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When the crowds go away: a night in Occupy Boston’s tent city

Posted by Roy Greene  November 16, 2011 03:40 PM

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(Photo by Jamie Reysen for boston.com)


By night, Dewey Square is a mix of strong believers and homeless folks, who’ve established a new home – a small city within the city.

Emerson College journalism student Jamie Reysen spent a recent night at Dewey Square to get a sense of what life is like at the Occupy Boston encampment after the day’s crowds disperse.

My night begins with a guide who calls himself the Grim Reaper.

I’ve come to Dewey Square, home of Occupy Boston’s then 23-day-old encampment, for a glimpse of life in this tent city when the tourists, commuters and media have all departed.

The Grim Reaper wears all black, with a “Veterans for Peace” pin penned to his sweatshirt and his right arm in a cast, following an altercation of some sort the night before. He offers to show me around.

Grim Reaper leads me down the narrow lane called Gandhi Street, marked by a statue of the late Indian leader. He points to Weirdo Street, a narrow strip of grass along Atlantic Avenue, on the outskirts of Dewey Square. “No reason to go over there,” he says. “It’s just where all the weirdos live.”

He weaves expertly through “side streets” – small planks of wood that serve as makeshift pathways for navigating through the sea of tents. As he walks, he references police run-ins, fights among residents and internal issues – all vague, half-explained and muffled by the ski mask that covers his mouth.

He lifts his mask but once to talk about his time in the military. And he bangs on both legs – metal prosthetics substituting for the limbs he lost overseas.

“Be careful and look for someone in a yellow vest, if anything happens,” he says as the tour ends.

The tent city

By day, Occupy Boston is a leaderless movement of serious young adults and older, seasoned protesters. It has become a local attraction for tourists and Boston residents alike, who visit Dewey Square for events such as musician Amanda Palmer’s Oct. 6 performance and social activist Noam Chomsky’s Oct. 22 appearance.

By night, Dewey Square is a mix of strong believers and homeless folks, who’ve established a new home – a small city within the city. It has its own streets, its own neighborhoods, its own crime from time-to-time, its own neon-vest-clad security … and a single Boston Police Department officer, who stays outside the perimeter on detail overnight.

Like any city, the Dewey Square encampment has its “commercial” section – tents filled with food and donated clothes. There’s a space for yoga, a library. There’s also a legal tent and a medical tent. And Occupy has its own news publication.

All this is squeezed into the triangular space between Summer Street, Atlantic Avenue and the John F. Kennedy Expressway. Across the street, to the east is South Station – home to the nearest public bathroom, which closes at 1 a.m.

To the west: The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, symbol of the “1 percent,” the perceived greed of Wall Street and the banking community, two forces that triggered these protests nationwide. As many as 300 people live in Dewey Square day and night; others commute there each morning.

As arrests in recent weeks in Oakland, Portland, Ore., and Atlanta have demonstrated, this encampment – like other offshoots of Occupy Wall Street around the country – survives but for the restraint of the local government. How long that restraint will last no one knows.

But protesters have begun the process of preparing for winter and say they’re planning to stay for the long haul.

The General Assembly

Like most nights, Occupy Boston protesters gather at 7 p.m. this evening for the General Assembly, the movement’s core decision-making body. The meetings represent the idea of horizontal democracy, in which there are no leaders and no one voice is more important than the rest.

During these gatherings, some protesters present proposals, and attendees can voice their support, objections or amendments.

But people have stopped showing up regularly. The once daily assemblies were recently cut down to four days a week; participants said they couldn’t find time to both attend assemblies and meet with their working groups each night.

On this night, a protester named Justin offers the only drafted proposal:

He proposes this statement of purpose: “We the people of Occupy Dewey Square, under the name Occupy Boston, have done so in order to maintain a place where all voices are welcome for the open discussion of ideas, grievances and potential solutions to the problems apparent in our society. We will also hold General Assemblies where proposals may be brought to the group as a whole to be consented. We have and will continue to occupy this space for the purpose of democracy.”

The proposal is broadcast over the public address system, and audience members speak their mind one short phrase at a time. The facilitator then repeats each phrase for all to hear.

A facilitator repeats an audience member’s amendment: “I would like to include the idea that the current system economically, socially, philosophically is not working for the majority of citizens in this country and internationally.” The audience agrees; the amendment is added.

