Tom Keane

Occupy Boston: So, what was the point?

THE NEIGHBORS were complaining, it was getting late, and even those at the party were looking at their watches, thinking it really had gone on longer than they expected and wondering how they could best make their excuses and leave.

And then along came Boston Mayor Tom Menino telling them it was time to go and so dutifully - and probably relieved that he gave them an out - most did. The big, communal tents have been packed up. As I write this, only about 35 tents remain and even those are being disassembled. City sanitation workers are loading up the trash. A few protesters will doubtless resist, eager to get arrested (as those from the ‘60s have found, it’s a great story to tell the grandchildren), but for all intents and purposes, Occupy Boston is over.

Thursday’s decision by Judge Frances McIntyre allowing the city to evict was plainly correct. There’s no question that what the Occupiers were engaged in was, in fact, speech. Moreover, the methods of that speech - the encampment as well as the communal lifestyle of the protesters - were expressive, making them exactly the kind of stuff the First Amendment was designed to protect. (The fact that the living conditions ultimately seemed more akin to “The Lord of the Flies’’ didn’t make the speech less worthy of protection.)


On the other hand, Dewey Square is a city park. The Occupation precluded anyone else from using that space - making it, in effect, the privatization of a public space. At some point the interests of everyone else hold sway and, after more than two months, that time had come. Add to that worries about the city’s potential liability (if there was a fire and folks died, would the city be liable for not enforcing building and sanitation codes?) and the right of Boston to uphold its rules about no overnight sleeping in city parks seemed clear. Indeed, Menino deserves a lot of credit for letting things go on as long as they did - although an alternative view is that, by waiting and watching mayors in other cities make their own mistakes, he learned how to do it right.

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But now that it’s over, the question to be debated is, what did it accomplish? This was, in truth, far from a mass movement. It’s likely more people showed up outside shopping malls on Thanksgiving than ever stayed in Dewey Square. And while one might admire the fortitude of the Occupiers for their long-term commitment, it was, for many, better than paying for rent and meals.

The Occupiers, and many in the media, will argue that at a minimum they provoked discussion about the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the decline of the middle class. I’m not sure that’s correct. The debate was already under way. Democrats have been harping on tax cuts for the wealthy over the last couple of years. Occupy was more a consequence of that discussion than its provocateur.

But whether one gives the Occupiers credit for the conversation or not, it’s hard to see how they’ve played any role in figuring out a solution. The principal impact of the Occupiers’ leaderless, agenda-free movement was pretty much to persuade everyone else that leaderless, agenda-free movements don’t work. The Tea Party activists, with whom the Occupiers are often compared, turned their anger into political action. But much of the rhetoric from the Occupiers specifically rejected participation in voting and politics, leaving one puzzled as to how anything meaningful was to be accomplished.

Meanwhile, there are many out there who have been trying constructively to address the underlying concerns that gave rise to the Occupy movement. One-time Senate candidate Alan Khazei, for instance, has put together an organization, Opportunity Nation (www.opportunitynation.org), that brings together folks from all over the political spectrum (including left-wing think tanks, major corporations, and the religious right) to create a plan for how the United States can restore the once-proud notion of the American dream.


Opportunity Nation’s efforts have been largely drowned out by the media focus on the protesters, but Khazei and others like him will likely do far more to advance the Occupiers’ cause than did their tents.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.