good schools and we pay our taxes. If we are buying in and we can articulate why we are buying into the message, that becomes a powerful movement.’’

Wu and other organizers wondered what will happen when interest in the tent cities wanes not only in the media but among participants with the approach of winter.

“My interest as an organizer in the suburbs is how do we make this last? It’s no longer sexy and seductive to talk about people living in tents because, ‘Omigod, they are getting boring now,’ and, yeah, they’ve been there and they’ve become visual noise, but we still have the problems,’’ Wu said.

“We need to make sure we seize the opportunity,’’ she continued. “There is this huge risk we are just going to just say, ‘Oh, wow, remember that Occupy Movement? That was great. I held a sign.’ And go back to the way things were, right? Let us not squander the opportunity. Just because you are not sleeping outside in a sleeping bag in the cold - and I am not going to do that - that does not mean we don’t have a really, really important role to play.’’

The evening began with a round of introductions over hot cider and chocolate chip cookies and a burst of applause when 24-year-old Philip Anderson spoke.

“I’m Philip Anderson, originally from Westwood but currently residing in a tent in Dewey Square,’’ he said.

Anderson and fellow Occupy Boston organizer Jason Potteiger, 25, of Cambridge, want to see more Occupy-themed meetings in living rooms like Crocker’s. They plan to launch a website soon to help organize the sessions.

“Our point is to decentralize - to get people to stop saying they support Occupy and to start saying they are part of Occupy,’’ Anderson said. “We want them to occupy their own space in an e-format . . . then we can broadcast it so people feel their views are being represented on a global level.’’

Some at the meeting already were helping out the campers, including retired judge Margaret Zaleski, who has spent the last several Fridays cooking in her Newton home then hauling the food downtown to the Occupy camp.

“Last week I cooked pasta with pinto beans and broccoli and four loaves of pumpkin bread,’’ said Zaleski, who served “19 years, three months’’ as a district court judge before her retirement last year.

“I support what they are doing and this [meeting] was great. It affects our democracy. Until we can stop corporations from buying all our congressmen, we will not have a democracy worth having.’’

Betsy Boggia, 46, drove to Needham from nearby Natick with a stack of outreach kits downloaded from the Occupy Boston website. She has a son about to graduate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he has been active in the Occupy campaign there.

“I’m sick of hearing people say this is a vague and unfocused movement. If you look at the websites, you will see the discussion is intellectually rich,’’ Boggia said. “As far as I am concerned, those kids have succeeded already - everyone is talking about it. We are here tonight talking about how to get involved.

“This movement will fail on our backs - not on the backs of the kids down there in the tents.’’

Globe Correspondent Justin A. Rice contributed to this story.