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Norton reports: "Boston is a town so plagued with an unacknowledged drug problem that a mayor's aide was caught selling Oxycontin, only to be given probation. The Boston PD may be indifferent by habit, but the occupiers have no choice but to confront what the city has failed to deal with. The volunteer medical staff counsels and treats the addicts drawn to the open and generous environment, getting them into rehab, then getting them in again after they run away from rehab and return to the Occupy - all watched by a constant police presence."

Occupy Boston's 'Main Street' in the evening light. (photo: Wired)
Occupy Boston's 'Main Street' in the evening light. (photo: Wired)

Defying Police Blockade, Boston's Occupy Builds a City

By Quinn Norton, Wired

01 December 11


Occupy Wall Street: Take the Bull by the Horns


etween the 19th and the 21st of November, Occupy Boston had two teach-ins, a street-theater training, a reggae concert, and countless meetings - managing to use one of those as a cover to sneak a large weatherized tent past the ever-present Boston Police.

It was a member of the Occupy Boston's Women's caucus that told me they'd managed it, grinning widely, just as the tent was being set up as a dry, safe, and relatively warm place for women to shelter in the Occupy.

"It's considered contraband," she said, though she was gone before I could ask who considered it so. It was my introduction to the problems faced by these new residents of Dewey Square, in Boston's Financial District, where it plays out its particular flavor of protest camp in the shadow of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

Occupy Boston is a big occupation in every way, full of saints and sinners, human drama, pain, and the hint of redemption. It's a far cry from the Harvard Occupation, just miles away, made staid by Harvard's guards who won't let anyone in who doesn't have an ID from the Ivy League school. (See companion story.)

Jose Wiley, 32, volunteers in Logistics and lives at the Occupy. He moved to Los Angeles to become a filmmaker, but returned frustrated and unable to find work.

"We're all at that stage in our lives where we should be building our careers and it's not been an option for a lot of us," says Wiley. "I often say that's why I think this movement popped up overnight and exploded, and it has so many deeply committed people…. I think maybe some of us are realizing that maybe what we'd hoped for in life isn't going to happen."

Wiley mans the Logistics tent, a shade structure with shelves of organized, masking-tape-and-marker-labeled supplies, sitting next to piles of as yet unsorted donations. It's incredibly busy. While we talk, he still handles requests, giving out batteries to members of the Safety crew, socks to old homeless men, and telling people where to go to find food, blankets, and other people in the Occupy.

"This is something to commit to," he says. He takes a break and gives me the tour, pointing out different people in the community, tells me who they are and what they do for Occupy Boston. The community gives them something to care about, he explains. "That's what a lot of this is. We're rediscovering our self respect."

Occupy Boston is cacophonous day and night, dense and messy with enthusiastic humanity. Volunteers feed a thousand people a day.

The camp has a library, media tent, clothing tent, a place to make art and protest signs, and a sacred tent littered with the holy texts and statues of many faiths.

It has a dozen or so events per day, managed by its 57 working groups, who do everything from taking care of animal safety and planning direct actions to documenting and improving pedal powered generators - a favorite of their MIT contingent.

The mud endlessly creeps up around the bottom of the jammed-together tents, and walkways made of pallets cut the camp into sections. Each walkway is named; Main Street bisects the camp, Gandhi Way leads to Dewey Square's now-decorated Gandhi statue, with its thin and irregular curves.

Gandhi's dower and determined face remains perpetually overshadowed by the skyscraping white Federal Reserve building across from Dewey, which has a kind of Stalinist Lego architecture to it.

By night Occupy deals with the flip side of Boston life; the poor and hungry, the homeless, those with untreated medical problems, and those addicted to drugs. It sleeps around 230 to 250 people in an uneasy snooze punctuated by late-night talks, the quarrels of recent and ill-advised love affairs, drunken stumbles, and fights between men used to fighting - all the usual night demons that plague the troubled.

On my first night at Occupy Boston I woke to a man's voice yelling, ‘Get out of the tent! Get out!"

I obliged quickly, grabbing my backpack and running out behind the tent I was sharing with two others. I was afraid it was a raid, but it wasn't; in fact the command to get out of the tent wasn't even aimed at me, but at the occupant of the next tent, a man with vacant eyes, slightly open lips and shoulders that sagged lower on his left than his right.

Next to him stood a person with the Safety group, breathing hard and looking terribly annoyed, holding a fire extinguisher. Another member of the safety patrol was rifling through the still smoldering tent until he pulled out a jacket, and showed me and the others a badly charred sleeve.

The man with the extinguisher said to the tent's occupant, who still showed little sign of comprehension, "You can't ever smoke in your tent."

The smoker, looking scolded, asked, "Not even out the door, like this?" gesturing to the open flap.

The man in safety looked at him with undisguised frustration and said, "No!" He drew a breath and found his patience again. "No. You don't do that, and in exchange we'll give you all your meals, a place to stay, and all the love you want."

Occupy Boston is forced to deal head-on with Boston's neglected addicts. They drift into the camp past indifferent Boston PD, even while the Occupy's safety volunteers plead with police to do something about obvious drug use going on in front of them.

