Last Friday at 6 p.m., several hundred people were already milling about Dewey Square by South Station in Boston. A man with buttons lining his hat took the megaphone to start the chant, “Whose city? Our city!”; Dan, it was explained to me, was an old face at protests in the city.
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests — thousands of protesters have been camping out in New York City since Sept. 17 — Occupy Boston has gathered thousands of people who also want to join in on the discussion about economic equality and democracy. The occupation, which started last Friday in Dewey Square, had drawn almost 2,000 people that evening at its peak, The Tech estimates.
While there is a general consensus among protestors that things need to change, what exactly this change entails is yet to be determined. They call this occupation a discussion of, by, and for the people: “Our country is owned by the top one percent. We are the 99 percent. Join the conversation!”
As people started filtering into Dewey Square, drumbeats resonated throughout the air, providing some entertainment for the growing crowd. People held signs high with slogans that became iconic of the Occupy Boston movement: “We are the 99%,” “No war but class war,” “United Against Wall Street.” The police occupying the borders of the square were politely ignored as the crowd began to organize itself.
Organized protest groups come together
Many of the protesters participating in Occupy Boston are also part of other Boston-area activist movements.
Take Back Boston, a joint protest covering Hyatt hotel layoffs, Verizon union disputes, and Bank of America foreclosures, began at 2 p.m. at Boston Common and ended its march in time for the occupation in Dewey Square.
The Boston coalition of Jobs with Justice, a national network seeking to empower workers and communities, set up a booth for the protesters, marking a stop sign with “Stop Corporate Greed” in a nearby flower pot. They were taking donations, signing people up on their email lists, and selling the newspaper Justice, produced by the Socialist Alternative — a national activist organization. Jeremy, who connected with Jobs with Justice at the protest, was wearing one of their small stickers on his chest as he relayed his concerns about the Bank of America; the bank gets excessive tax rebates and promotes gentrification by foreclosing homes, he said.
Other groups came ahead of time — in shirts — to put forth their own specific complaints.
A half-dozen people from the T Riders’ Union were angered by what they called the “classist” behavior of the MBTA. According to the group, while the MBTA services all of the Greater Boston area, the train lines avoid the poorer areas of the city, which are instead serviced by busses.
Critical Mass Boston, an organized bike group that “reclaims the streets of Boston for bikes” on the last Friday of every month, also made an appearance. Riding through Dewey Square, they were met with supportive cheers from the Occupy Boston protesters. Critical Mass, consisting of hundreds of bikers, stopped traffic as they took to the streets, slowing down and pausing in the square. Many of the bikers seemed fascinated by the protest and mingled with the protesters before taking off. Still others came back later to join the protest.
Emma, one of the riders, said that she has missed only a couple of rides since May. It is a “great way to get out and meet new friends,” she said.
New York-based Rude Mechanical Orchestra came to Boston to bring musical encouragement to the protest. Although only a small number were present, they played their music as loud as ever.
Protest attracts curious onlookers
Not everyone who participated in Occupy Boston were protest veterans. There were many new faces as well.
Visiting after work on her daughter’s advice, Kaitlyn was simply interested in seeing what was happening. Although she wasn’t sure she was ready to spend the night, she was curious about “joining the discussion.”
Social networking played a big role here. Salma, a resident of Medford originally from Morocco, had read about the protests on Twitter and decided to make an appearance. Students from the Wentworth Institute of Technology had heard about the protest on Facebook.
There were even those who dressed up for the occasion.
A man who went by the name “Boston Scooterdude” scootered up and down the sidewalk with his sign, “It’s all about Free Speech, and Free to be heard!” He attended the protest because he believed there was a lack of traditional media coverage of Occupy Wall Street.
“Everyone here is a CEO, a Community Excellence Organizer, and every one of them is just as important to me as the CEOs on Wall Street, and that is how it should be,” said Scooterdude.
One man in a suit and top hat was hoping irony would carry the message better. His sign read, “More Prisons Less Schools.” With his sign and costume he hoped to “capture some of the absurdity of the state of the nation.”
The Protest Chaplains didn’t arrive until later, dressed in white robes holding a cardboard sign inscribed with “Blessed are the poor.” The Chaplains said their goal was to bring “spiritual, emotional, and mental support to the protesters.” Marisa Egerstrom, one of the Chaplains, added, “People of all faiths are invited and welcome to talk with us and join us in the protest.”
Over 200 people had attended the first Occupy Boston planning meeting on Tuesday. Since then, the crowd grew at subsequent evening planning sessions. By Friday, almost 2,000 protesters split up into organizational groups: legal, medical, tactical, media, and food.
In a “general assembly” meeting, protestors spoke out with a people’s microphone; the crowd repeated the speaker, propagating the message. Hand symbols were used to show support or dissent for ideas, and to save voices for cheers as groups made announcements.
With everyone able to stand and speak, Kaitlyn explained, “It was a chance to be part of something bigger.”
One speaker summed it all up nicely: “No one slogan captures Occupy Boston. … It is a discussion, and everyone has a voice.”