Occupy Boston: The people and the land
I’ve lived in the Boston area on and off since 2005, and nothing I saw last night compares to anything that’s happened here in all those years. If there was ever a larger mass arrest in Boston history, I don’t know it. I spent nearly six hours at Occupy Boston last night and have been involved both as a participant and observer since the first assembly on the Boston Commons. This is a witness account and my analysis of it.
A midnight raid
At approximately midnight I called a comrade, went to the pharmacy to buy some generic Maalox bottles* and grabbed a cab for us to High Street above South Station. Public transportation had already stopped. Harvard Square stunk from overflowing trash and souring alcohol bottles. I didn’t know if there were more homeless (and mentally ill) people than usual in the unseasonable night, but other than us and them the streets were empty and eerie the entire ride over.
As we approached Dewey Square on Congress Street we saw tens of police and their cars beneath a parking overpass, and for the next five or so hours I never saw a police car (except unmarked ones, which were many) without their lights flashing.
The night was getting colder. Numbers were evenly divided between the first camp at Dewey and what is called the North Camp. There is a physical divisor between South and North but in terms of energy (and growing anxiety about the police presence) unity was being demonstrated in all kinds of ways.
I never stopped moving and tweeting because police were already trying to cut the head off North Camp and it made sense to be mobile. Despite the pre-police raid confusion I sensed some relief that over the last two weeks a solid set of nonviolent, inclusive principles had been agreed to by consensus, and that people refused to capitulate to what they perceived as illegitimate orders. Veterans for Peace were there with giant VFP and American flags—whatever the flag means to you (and in the waning hours of Columbus Day, possibly the largest theft of indigenous land in living history, it may mean a lot of things) their burly presence was a source of calculable relief.
Side note: Before yesterday one might have observed a tepid degree of warm feeling toward the Boston Police from a minority of organizers** either because of a perceived laissez-faire attitude toward the people’s occupation (notwithstanding consistent surveillance and very likely infiltration) or police-occupant legal negotiation. There was even a cardboard thank-you sign for Mayor Tom Menino for donated bicycle racks, but what a difference 24 hours make: Menino’s off-the-cuff, willfully amnesiac When It Comes to Civil Disobedience, I Will Not Tolerate Civil Disobedience in the City of Boston comment is now the source of widespread ridicule and disdain.
Meanwhile, police on motorcycles, vans, unmarked cars, sirened cars, and foot (someone mentioned horses though I didn’t witness this) began forming a large C around the North Camp, forcing people off the sidewalk and the streets. What many of us had been saying since the Twitter ‘warnings’ was becoming a point of fact, except rather than penning people into those infamous ‘free speech zones’ it appeared that Boston Police were going to charge North Camp first. Create an insular free speech zone in Dewey Square by destroying the unwelcome zone of speech and assembly in North Camp.
What happened next was alarming: a long, dark row of riot police with helmets and batons began filing in, as I briefly filmed here.
Within minutes Boston Police marched toward us. I was standing on this corner with dozens of media and observers with cameras so we could film the people’s front line vis-à-vis the riot police but we were verbally and physically pushed out of this area. Everyone protested and I even saw a mainstream media cameraman telling police, ‘But I’m on a public sidewalk!’ but we were swiftly kicked out. Except for photo and video cameras inside the encampment (or telephoto lenses from a nearby hotel) police blocked the line of vision completely. I am still stunned by the calculated nature of this operation, which I hadn’t witnessed in previous convergences in New York, Berkeley, D.C., and Miami.
The North Camp area is built on a ledge, and just as I moved away from the police presence (pictured above) to get a better look, riot police began attacking the inside of the encampment. They grabbed people by their necks (and some the buttocks) and threw them off the ledge. At least three young men inside the camp landed below my feet. There were grunts and bloody faces and people running from all directions.
A human chain tightened inside the encampment, as in this video I managed to shoot in between the heads of two police officers.
