In a dim, stuffy room overlooking Copley Square, 15 Occupiers, mostly in their 50s or 60s, met last week for the group’s biweekly general assembly.
Sitting in a circle of folding chairs, they bandied plans for Sept. 30, to celebrate the 1-year anniversary of the Occupy Boston encampment at Dewey Square — the local answer to the call of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Their ideas: A parade? A bank protest? A concert at a Cambridge bar? Maybe they could get permission from the city to hold a gathering at a public park?
Noah McKenna, a recent college grad with an Afro and scraggly beard, looked up from his laptop with a look of disgust.
“Am I the only one,” he sneered, “who thinks the idea of getting a permit to celebrate Occupy’s birthday is ridiculous?”
Nearly a year after the start of the 72-day occupation of Dewey Square, the movement known for its defiance — illegal tents, angry signs, ‘99 percent’ chants, impromptu marches that brought downtown traffic to a standstill — has struggled in its transition to a campless organization. And while the park its occupiers once called home now bears no trace of them, many of the protesters have yet to resolve court cases resulting from arrests when the camp was broken up by police.
The activists say their bond as Occupiers and their driving desire to draw attention to the disparities between the nation’s haves and have-nots — the 99 percent — remain, even if the camp is long gone.
“A number of us have stayed engaged and know we’re in this for the long haul,” said Linda Jenkins, 63. “Some people thought this might be a sprint, but this is a long-distance run.”
The remaining 200 or so members continue to raise hell around Boston — or at least try. They camped in front of the State House to protest MBTA fare hikes, staged demonstrations in front of Bank of America, and last weekend took a road trip to New York City for “S-17” — the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. But many Occupiers attend events only sporadically.
There’s palpable frustration at the group’s general assemblies, biweekly meetings that once served as the core decision-making body. At Dewey Square, the assemblies often drew hundreds of people in raucous, hourslong arguments over camp decisions, fueled by digressions into political theories.
Now, the gatherings are more mundane in tone, more fuddy-duddy in tenor. At a recent meeting, the Occupiers approved funding for Occupy Boston balloons and camera equipment for the New York trip.
It’s a big change, admits Bil Lewis, a lanky, neatly-dressed 60-year-old from Cambridge with the voice of a National Public Radio broadcaster. He discovered Occupy last year on his way home from a Toastmasters meeting. Last December, as protesters awaited eviction, Lewis gazed out over the tents and declared, “This is the life I want to have led. I am so honored to have been here.”
Now, Lewis says he’s nostalgic for the “wild community” of the old camp. But, he has to admit, it’s a lot easier to get things done now.
“We don’t have people who just need to get up every day and tell their sad life stories anymore, and we don’t have drunkards screaming at us from the back row,” Lewis said. “We’re able to make good decisions much faster now.”
The camp attracted homeless people, registered sex offenders, and drug users. Arguments erupted on whether to allow them inside the Occupy community, highlighting how the camp had become a microcosm of the challenges of modern-day society.
And that’s what made the camp so special, some said.
“It was such a beautiful laboratory of democracy,” said Dana Moser, an Occupier from Jamaica Plain.
But the current exclusion of the homeless — whether by lack of outreach or inconvenient meeting times — means that Occupy is now falling short of its Dewey Square ideals, said Cherie King. A short woman with a heart-shaped face, King was drawn to the camp because it was better than staying in a homeless shelter. But she soon found herself involved in the ideals of the movement.
Last week, she reflected on how Occupy changed her: By the end, her soft, breathy voice had grown strong, and she could capture the attention of a crowd as she spoke forcefully about the issues facing the city’s homeless population. She remains homeless, and frustrated.
“The thing I miss is that we don’t have that space, and without that space, there’s no movement,” said King. “There’s nothing to remind people that there is injustice.”
John Ford, 31, agrees that there is nothing to match the encampment.
“I definitely miss the sense that we had already won, that it was going to build and build and build and build,” Ford said. “I miss that momentum-building feeling, where every day the camp got kind of more grand in its scale and more teeming.”
But Ford believes that many are still working toward the movement’s ideals.
“Regardless of how people felt about each other and the process,” Ford said, “I don’t believe anyone is done.”
And no matter where the protesters are now, they remain connected by their experience.
Andrews Claude was “the sink guy.” With a wide grin, long ponytail, and the demeanor of a friendly lumberjack, he designed and constructed an industrial kitchen sink with a self-contained plumbing system that was meant to revolutionize how Occupiers would do dishes. When he and others tried to carry the sink into camp, a riot ensued, and three were arrested. The sink was detained, too.
The incident became one of the most epic stories of the Dewey Square occupation.
Claude died in April, and Occupiers gathered for a memorial service. At Somerville Armory, there was a procession of bagpipes, followed by Occupiers carrying black flags, some with bandannas tied around their faces. The Occupy sink was there, too.
“We only knew him for six months,” one protester said during the service, “but in Occupy time that’s a long time.”
There was a New Orleans-style brass band, too, and the dozens of Occupiers started to dance — spontaneous, raucous, unconquerable.