In 2011, thousands of New Englanders occupied an obscure slice of Boston and became leaders in a national movement against greed. Five years later, we asked some of those activists to reflect on their radical protest camp experiment.
BY CHRIS FARAONE AND THE BOSTON INSTITUTE FOR NONPROFIT JOURNALISM
There’s yet to be a major motion picture about Occupy Wall Street. Perhaps there never will be. Nor was much attention paid two weeks ago to the five-year anniversary of the movement’s inception in Manhattan, while there’s unlikely to be very much media glow on Occupy Boston’s birthday this week, or to mark the days when hundreds of other encampments sprang up nationwide in 2011.
None of which changes the fact that hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of Americans participated in Occupy, each one of them outraged in some way or another over growing economic inequity. And so with the arbitrary but critical half-decade marker of the start of Occupy Boston—which lasted in encampment form at Dewey Square across from South Station for 70 days—upon us, we compiled an elaborate oral and pictorial history detailing what happened during those noteworthy months. Asking more than a dozen participants to look back, our hope was to extract lessons, get the basic backstory straight once and for all, and see where some of the peaceniks have landed.
It should be clear that there is no way to account for even close to everything that happened in those radical autumnal times. Even some individual days were hard to get a grip around, with one particularly active 24-hour period seeing: volunteer stylists from Newbury Street visit Dewey to trim overgrown Occupy mops; a dramatic early morning drug-related arrest; two separate marches, each with several hundred people, unfold in different directions; a city health inspector show up to inspect the commissary—and give the food tent a surprising nod of approval, however temporary; and the birth of a child. Despite the many facets and stages of the movement, even just locally, we tried our best to paint an accurate portrait, however abridged.*
Allison Nevitt (Occupy Boston facilitator): All movements have something that sparks them, and I think Occupy was definitely sparked by the banking debacle—bankers getting away with destroying the lives of everyone else. But when you attract people on a subject that attracts so many you are also going to start realizing how many things are connected to it.
Robin Jacks (Occupy Boston media): There were four people, including myself, who all kind of found each other on Twitter. That was maybe around the 25th [of September 2011]. It felt like it had been this really long time, but really Occupy [Wall Street] had only been happening for a week … There was a Facebook invite for our first meeting. I’m laughing thinking about it now because it’s so preposterous, but we were going to meet at the Bruegger’s Bagels in Downtown Crossing, which is like the size of a train car. We figured we’d meet there and maybe 10 people would show up. And then we were like, “No, that’s not going to work, we have to be somewhere outside.” … The invite [said] like 500 people were attending, so we said, “Let’s meet at the bandstand. Activists have done this for years. Let’s be part of that.”
Jay Kelly (Occupy Boston sign tent): I read about it in the Metro and went to check it out, and I wound up staying on … At the first planning meeting on the Common, there were like five breakout groups—I can remember one ended up being logistics, then media, food, medics …
Kade Crockford (Occupy Boston ally and privacy advocate): I was pleased that there were so many people out who wanted to do something … We broke into different groups, and people decided on where we wanted to march to, in addition to what place we wanted to take over, and the date on which we were going to have this march. Somebody proposed that we do it on the same day as the Right to the City march [against negligent lenders and for housing equity], and I thought that was a bad look—a bunch of white kids taking over that Right to the City march, which they had been planning for a long time. I tried to petition people to not do it.
Robin Jacks: We were calling for an occupation in the near future. I figured we would all meet up and in a few weeks, we’ll get a couple of people to put tents down, and maybe something would pick up, and if it didn’t we’d go home.
Nadeem Mazen (Occupy Boston media): At the [bandstand] meetings I had two things: one, if we don’t put in a ton of homework, we’re not going to do a good job, and the other was if we don’t collect one another’s information, we’re going to lose out on all the great momentum that’s happening early.
Rene Perez (Occupy Boston logistics): I came to the second [general assembly] on the Common. I wanted to know what activists are up to these days—are they any good anymore? And when I showed up, holy shit dude, what I saw was a competence level unlike anything I had ever dreamed of. I had followed [the Arab Spring in] Egypt, and I had expected tech savvy people to be there, but more than that, people who had been protesting for 10 years, who had been doing the anti-globalization stuff, who knew how to run a meeting, who knew horizontal democracy—were there discussing media strategies.
