Last Friday, September 30th saw the launch of OccupyBoston, a local movement in solidarity with the protests in New York. Other major cities around the country, such as Miami, San Francisco and Washington D.C., also started their own “Occupations” to fight back against government corruption and corporate greed. Taking their cues from the protests in Tahrir Square, the movement is decentralized and mostly run by young people, experienced in grassroots activism but untouched by the taint of organized politics. After a week of the protests, the media finally started giving the movement some attention, although much of it delivered in a negative or condescending tone.
Like many people who first heard about these mass protests, I was cynical upon reaching Dewey Square, across the street from the Federal Reserve building of Boston. At first, it was exciting to see such a diverse crowd of people standing up for themselves. Black, white, brown, teens, kids, adults, everybody seemed to be represented as the people marched across the street while the cops, who didn’t seem to be bothered by the protesters, kept the people from being hit by oncoming traffic. A marching band let loose some infectious beats while a huge, paper machete head danced through the crowd. It was exciting. But a look around the block quickly brought me back to the ground.
When I looked around at the people not taking part, I expected some degree of curiosity. Instead, all I saw were iPhone zombies, presumably updating their status updates or playing Angry Birds. This said a lot to me at that moment. The people involved in this protest saw what was going on; that the middle class is disappearing and the American dream is being shredded like some incriminating Bank of America paperwork. The challenge isn’t getting people to occupy Boston. Rather, the challenge is getting everyone else to pay attention in an age of distraction. So needless to say, I was a bit let down.
I was unsure, up that point, what the exact plan was. Were we just going to stand around? Was someone going to speak? But around 8:00 my spirits lifted back up when the Occupation truly began. A group of about ten people stood on an improvised stage, a sign above reading “Media” in black sharpie. Because of a city ordinance against using amplified equipment, the leaders were forced to use what’s been dubbed “The People’s Mic” which came to prominence during the New York protests. For those unfamiliar, the People’s Mic sounds a bit silly but trust me when I say that in these situations, with little resources, it works well. Basically the message of the speaker is repeated by the crowd, naturally amplifying the message so the entire crowd can hear. I laughed at first but it soon created a sense of cohesion among the group.
The amount of organization among the group was staggering. The Occupation leaders assembled a team of lawyers for any future arrests, a food tent, a supplies tent. It was soon apparent that this wasn’t just a group of hippies who decided to camp out in a park; this was legit.
Like New York, Occupy Boston plans to stay in Dewey Square indefinitely (should be interesting come winter) and marches are planned each day during times when the most Boston foot traffic occurs.
To see the crowd defying the stereotype that the “young people don’t care” was exhilarating and it was hard not to be moved by the sacrifice and work that went into the Occupation. It’s easy to criticize but it’s even easier to do nothing about a system that we all know is rotten and set to implode. Of course, OccupyBoston will need to expand their reach over time, involving older folks, which will be difficult in terms of having the older generation take orders from the younger. The group would also do well by avoiding partisan politics and inviting those of all backgrounds to join. Remember, the protests are against government corruption, which transcends the tired democrat versus republican arguments. In that vein, they should be careful not to bring pet issues into the mix, as left leaning protests can often end up looking like liberal yard sales, with a confusing blend of issues clouding the focus.
Those skeptical of the movement, such as “liberal” websites such as The Daily Beast and other mainstream media outlets keep asking what the protesters are actually seeking. At a time when people receive information in soundbites, Occupy needs a succinct answer to that question or they will quickly disappear from the media radar. I would say that the group’s demands are pretty simple: We demand that our voices actually count for something.
It’s not that young people don’t care, it’s that they feel like they’re not being heard. And as money continues to decide elections, it looks as though they may be right.
JOEL FOSTER is a freelance writer and founder of www.mindwafers.com