Noelle Swan

Occupy Protesters Fight Fire with Photo Op

Noelle Swan
New England Post
December 7, 2011
 

Occupy Boston protesters are discovering that in order to wage war on corporate greed, predatory banking, and electoral corruption, they must first face off with two more localized foes: the fire marshal, and fire itself.

City officials thwarted a very public attempt by Occupy protesters to bring in a large, flame retardant, military-style tent on Monday, citing the lack of building permit. The decision frustrated and angered protesters who said that they need to erect the tent to address fire code violations cited by Boston’s Fire Marshal Bart Shea in court last week.

Shea testified before Superior Court Judge Frances A. McIntyre that the Occupy Boston campsite has be come a dangerous fire hazard. “A fire could rip right across the top of these tents before someone could get out,” he testified. Individual protesters have echoed many of these same concerns but claim that the city is preventing them from making the necessary changes to the encampment.

“It’s as if the city has handcuffed our hands in front of us, and told us to scratch our backs,” John Ford, Occupy Boston’s librarian, called down to the press from atop a steel cart carrying the rejected tent.

Ford’s voice, deep in both tone and passion, has become a staple around the campsite since he moved in with his 10-foot-by-10-foot military tent and some 500 books from his bookstore in Salem back in October. He has assumed as much leadership as the horizontal democracy will allow, helping to organize the purchase of new fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, and personally attempting to educate campers about maintaining fire safety.

New laminated signs posted all over the campsite prohibit smoking in or near tents. At community meetings, facilitators often remind campers of the dangers of smoking tobacco and marijuana as well as burning candles and incense inside a tent. When night falls, many protesters can be seen entering and exiting their tents with glowing cigarettes dangling from their fingers. Others chat within the dense nest of tarps and tents, casually flicking ash and stray embers onto wooden pallets below.

Bill McDonagh, head of the medical tent and a seasoned emergency medical technician, said that he has participated in tent inspections in conjunction with volunteers working on the safety team. “If we find anybody with candles or any flammable material that they’re using for heat, we will strike that tent.”

While McDonagh was answering questions about the scope of medical care provided at the campsite, another volunteer had to ask individual protesters five times not to light their cigarettes so close to tents. For the most part, her requests were ignored.

As an EMT, McDonagh knows first hand the dangers that fire can pose. “Look at the night club fire and what happened there,” he said, referring to fire a 2003 fire a West Warwick, R.I. nightclub that injured 230 people. “That was a solid building. This,” he went on pointing to the patchwork of tarps covering the tents, “is plastic.”

Ford said that while he has done his best to talk to fellow campers about these dangers, he believes an additional level of training is needed that he is not equipped to provide. He said that he would welcome someone from the fire department coming in and offering a seminar or teach-in on fire safety. “Maybe burn a tarp in front of everybody and show them how quickly it goes up.”

“I want to see occupiers start realizing that when I say something is dangerous, its not because I want to hear my own voice,” Ford said, venting his frustration.

He said that he has tried to put these issues through the community’s process of community meetings, called general assemblies, but that the decisions made at meetings often remain unrealized on the ground. One such proposal approved by consensus was to reconfigure some tents to create escape routes in case of fire. Ford said efforts to move tents for safety have met fierce opposition from several campers.

Between external pressures from city officials making it difficult to upgrade the infrastructure of the encampment and resistance from within, Ford and the other prominent voices of Occupy Boston are operating with their hands tied and are grasping for creative ways to make the camp safer.

“We can use the cover of night to sneak in tents and erect them, we’ve proved that,” Ford said, referring to the new 32-foot-by-32-foot military style kitchen tent that appeared a couple of weeks ago during a march. Ford added, “But we don’t want to necessarily use that tactic.”

He said that they attempted to install the newest tent in broad daylight in the presence of media to, “pull the veil away and expose the collusion happening between the various [city] organizations.”

The fire safe tent left Dewey square still wrapped in plastic and ushered by to a waiting truck by protesters quietly singing “We Shall Overcome.”

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