Kade Crockford: In retrospect, it’s probably a good thing the march happened [on September 30]. The two groups marched together—Occupy joined the Right to the City march, and after that kept on going by continuing to Dewey Square. I think it worked out.
John Stephen Dwyer (Occupy Boston safety team): Five years ago I had one of those really bad jobs where you’re calling people up asking for donations—from an office in downtown Boston. I was sitting in that office one day and I heard drums outside the window and I’m like, “What is that?” And there’s a parade going down the street from the Common, and it was Occupy and all the housing groups that were headed to Dewey Square. I had a second shift I was supposed to start, but this looked more fun and more interesting, so I just split and joined the throng and went down to Dewey Square. And I never went back to that job again.
Jen Elias (Occupy Boston logistics): I went there one night by myself, got caught in the rain, and after that I was totally hooked. It was unlike anything I had ever been a part of at the time, and I needed it. I would come up on my days off from school, then I would come up every other day. My friends thought it was cool, but they weren’t as enamored of it as I was. I saw it as something that was bigger than myself. I didn’t really understand what was going on, and I wanted to.
Patrick Doherty (Occupy Boston, various working groups): I had been at school at UMass Boston, and in the Army before that. I was in Iraq, served in Fallujah and Baghdad as a medic. Did security and combat missions. Then I got out and came home and went to school, and was in school until I heard about Occupy Boston. I had met a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War, and that had become my social circle. I was looking for a platform to express my grievances, and to just be pissed off at the government … There was a lot of energy. I just kind of got into that, dove in. It seemed like a welcome place, so I just stuck around.
John Ford (Occupy Boston library): I went on the night of the first mass arrest [October 10-11, 2011]. I went to New York prior to that. I had this sandwich board and I printed up the [Declaration of Occupy] and had it out there [in front of my bookstore] in Plymouth. I was like, “I have to take this into the suburbs. I have to stay here with it. It has to be bigger than just New York; it has to be bigger than just Boston. It has to go into the suburbs.” … And then I went to Boston on the night of the mass arrest, and I went back to my bookstore and was like, “I’m packing up.”
Lauren Chalas (Occupy Boston food tent): I told my boss that I was going back and forth to Occupy Boston, and she just didn’t even know what it was. I said, “It’s been all over the news,” and she was like, “I don’t watch the news, it makes me sad.”
Robin Jacks: The three choices were: Boston Common, Post Office Square, and then Dewey Square, which is this very narrow but long triangle of space wedged in by South Station. Now it’s a super popular place for yuppies to go get their lunch, but at the time it was nothing.
Jay Kelly: The visual aesthetic of Occupy Boston was generally a shambles, but the [Greenway Wall] basically became an art gallery. Artists came, made their stuff and put it up there. Sometimes people would just duct-tape a piece of poster board to the wall. Other artists came with very intricate wheat pastes.
Lauren Chalas: Most of the stuff in the food tent got stolen one night. Somebody just kind of came in and took all of the peanut butter and jelly and whatever they could find. They really robbed it blind. After that, somebody was always sleeping in the food tent to guard the food … The dishwashing was just so gross. It was so cold, and nobody wanted to do it. The dishwashing system was just a perfect little microcosm of why Marxism can’t work. Nobody wants to do dishes, ever. They would just pile up. You could just walk around the camp and you would see dishes and half-eaten food all over the place.
John Ford: Every time I hear somebody say that nobody wanted to do dishes I always feel this twinge or pang of sadness because there was this one dude there who was so quiet and had his shit together, and he was covered in neck tattoos, headphones in and nose down, but he’d be doing dishes almost every day. I only had a few interactions with him, but I remember one time he gave me this T-shirt from The Hempest that said “Occupy This” with a picture of the world on it … I never saw him on Facebook, never saw him again, but every time I hear someone say that nobody wanted to do dishes, I think, “No, that unsung hero did them.”
THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY
Allison Nevitt: I was probably most recognized as a facilitator and someone who was trying to help us understand consensus and democracy.
