Noelle Swan

Occupy Boston: The Evolving Urban Legend of Violent Anarchists vs. Brutal Boston Police

Noelle Swan
New England Post
October 17, 2011
 

Depending on the ideological tilt of your preferred news source, you may have heard that violent anarchists lurk in Boston’s Financial District, threatening commuters and tourists. Alternatively, you may have read that brutal police dressed in riot gear are assaulting peace-loving hippies and aging veterans.

Since protesters settled on the small patch of grass across the street from Boston’s South Station on September 30, there have been numerous media reports of extremism and unjustified actions on the part of the Boston Police Department and the protesters.

From where I am standing on the ground, I just do not see it.

I have been covering the Occupy Boston protests since the group’s initial meeting on Boston Common on September 27. I have interviewed individual protesters, attended their consensus-based, town-meeting-style assemblies, covered their marches, chatted with police officers on detail in the protest zone, and written stories from the curb of Atlantic Avenue alongside picketers.

The 141 arrests made in the middle of the night following a day of peaceful but tense marches and sit-ins between police and protesters on Columbus Day sparked a volley of accusations from both sides.

During the raid, protesters uploaded accusations of police brutality to the website Twitter. “POLICE ARE BEATING THE VETERANS FOR PEACE,” a protester wrote, posting under the handle #Occupy_Boston. The post referred to members of a veterans’ peace group who carried white flags and placed themselves between advancing police officers and a chain of protesters encircling a newly established second camp.

The day after the raid, protesters told anyone willing to listen about excessive force. One young woman told me that she had seen a “crystal clear” video of the police beating the Veterans for Peace. The Occupy Boston media team posted that video and others to YouTube and several social media sites.

I have watched these videos many times, both from home and on a monitor at the Occupy media tent. What I see are officers firmly pressing people down on their stomachs and binding their hands with plastic cuffs. I was not there and cannot say for sure that other beatings did not take place that were not captured on camera. However, labeling what was caught on camera as an attack seems misleading and could hurt the group’s credibility.

Several young protesters wanted to talk about police hitting people with night sticks, manhandling female protesters, and kicking. However, when pressed, most of them admitted that they had not witnessed this violence with their own eyes but had heard about it from people that they trust.

One member of the Occupy Movement who seems trustworthy, an intelligent and highly informed mechanical engineer who studied political science at Caltech and has been fielding questions from the public at the campsite’s information table, said that the police were unduly rough but there was no use of billy clubs, no kicking, no hitting, and no beating.

However, the movement still deserves more credibility than the city of Boston has afforded it.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino told reporters that informants within the protest group had alerted them to the existence of a small anarchist faction within the group with its own violent agenda. He charged that this group was responsible for the attempted expansion of the original camp on Summer Street to a neighboring park in order to provoke police (sparking the police raid on Monday nigh)t.

Occupy Boston does include anarchists, along with capitalists, communists, socialists, and libertarians. Some dress in black and wear black bandannas over their faces. I have talked with many of the anarchists, sat next to them in community meetings, heard them sing along with the group, and watched them solicit signatures for petitions.

They appear to be intelligent, informed individuals who are fully participating in the community and organizing efforts of the movement, not troublemakers trying to subvert the movement for their violent purposes.

When I asked one woman about the black bandanna over her face, she told me that it had been a symbol of the anarchist movement for over 100 years. “Anarchy isn’t what you think it is,” she added. “Google it.”

She was referring to a popular stereotype of anarchists as bandits seeking a lawless, chaotic society where violence is commonplace. This inaccurate image of anarchism has been used to discredit it as a political theory for centuries. The Oxford Companion to Politics of the World breaks anarchism down into two groups: libertarians, who believe that public order, public services and defense can best be performed by volunteers; and communitarians, who believe that cooperative communities are the most effective and humane means of organizing social life. Neither support a violent society.

Those are the ideals I have heard expressed by the anarchists in Dewey Square.

Between exaggerated accusations of excessive force on the part of the Boston Police and charges of violent anarchists threatening to co-opt the movement, there runs a more subtle truth.

The protesters’ accusations of economic inequality and injustice ring true for many Americans. Even people I have interviewed who strongly oppose the occupation said that they are sympathetic to some of the complaints. The Mayor himself has admitted that he understands their frustrations. The sister occupations around the nation and the world show that these concerns are not exclusive to liberals living in the Northeast.

In Dewey Square and in the press, a meaningful dialogue has begun and it is only a matter of time before that conversation reverberates through Congress. The occupiers do not have the answers to the complex economic problems they are spotlighting. In response to criticism that they are merely complaining, they are attempting to formulate specific demands. They are reading Noam Chomsky, Karl Marx, and Howard Zinn. They are holding classes on political theory, corporate, personhood, and tax codes, and they are brainstorming practical proposals to bring to the public debate.

Around the perimeter of the park, police watch calmly, chew gum, and occasionally chat with passersby. Walking ahead of Occupy Boston marches, alongside photographers and the police escorts, I have had the opportunity to speak with numerous officers. They did not display any annoyance or frustration with the group, even when protesters leading a 2,000-person march on Columbus Day tried to evade and confuse the police as to where they were headed.

When that march arrived at the Charlestown Bridge, only then did the police draw a line, refusing to permit the throng to march on the aging bridge. They arrested one man in what seemed like a demonstration that they intended to hold firm their barricade.

Some protesters criticized the officers for drawing a line, but others admitted there are legitimate safety concerns about that particular bridge. It seems unlikely that the officers on scene had time to determine whether the bridge could hold that many people.

While it might appear from news reports and rumors that protesters and the police are braced for confrontation similar to the tensions between Occupy Wall Street protesters and New York City police, so far in Boston, both sides have shown themselves to be too smart for that.

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