Boston is a town so plagued with an unacknowledged drug problem that a mayor's aide was caught selling Oxycontin, only to be given probation. The Boston PD may be indifferent by habit, but the occupiers have no choice but to confront what the city has failed to deal with. The volunteer medical staff counsels and treats the addicts drawn to the open and generous environment, getting them into rehab, then getting them in again after they run away from rehab and return to the Occupy - all watched by a constant police presence.

Much to the consternation of ever-watching Boston police, the tarp structure of the kitchen was, one rainy Tuesday at 2 a.m., replaced by a military surplus tent that had also been snuck in earlier that day. It was a triumph for the Occupy's ongoing attempt to weatherize, while ringed by police that won't let them bring in winter gear.

On Wednesday night, someone drove by and dropped off a shelf, which the occupiers wanted to put into the new kitchen. But police quickly surrounded it, and wouldn't let the occupiers move it into the camp.

"The only donations that are allowed are for food and clothing at this time," said the officer in charge, Sgt. Joseph Geevers.

I asked him to explain why, but he couldn't. "It's my first night here, so I don't know why they're allowing what. That's all I'm told."

Still, Geevers made phone calls to figure out what to do with the shelf, while the occupiers looked on, resigned. Eventually, after several hours of the junior officer guarding the metal shelf, the occupiers lost interest in it. A police truck came and took it away to the landfill.

Life goes on in the Occupy.

John Ford, 30, is a hero to many of the regulars of Occupy Boston. He stays in the Audre Lord to Howard Zinn Library, Occupy Boston's own library, housed in the best weatherized tent they have, up above the mud that plagues so much of the rest of the camp.

Ford works Safety, but the library is his heart.

"I would like this library to stand, if not here for proper drainage reasons, somewhere close by as a testament to public thought being open and accessible to everyone," he said.

Like the participants of Occupy Toronto, who surrendered the rest of the camp but chained themselves to their library, many people in Boston's Occupy give the library near-sacred status, but none more than Ford.

"The libraries everywhere are threatened. They're the last places that are accepting to anyone," said Ford. "Without the library I'd have been dead at 21."

John Ford in many ways epitomizes the Occupiers: never fitting into the system, emotional, not always perfectly articulate, but devoted, to the point of exhaustion, to the idea of a better world. Though obviously bright, Ford started failing out of school in the second grade.

As an adult, he worked bit jobs traveling around the country, printing t-shirts, reselling concert tickets, whatever would keep him moving. The only job Ford settled into was working at the Los Angeles Public Library for two years, where he learned he could love that piece of the system. He's a writer and artist, he speaks in raw emotional terms, the kind that often make people uncomfortable. But like a more kind-hearted version of Charles Bukowski, Ford seems to have no choice about it. He gets swept up by his own words and seems to nearly burst with feelings bigger than his gangly frame can contain.

On one night last week an addict with hepatitis C got into a fight, cut his head, and got blood inside his tent. Ford, on safety detail that night, had to make sure that the now-infected tent couldn't be reused. He'd been frightened, tired and determined. The camp medics took the man and got him into an ambulance, but Ford and others had to deal with the tent he shared with two others. They cut it apart and dragged it away for disposal.

He paces as he tries to describe how the whole thing felt.

"To talk about why you had to take a knife and cut somebody's tent apart while there was blood and everything else in it. Trying to rationalize your need to protect in your head both this larger ideal, then smaller this encampment, then smaller from these individuals' own wanton will to harm themselves."

Ford stops and leans against a wall.

"I hope this movement here can be more than people waking up and realizing that they have the innate numbers, so therefore they've already won," he says, referencing the rhetoric of the 99%. "That they actually do get together and care about stuff like the health and safety of the encampments and health and safety of those willing to protest in body."

Behind us, a group of worshipers gathered for communion in the area where Boston holds its GAs. They sang, and then gave thanks and prayed via the people's mic. Ford and I stopped to watch them.

They set up a little table, bringing out pita and something that was probably not actually wine. They were older than most of the Occupy, bundled tight against the cold night, and when the women sang their voices merged into a lilting and harmonious song that made the listener at once feel calmer. We stood, distracted, sometimes interviewing, sometimes falling silent and watching the ritual.

"One Sabbath," they intoned after the speaker in the call and response of the people's mic. "Jesus was in the synagogue," said the speaker. "Jesus was in the synagogue," replied the communion. "He spoke to the masses …" they went on.

Ford picked up again.

"Right now I'm here, it's hard to get away from what's happening here because it's not ephemeral to me, it's tenuous. It could become this huge wave. But it hasn't guaranteed itself yet…. It's not over yet. If I was to tell you what it was right now, it might not be the best. I've never read a story which starts out great and then stays that way to the end."

Behind him the communion began to sing I've Got Peace Like a River.

As we talked, an old bearded homeless man came up to the worshipers and began to yell at them, supportive, but nearly incoherent.

"I hear you blessing the lord," he screamed, "with the most perfect offering we can give the lord …"

They tried to keep singing, but he kept screaming his praise, fragments of misquoted verse, descending into a word salad of vaguely religious sounding phrases. One of the worshipers finally tried to walk the screaming man away. Ford said, "That dude, I should be engaging with him right now. I think he'll be fine. I know him. He's here all the time. But he asserts himself."

And with that, Ford stepped in. your social media marketing partner
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