Bil Lewis (Occupy Boston facilitator): There were times when it [felt] like you were practically breaking up a fight. You’d have people screaming at you that you are a Nazi and you are part of the reason the world is so fucked up, but somehow you have to deal with that. It happened all the time.
Nadeem Mazen: Gaining and establishing consensus is hard. The beginning of Occupy helped me understand what I now call Ouija board democracy, which is if you can feel someone pushing too hard, you’re probably not going to reach consensus in a good way. But if everyone operates by the same rules, even if you disagree, you can find a way forward together.
Jay Kelly: Relationships were pretty good in general to start, and as things went on people who were managing the camp became stressed, people who were living in the camp became stressed, and the police became a stressor on everybody.
Ayesha Kazmi (Occupy Boston ally, researcher, and journalist): [During the first raid] the first people [police] attacked were the Veterans For Peace. It was hard to watch. As somebody who has protested in this city many times, to see these riot cops beating them up and arresting them was shocking.
Nadeem Mazen: I had this video of this [60-75-year-old man] being thrown to the ground. He was there with this group that was so honorable, and I remember I shopped it to these news networks and was told that they looked at the footage and it wasn’t that bad. The media really wasn’t interested.
Kade Crockford: We figured out a little about the human intelligence side of what’s going on with the Boston Police Department. And with surveillance. It was eye-opening to literally just look up in the sky and see that the spot we had chosen for this political encampment was probably one of the most highly surveilled spots in the City of Boston. Cameras just in a ring—the federal building on one corner, South Station, a major bank, and the highway running right by there, so Mass [Department of Transportation] cameras [too].
Bil Lewis: Something that sticks out in my mind is the day the sink came in. Our hero showed up with this giant kitchen sink that he had rewired so it would automatically recycle the water and clean it so we can have clean dishes. An officer said, “No, you can not bring that in,” and so immediately about 200 of us or so came down and assembled around the kitchen sink and began to mic-check the [officer].
John Ford: Andy [Claude, who made the sink] was one of the most capable people ever. He had the leather jacket … and had a long pony tail. He was the dude; he was like [MacGyver] … It was a sink with a battery that had a pump, so it pumped fresh water from a bucket and it drained out into a grey water bucket that you could dump.
Andy Claude (Occupy Boston logistics, words taken from affidavit given to Suffolk Superior Court regarding the sink incident, December 2011): I used to work as the property manager for the House of Blues in Cambridge, and I have many skills in the area of carpentry, plumbing, building, maintenance … I have built a number of water systems and sinks for different outdoor events, including several music festivals. Using my knowledge and experience, materials purchased with donations made to Occupy Boston, and my own donated pump system and battery, I designed and built a portable temporary double sink system for use at Occupy Boston … to provide a safer and more sanitary way to wash our dishes and our hands.
Rene Perez: The [strategy was] call the press. Because the Boston police were suppressing us in a way that we couldn’t take a photo of. So we had to create a situation that you could take photos of, that you could take videos of, and show it in action.
John Ford: I only knew Andy for a year—he died the year after Occupy. It was sad … He served as a mentor and a friend and a guide to a lot of people.
Rene Perez: The story of Andy is heartbreaking. He had just shown up. He was the kind of person who really knew gear … a handyman … He was so many people’s favorite person. We used to call him Uncle Andy. He was this middle-aged guy who just took life by the balls and shook things out of you.
Jen Elias: His memorial service was really something else. He had worked at the Middle East for a long time, and he built the air-conditioning vent system there. The Middle East catered the service. Everyone had really beautiful things to say about him.
Rene Perez: We only knew him for a few months, and it was devastating.
John Ford: There was a constant chatter about how to talk to the media … No matter who you were, you talked to the media at some point. It was inevitable.
Lauren Chalas: You realize just how bad reporters are when you go through something like that, because there were times I said something, or [John Ford] said something and the press would just get it wrong. They would get the person who said it wrong, or they would say John did something and he wasn’t even there.
Allison Nevitt: The powers that be and people who don’t like it [criticized] [the movement] for being too vague, but there were actually a lot of particular points being made. People like the idea of a single issue movement, but there’s no such thing. It’s a puzzle, everything shifts together.
Dennis Trainor, Jr. (Independent media maker, director of American Autumn Occudoc): The contrast between the media that I was producing and what the mainstream media was producing was black and white. They were ignoring it. So I felt a sort of stewardship and responsibility to get out content as quickly as possible.