By 8:15 p.m., the 30 or 40 people present reach consensus on the proposal. Justin, 23, who commutes daily from Whitman, asks that his full name be omitted because, he says, the proposal belongs to the movement as a whole. He says he doesn’t want to be identified as a leader because it goes against the grain of horizontal democracy.

After the official assembly ends, the mic stays open for attendees to share their thoughts or stories. As a woman tells the audience how she became homeless – a story that includes her mother’s death and a drug-dealing ex-boyfriend – most participants drift away.

A dime bag half-filled with white powder lies on the concrete, forgotten or abandoned. It’s my first of several drug and alcohol sightings on the substance-free campsite.

The neighborhood library

Over long days and nights of protest, there’s plenty of time to read.

The Howard Zinn Library has a ton of material from which to choose, from nonfiction books on gender and equality to well-known works of fiction like Kurt Vonnegut’s "Cat’s Cradle." A whole shelf is dedicated to the works of Zinn – the late social activist and Boston University historian. Another is devoted to “Papa Noam,” educator, linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

John Ford, 30, has temporarily closed his Plymouth bookstore to man the library, a tent filled with books he and other local librarians have donated. The rental process is simple: Write down your name, take out the book and return it when you’re done.

It’s here that I meet 22-year-old Georgia native Alex Ingram, who says he was honorably discharged from the Air Force on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. Ingram was recently accepted to Northeastern University for the upcoming spring semester. Ford asks him what he’ll be studying, and Ingram looks down and says, with a laugh: “International business.”

“It is what it is,” Ford says, shrugging, but smiling.

The two new friends share a tent – prime real estate, they say.

This joke isn’t the only reference I hear to the camp’s demarcations.

First, Grim Reaper is dismissive of Weirdo Street residents. Later, a police officer on duty signals the spot where two groups – unified activists and less serious, fragmented groups – split.

Ford and Ingram’s tent is nestled behind the library and adjacent to the media tent. That’s why Ingram likes it. “Short commute to work,” he jokes.

Ingram works 16-hour days at the media tent. He translates text and videos into Russian, a skill he mastered when he served as a translator in the Air Force. He’s also fluent in English and French, and he says he regrets never learning Swahili, a language spoken by some of his ancestors.

Near midnight, Ingram retreats to the media tent to translate Chomsky’s speech, given the previous night at Dewey Square.

Late night with Occupy’s media maven

As the night progresses and the temperature drops, protesters head to their tents.

Street lamps provide limited light, and it's brighter toward the back – a combination of streetlights and glowing apple logos near the media section.

At midnight, I meet Stephanie Fail and Greg Bagen, two Dewey square occupants who seem to have become fast friends. Fail, a 24-year-old UMass Boston student, invites me to join them at the media table.

The anthropology and journalism student had originally moved into Dewey Square to write a story about it. But as of Oct. 23, she had been there 16 days, dropping a class to devote more time to her work within the movement.

Fail has been managing content for Occupy Boston Globe, the camp’s news outlet, which had surpassed its $8,000 fund-raising goal that day on Kickstarter. Citizen journalists and fellow protesters contribute text stories, photos, and video footage. Fail writes and edits content for the internal news blog, and she has been holding seminars to teach protesters how to write like journalists. Journalism is a trade, she reasons. It can be learned.

She shows me the edits she made to a writer’s story about a recent march, complete with explanations about the changes made. She cut negative adverbs that described police actions, and she has asked writers to add more specifics, like: How many people were there?

She also has cut the last line of the story, in which the writer offered his negative opinion of Mayor Menino’s behavior; she says she couldn’t include it without giving the mayor’s spokesperson an opportunity to comment.

In a separate browser window, Fail uploads videos to YouTube, which include protester accounts of what interviewees described as police brutality during October arrests.

Then, Fail shows me a clip of a police officer next to a man dressed in civilian clothes. In
the clip, the two men don’t look at each other, but they share a laugh.

A man long familiar with life on the street

Bagen, 35, watches the video clip, and chimes in: “That guy tried to buy coke from me.”
He’s referring to the man who stands next to the police officer.

Bagen says the man approached him looking for drugs, to which Bagen replied he had none. He and Fail speculate as to whether he’s an undercover cop.

