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For Occupy saga, an orderly close

Protest highlighted global cause, but what will linger?

(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / December 11, 2011
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The tent city occupation of Dewey Square left behind a battered patch of earth as black as a hole, stark and empty, with the sense that something had suddenly been torn out.

Before dawn yesterday, with dozens of arrests but also remarkable calm, it was.

For some 72 days, the Occupy Boston encampment drew populist dreamers, anticorporate crusaders, and street-weary homeless people to the site near South Station.

It also drew tourists, who witnessed a small-scale pilot study in self-government and gawked at an eyesore of tents and tarps staked pell-mell in the mud around a twisting boardwalk of wooden pallets.

The camp was Boston’s connection to the populist Occupy movement that has expanded worldwide in opposition to corporate greed, wealth inequity, and the free flow of money in politics.

City officials embraced much of the message, but eventually tired of the methods.

In the end, the half-acre encampment on the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway gave way peaceably, as a phalanx of law enforcement moved in, stunningly fast. It vanished amid the noisy grind of a trash compactor that crushed tent poles and makeshift furniture that hundreds of police officers dragged from the site.

It ended with dozens of demonstrators in plastic handcuffs, some literally carried away in a face-saving finale to an occupation that had declared it would never willingly abandon the land.

It ended without cracked skulls, tear gas, or bloodshed, a victory for both sides.

The protesters never issued a set of demands, and often it seemed they were pulling in different directions. But the encampment came to stand for a gut feeling, felt by many who have suffered in recent hard economic times, that some people get extremely rich on the engine of capitalism, but lots of others get run over.

“They have some very valuable ideas that need to be talked about more,’’ said Police Commissioner Edward Davis, early Saturday, as his officers sliced empty tents with knives and collapsed them.

The movement dates to mid-September with the establishment of Occupy Wall Street. The flagship protest in New York’s Zuccotti Park was within sight of financial institutions blamed for crashing the US economy.

The Boston camp was a smaller copy of the original, in the shadow of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, but surrounded mostly by companies that suffered from the financial collapse, rather than perpetrated it.

Still, many who camped in Dewey Square were thrilled by their own little taste of 1960s-style, take-it-to-the-streets political action, as well as the notion that they were part of something big and important, many for the first time in their lives.

“This experience and these relationships are irreplaceable,’’ said Occupy protester Mike Hipson, wide awake and beaming at 3 a.m. Saturday, two hours before the police raid. “I really don’t care if I can put that on a college application next year.’’

The movement governed itself by mass votes, through what it called its general assembly. It seemed to avoid “Lord of the Flies’’-style infighting and meltdowns that can plague leaderless groups, no matter the size.

“It’s a very small example of the kind of democracy we can have if people care for each other and listen to each other’s voices,’’ said Will Lynch, 18, a demonstrator who stayed up all night waiting for the rumored police raid.

Like the conservative Tea Party, the Occupy movement was ridiculed in its infancy. Occupy protesters were dismissed as lefty utopians who would rather start a drum circle than a small business.

But like the Tea Party, which elevated government spending to the top of the national conversation, the Occupy movement has already changed how America talks about politics.

In a speech last week in Kansas, President Obama declared rising income inequality “the defining issue of our time.’’

“He’s using our rhetoric because it’s striking a chord with people,’’ Hipson said. “That’s the success of the Occupy movement. We’re changing the dialogue. And we’re affecting every single person who walked through this camp and stayed longer than they had expected.’’

Though camping is not allowed in city parks, protesters began sleeping overnight in Dewey Square around Sept. 30 with the tacit approval of city officials.

The Greenway allowed demonstrators the use of electrical outlets to recharge their cellphones and laptops. Mayor Thomas Menino said he was sympathetic to the movement’s message and expressed his respect for free speech in the city of Boston. He set no time limit for the camp, so long as it was peaceful and safe.

Things soured in mid-October, when the tent city expanded to a neighboring section of the Greenway that the protesters had been asked to avoid.

Police raided the camp and arrested some 140 people on trespassing charges. Demonstrators complained of rough treatment. The raid served as a rallying point - protesters pleaded over the Internet for money for lawyers and bail; supporters from all over the world donated more than $10,000 in about a day.

Internet donations gave the movement staying power. Occupy Boston raised more than $43,000 for general needs through another online campaign. Protesters were thinking big: They were raising money for an electricity-generating wind turbine and had even talked, perhaps fantastically, about enclosing the entire camp under a clear dome of plastic wrap on a lightweight frame.

As November approached, thoughts turned to the coming winter. The camp’s contingent of long-term homeless was not impressed by the efforts at winterizing flimsy summer tents.

“The snow drifts that come between these buildings - oh, my God, they have no idea,’’ said Patrick, a 34-year-old homeless man staying at the camp, in an interview in late October.

But to the benefit of the protesters, and the consternation of those who wanted them gone, November was the second-warmest on record in Boston.

A New York police raid in November against Occupy Wall Street had a profound effect on the Boston demonstrators, who sought a court order to forbid the city from kicking them out of Dewey Square, on free speech grounds.

But the ruling, released last week, said the city has a right to close public parks to camping. Armed with the decision, the mayor told protesters to leave.

By the end, many were ready to go. “Medics want to go home. Please start the raid,’’ read a hand-penned sign on the camp’s first aid tent.

In the dark and chilly final hours, protesters said the loss of their base would not end their movement. They had already settled on a post-encampment motto, written on signs and on tents: “You Can’t Evict an Idea.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com

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