Jay Kelly: I used [my personal] Twitter account to amplify the voices of the people who were around me, and ended up connecting with Occupy activists across the country, many of whom I’m still in contact with today, and many of whom I am still friends with.
Dennis Trainor, Jr.: It was really important to have livestreamers at protests, and I’m sure that many lawsuits were won and settlements were awarded based on footage that was captured live streaming.
Jay Kelly: Some folks would take advantage of the kitchen and disrupt the GA, and there was substance abuse …
Jen Elias: There were weird times when I realized I wasn’t as aware of what was going on internally as I thought. I feel like I was warm and open to everyone I met and was just green in that way.
Lauren Chalas: The camp was a perfect tent town, and people who are chronically homeless are often that way because they have extreme mental illness or extreme substance abuse problems … I remember one time a woman was just squatting down peeing just right in front of the medical tent, denying that she was peeing as it was happening. There were a lot of needles, just a lot of deranged stuff. It got really dark after a while.
Allison Nevitt: Occupations have historically been done by colonialist powers, so identifying with that—especially given that in some areas, the populations [of Occupy] were predominantly white, or ended up being predominately white because of the way tensions played out within groups—did lend itself to being problematic … It really brought home a lot of the race relations work that needs to be done.
Ayesha Kazmi: There were definitely some uncomfortable topics that I wanted to see brought up as a Muslim minority. I saw things coming, and I knew how some people were going to be viewed in the eyes of law enforcement. I had spent time with activists in New York too, and I was also telling them that they should expect to be treated like terrorists, and that [law enforcement] was going to be violent. Some were receptive. As for the bulk of the movement, they might not have been ready to have some of these more difficult and deeper conversations, like how is society going to treat you when you look like this?
Rene Perez: After about a week … I [sought out] a small group of people who I knew were dependable to come together and talk about how much money we were getting. We were getting so much money, and everyone was taking it, and there was no accountability. We had some bigger problems too, like all of this equipment disappearing from the media tent.
Lauren Chalas: I was a mess because I got what everyone was calling “Dewey Lung.” It was really really painful … I was really sick and I just couldn’t shake it. I only felt better when it was outside. As soon as I went back indoors I felt really sick again. A lot of people were sick. I think a lot of people forget just how sick everybody was.
Jen Elias: The night of the [final] raid [on December 10, 2011] it was really emotional for me. Everything was just being cleared out, and I was just kind of off to the side watching it.
Dennis Trainor, Jr.: Was the occupation about occupying physical space? Was that the revolution? That we wanted to live in Zuccotti Park? Or in Dewey Square? No … So as fall began to go into winter, and as the occupations began to dismantle themselves or were dismantled by a coordinated effort that many say came straight from Obama’s administration, people said, “What was that all about?” And, “How is that going to translate into something else?” Going into the winter, that became even more difficult … and covering the movement without that iconic space became harder, because there was no symbol. Very quickly people became much less interested in Occupy. Comparatively speaking, by February of 2012, nobody gives a shit anymore.
John Ford: We went [to general assemblies] for months [after the Dewey Square camp was raided], until it was sad. And I went to tell them, “What you’re doing is not right. It doesn’t feel right to anyone who’s not here anymore. You’re using the name of something that should be able to die off with dignity.”
Patrick Doherty: I don’t know if there was really much of a plan, but we were doing what we felt like doing, and there was freedom to express ourselves … I wanted it to last, and I wanted to avoid confrontation because of that. It was therapeutic. People were really talking about stuff and having conversations in a way that I have never experienced before.
Rene Perez: Occupy Boston was full of people who never knew each other, and everyone was in some kind of way fucking crazy. Either because movements like this bring atypical people, wingnuts, people all from over the place, but also like just being there all the time, when you’re in a revolution moment, you’re really tired, you’re out of your mind, you’ve barely slept, everyone is super weird.
Robin Jacks: Time was very different during Occupy. It was two-and-a-half months, but it felt like a year. When it was over it was like a bad, bad, bad breakup with someone you had been with for years and years, but really it was only two-and-a-half months. I guess it was a whirlwind romance of a movement.