Bagen acknowledges he’s done time in jail for drug possession. But for most of the last 15 years, he has simply been homeless. He says he knows many of Boston’s police officers. They’ve gotten used to “moving him along” from storefront to storefront when they get calls about a panhandler outside local businesses.

Though he’s had his run-ins for years with the police, he’s more forgiving than other protesters in talking about them.

“They’re just doing their job,” he says.

Bagen says police get frustrated with the homeless because they ask them to move away from one business, only to find them outside another. But homeless people don’t have anywhere else to go, Bagen says. Shelters make people leave during the day, and at night, he says, many are dangerous places, riddled with drugs – not a good situation for those trying to beat a drug habit.

It’s now nearly 2 a.m. and the cold is starting to get to me (temperatures dipped to the low 40s in the early hours of Oct. 24). Fail offers me her space blanket, a plastic sheet coated with metal that reflects heat – it’s warmer than it sounds. Bagen says the coldest hours will arrive between 3:30 and 6 a.m..

“What do you do when it gets colder than this?” I ask.

“Just keep moving,” he says.

Bagen is full of information. The longer I stay at the media table, the more I learn about life on the streets and the perils of homelessness.

Before Occupy’s encampment, he says he slept in the streets, in public garages and, once, in an elevator shaft, inches from the wires.

Bagen knows the length of jail sentences for most crimes. He says it’s not common for homeless people to break the law just to land them somewhere warm with three meals a day for the duration of winter.

Despite my status as a private college student, whose mother co-signs her loans and pays her ridiculously pricey rent, Bagen never treats me with any sense of resentment.

He has few material possessions and no permanent residence. Yet his concern is often for others. He tells me the story of a local homeless woman, whose father allegedly sold her to men from the age of 5 upward.

“People think she’s just crazy, but she needs help,” Bagen says, a sadness in his eyes. “No one will help this woman.”

At about 2 a.m., an hour after the public South Station bathrooms have closed for the night, he offers to walk me to the station’s bus terminal entrance, which he says is still open.

Bagen’s anger is mostly about the shelter system and the struggles he says he’s had getting a roof over his head. He tells the story of waiting for a room through the subsidized single room occupancy program with the Cambridge Housing Authority. He says he was getting close to the top of the list when someone in the office told him there was a problem with his application. He says he never found out why.

Bagen arrived at Dewey Square just two days before I met him. He says he’s planning to stay awhile. In a sense, he pays rent by supporting the movement.

“Day two, and I’m already marching up front and holding signs,” he says, laughing.

Fail estimates that 40 percent of those encamped at Dewey Square are homeless. Bagen says he doubts the number is that high. But the homeless clearly are a growing part of the permanent encampment.

Around 3 a.m., Fail and Bagen head to the tents they’ll be staying in for the night. Like many living at Dewey Square, they stay wherever there’s a space. Recently, organizers set up an “Adopt a Camper” program, where tent owners with extra room can volunteer to invite a newcomer into their canvas homes for the night.

Over the course of the night, several occupiers offer to give me a spot in a tent so that I can get some rest. I elect to stay awake – and keep moving to stay warm.

As the camp settles in quiet and darkness – with even the neon-vested security team nowhere to be found— I’m grateful that my boyfriend convinced me to let him come along.

The wee hours

Around 3:15 a.m., I finally make the trek over to the bus station terminal bathroom that Bagen had told me about. Sure enough, the entrance is open – but I need permission to move past the lobby, which is patrolled by a security guard overnight. I ask her if I can quickly use the bathroom.

“Just don’t paint on the walls,” she says.

Sunrise

When I return, a couple of protesters are still awake, chatting at the media table. But it appears nearly everyone who wants to rest has found a tent to sleep in for the night, although a few lay bundled up on benches along Gandhi Street.

Just after 7 a.m., the center of tent city sleeps as the sun rises. The Boston Police presence has grown from one officer to four.

Along Weirdo Street, a handful of people unzip and emerge from their canvas homes, likely stirred by cars whizzing by—many of them honking as they pass.

Men in suits and women in pencil skirts speed-walk past the encampment and into surrounding buildings. It’s Monday, the first day of another week at work.

It will be a few hours before the whole tent city is up and running again, another day of leaderless protest. On the docket: OccuPoetry on the plaza at 2:30 p.m. and members of the Occupy Somerville movement to speak at 7.

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and Emerson College.

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