Scores of medic and legal team members were trapped inside the encampment and word about arrests started reaching us. When they weren’t arrested, medics were physically intimidated and escorted by police such as in this short video I shot.
I’m not doing justice to the spectacle of force that Boston Police fomented. Someone called it ‘smoke and mirrors’ that would give the awesome impression of violent authority without unleashing it completely. Paddy wagons were displayed in neat rows with their trunks opened. Motorcycles swept up and down the parallel streets. Some police looked tense. Others looked bored or sleepy.
People started using the ‘people’s mic’ (an echo effect of one speaker by all) to find lost loved ones.
Some of started walking back to Dewey to watch and protect the first encampment. People quickly assembled a human chain around the square. Very soon police motorcades (what honestly looked like a uniformed, steroidal species of Hell’s Angels) drove passed us, to the people’s loud jeers.
There were rumors of another riot police invasion that caused alarm, but when that didn’t transpire, people quickly gathered to mobilize solidarity actions (marches, posting bail) for arrestees. In a corner of Dewey someone blasted the Fugees.
We marched to the A1 Precinct jail and were confronted with Officer O’Rourke in his unmarked car. He said he personally gave the dispersal order and would gladly do it again because of Section 266.1 (?) unlawful assembly.
An hour or two earlier Boston Police tried to pin the entire affair on disruptions by ‘anarchists,’ an encoded dominant media word for lawlessness and mayhem rather than the disciplined, nonviolent, mutual aid-based meaning among activists and supporter themselves.
If it wasn’t a $150,000 lawn it was the anarchists. If it wasn’t the anarchists it was unlawful assembly. And so on and so forth.
There is going to be a lot of visual material to cull through and a lot of accounts to share. In closing I want to offer this addendum.
Eco-security and ‘who owns this place’
The Dewey Park occupation or first camp—where tents are pitched, logistics-medic-legal-food-media-waste management-direct action teams assembled, and where the nightly General Assembly happens every night—had quickly grown to full capacity. There was a growing interest in expanding the people’s occupation and it was the subject of lively debate at GA, where questions about (1) ownership of the land, (2) use rights to the land, (3) ecological concerns about the land, and (4) the growing needs of the mobilization were frequently and heatedly discussed. One thing that consistently inspired confidence was that proprietors from the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy had given the green light on land use. Their statement bears reproducing:
Highlighting the needs of occupants and their negotiations with land proprietors (perhaps it is more accurate to call them conservationists since we’re talking about public land) is important because this was the first police line yesterday (I still hesitate to call it a ‘we-gave-you-a-Twitter-warning’ but clearly that’s how they intended it).
In American colloquial English the first police charge against the people’s occupation might be called tender mercies: an ironic statement that someone entrusted with care cannot fulfill their obligation to treat something kindly or well. We are here to protect and care against your negligence (and disavowal of authority). It’s a form of eco-securing that I described in my very first post on this blog on the ‘Gaza wall’ in Rio de Janeiro as a purported way to save the Atlantic forest. As a form of penning or corralling eco-securitizing may be temporarily ‘effective’ but it is a discursive, and as we might see going forward, tactical failure. Not to mention that the single greatest ecological threat to the people, shrubbery, and land at the encampment yesterday were wearing riot helmets and carrying batons.
* When police outside the 2002 World Economic Forum barricades blasted us (completely unprovoked and without warning) with pepper spray two medics threw my head back and poured Maalox over it. I went temporarily blind and ended up in the hospital for treatment but am still grateful for what they did and try to carry antacid liquids and toss them to others in large convergences.
** One has to qualify these statements with racial and class analysis. Due to their substantial histories of police brutality and unaccountability in their communities, people of color are far, far less likely to demonstrate any warm feelings to police as their ‘protectors’ or care-givers and this has certainly been reflected in Occupy Boston’s General Assemblies.
(All photos except where indicated are by Sam Tarplin and used exclusively here with permission. To reproduce photos please contact for permission: <email@example.com>)