Nadeem Mazen: When I see [Dewey Square] vibrant [now] I go, “Wow.” Elements for social engagement and civic engagement are still all here. When I’m here at night, there is that nostalgia for when we were all here and doing something cooperatively.
Bil Lewis: Of course it’s humorous to come back here and just remember the day and what it looked like, but other than that it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a square where something great happened.
John Dwyer: I’d go to some sort of drinky drinky event here. I’m not too dour for that. I teach in an after school program, so I’m usually priced out of that middle class stuff, but I’d go to that.
Kade Crockford: There was a lot more going on than just a conversation about economic inequality. I think a lot of time leftists are criticized for this … but one thing I thought that was great about Occupy Boston is there was a ton of stuff that is related to and maybe tangential to and maybe overlapping … that people were debating and protesting about and confronting very publicly there. People talk about what it’s like to have intersectional politics, but I think it’s a lot more important to live your intersectional politics than to just be politically correct or something. These issues are obviously related. We live in one world, right?
Rene Perez: There wasn’t a lot of consciousness at the time about intersectional politics. A lot of people blame the demise of Occupy on identity politics, but I kind of blame people not knowing and not being with it. And not knowing about the oppression of all these types of people and what it means to build a movement, because people straight up couldn’t communicate with each other.
John Dwyer: The thing about [differentiating between] life before Occupy and life after Occupy—it is really accurate for a lot of people who were involved with it, and I know it doesn’t necessarily make sense to people who were outside of it, but it was kind of a boot camp experience for people, and it was really emotionally intense. We were living on top of each other for three months, dealing with crazy problems every single day.
Jay Kelly: The thing about Occupy is it was something people figured out along the way. There was no definitive Occupy solution throughout any of the camps, whether it was just in Boston, or the camps in Boston and New York, Florida, Oklahoma. Each franchise had their own ideas, and their own struggles. But the overriding issue was the class system, with the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
John Dwyer: I actually got into teaching through people I met at Occupy. It seems like a lot of people who were at Occupy, at least who were in prominent roles, especially if they were upper-middle class people, did get jobs, or living situations, or partners through Occupy. I was just working that crappy phone job, so it wasn’t hard for me to leave and reorient my plans.
Nadeem Mazen: In five years, it’s not that Occupy has dissipated. It’s that it has made its natural way into other change agents and leaders and pundits … through that Occupy’s message has been made effective. We took something that was abstract and we put it in the hands of every organizer as they go about their social change work … I ran [for Cambridge City Council in 2013] thinking I would lose … and we won by six votes. Everyone who voted made the difference. And in my second term I got the most votes. It was a testament to ground organizing, to grassroots efforts, and to a new conversation about social equity—things that have been off the agenda at the federal level for a long time.
Allison Nevitt: I feel like the strongest legacy is a public understanding of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent. The numbers might be imperfect but the concept was so undiscussed before and embedded by the time [Occupy] was over. It was embedded enough that people were putting signs in their window saying, “We are the 99 Percent.” So when it was over we had started the recognition of the class war that’s been going on forever, we’re naming it, and we’re making people understand it. For me [the shutting down of the encampment] was the start of something.
John Dwyer: My housemates are Occupy people, my friends who I was just at the Marshfield Fair with are Occupy people … The networks from Occupy have been useful for actual activist work in Boston. I think the Olympics would still be trying to come here if Occupy didn’t happen.
John Ford: I would hate to think that it was this generation’s revolutionary moment. I would like to think that it was a precursor. There’s been a rhetorical shift, which got me enough to get up and vote for [Bernie Sanders], who was speaking the rhetoric that drove the Occupy movement.
Lauren Chalas: But did it do anything besides that? I think it’s too early to tell.
*One thing we know from the teachings of people’s historians like Howard Zinn, for whom the ongoing lecture series at Occupy Boston was named, is that the struggles of oppressed people are often forgotten. Considering the apparent impact of the movement on everything from the political dialogue to the countless schools and nonprofits at which former occupiers lend their talents, we wanted to ensure that these stories weren’t summarily dismissed. In addition to the narrative herein, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism also produced a podcast titled “Return to Dewey Square” and hosted a pop-up newsroom in early September.