To fully appreciate just how successfully the ouster of the Occupy Boston encampment in Dewey Square unfolded over the past few days, it’s important to note not only what happened, but what didn’t.
There were no tear gas containers, no pepper spray, no injuries, no roaming mobs of angry protesters breaking windows and spray-painting storefronts, no violent altercations between cops and kids captured on video tailor-made for YouTube.
In other words, Boston officials, as well as Boston’s protesters, avoided so many of the problems that plagued cities across the nation as the Occupy encampments lurched toward their typically bitter ends, whether it be the abruptness of New York or the spasms of violence and vandalism in Oakland.
Some of it is, of course, luck. Much more of it owes to a combination of skill on the part of police officials and uncommon restraint on the part of the cops on the ground. And in their flawless execution of a methodical strategy, Boston Police accomplished something even greater than reclaiming a visible swath of public parkland: They pushed their own grievously checkered history of crowd control a little bit further into the realm of past tense.
Boston now stands apart from any place else in terms of the Occupy movement. The tent city here was allowed to stand longer. Police developed relationships that were stronger. And when the end came, at 5 a.m. yesterday, it was far quieter.
It has been often said that Boston is as much a big small town as it is a small big city, and that was apparent yesterday morning when a mayor who was as relieved as he was pleased, Thomas M. Menino, stood at a podium in police headquarters and thanked the protesters - yes, the protesters - for their work and cooperation.
“They shined a much-needed light, still needed, on the growing economic inequality in this country,’’ he said.
Embedded in that remark was Menino’s dilemma over the course of the 70-day occupation of a corner of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Every mayor facing such an occupation had to weigh the First Amendment rights of public protest against the more basic rights of public safety and access. But Menino, a lunch-bucket politico whose persona is grounded deeply in the 99 percent that the protesters purported to represent, also had to knit in the fact that he agreed with much of what the occupiers were saying - or at least trying to say.
So the seeds for a peaceful end were planted at the very beginning, when Menino called Police Commissioner Ed Davis in the first days of the occupation and told him, “I don’t want the area looking like a police state. I don’t want the protesters looking like they’re being held captive.’’
He didn’t have to say it twice. A strong adherent of the community policing philosophy, where police work has as much to do with relationships as it does with enforcement, Davis quickly spread the word: Get along with the protesters.
“The protesters are human, and us not being officious all the time is important,’’ Davis said yesterday. “You can get caught up in the legalistic parts, but it’s important to be reasonable.’’
While Menino and Davis set down the philosophy behind the city response, the execution fell upon the 53-year-old, stick-thin, unassuming commander of the department’s uniformed officers, Superintendent William Evans. Every morning after his 5 a.m. run through the city, Evans pointed his department-issue car toward South Station for an overnight briefing from his officers on the beat. Every afternoon, he walked through the camp chatting with the protesters. He gave his cellphone number to a few of the occupiers who were emerging as quiet leaders, and in turn, he received theirs.
Standing in the airy lobby of the headquarters building yesterday, Evans broke it down into its most basic terms. “Our motto is to kill them with kindness,’’ he said. “You can talk your way out of anything. We don’t need sticks out. We don’t need helmets on.’’
The protesters called him when they couldn’t get food delivered, and Evans would pave the way. They called when they worried police were set to raid, and Evans calmed their fears.
In turn, when Evans needed their help, he typically got it, never more than on Thursday night when some renegade protesters pitched a tent on Atlantic Avenue and refused to move. Evans asked one of the leaders to step in. “She got down on her knees and convinced them to move,’’ Evans said. “They weren’t going to move for me.’’
Much of this stands in sharp contrast to the department’s past. In October 2004, as thousands of fans gathered in Kenmore Square to celebrate the Red Sox game seven defeat of the New York Yankees to win the American League championship, a police officer fired a pepper spray pellet that struck and killed Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove. In June 2008, David Woodman, a 22-year-old college student with a heart condition, died after being taken into custody the night the Celtics won the NBA championship.
Police yesterday stressed that the challenge of the Occupy demonstration had little in common with corralling sports celebrations, but they privately conceded that the success of Boston teams has given the department more practice in crowd control than perhaps any other city in the country - and that undoubtedly paid off over the course of the protest.
Still, there was occasional frustration. Menino grew quietly angry when the Dewey Square Farmers Market was disrupted by the constant and sometimes unsettling presence of the protesters. When the encampment spread to another area in October, Menino angrily ordered police to quickly push them back. Don’t mess with his shrubs.
But Menino’s main frustration wasn’t with the demonstration, but the failure of the protesters to push a coherent message. He never walked the camp, but would drive by several times a week to watch. He said former president Bill Clinton called him a couple of weeks ago and the two privately lamented the lost opportunity.
“If they had leadership and an issue, they could be the most powerful group in America,’’ Menino said while sipping a bottle of water after a Roxbury event yesterday afternoon.
All the outreach began to pay off after a judge ruled Thursday that the city could reclaim the Dewey Square park. By then, police were so comfortable with the protesters that they assigned fewer than 20 officers to monitor a final demonstration that swelled to about 1,500 people. “We didn’t want it looking like the cavalry was coming in,’’ Evans said.
When police arrived before first light yesterday, they wore no riot gear - a decision that Davis made himself. Officers quietly broke up a human chain. Protesters were given the chance to leave. Some chose to be arrested - despite the urging of officers to walk away.
“There was a guy who I had gotten to know,’’ Evans said. “He was in the back of a van, and I said, ‘Duncan, come on, don’t go. Let me get the cuffs off.’ But he wanted to be arrested.’’
When the demonstrators were gone, when the park was cleared, Evans pulled out his phone and dialed a familiar number - that of a protester named Rachel with whom he kept in regular contact. “You know I had to do it,’’ he told her.
Asked yesterday whether he agreed with their message, he smiled. “Hey, I have two kids in college,’’ he said. “That’s two tuitions.’’