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Occupy movement's last big stand: Boston?

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Occupy Boston, one of the few remaining protest encampments left in the United States, will stay up and running, at least for now.

Despite that temporary victory in court last week, and the continued presence of Occupiers in smaller cities, the “occupation” phase of the Occupy movement seems gradually to be coming to a close. Already, protesters evicted from their camps are gearing up with other forms of protest. On Tuesday, an offshoot of the Occupy movement protested foreclosures in some 25 cities around the US with talk in Los Angeles and elsewhere of helping families take back their foreclosed homes.

But can the Occupy movement survive if it's no longer occupying anything?

The breakup of the camps has advantages and disadvantages for the Occupiers, says David S. Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California Irvine, who studies protest movements. ‘The advantage of a geographical presence is visibility, and giving people stuff to do.... A disadvantage is that your community is defined by the people who show up, and that doesn’t necessarily make for smart decisions.”

Another drawback is that the encampments force the protesters to spend a lot of time on housekeeping matters, at the expense of fighting for their ideals.

"These general assembly meetings at the camps mostly deal with logistics,” Dr. Meyer says. “Taking the occupation out of it means they have the time to focus on core issues, like income equality. There’s more active civil disobedience, and some protesters are even starting to work in political campaigns. It should make for a more creative and diverse movement.” 

But members of Occupy Boston see maintaining their Dewey Square encampment as a top priority, intrinsic to their message.  As they argued in court Thursday, the camp is in the city’s financial district, highly visible from the buildings of banks and other financial institutions that the Occupiers see as responsible for the nation’s financial problems. “There’s been a lot of discussion as to whether or not the encampment phase is over, but having it in the financial district is very important,” says Stephen Squibb, a protester and Occupy Boston spokesman .

“We have attempted to prioritize human needs – food, clothing, shelter, the freedom of speech and assembly – so as to highlight their betrayal by those working around us,” the group stated in a press conference on the steps of the Suffolk County courthouse Dec. 1.

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Thursday, Suffolk County Superior Court judge Frances McIntyre granted the Boston protesters an extension to a Nov. 16 restraining order against the city, protecting the camp from eviction until Dec. 15. Around that time, the judge will render a “final decision” on whether the Boston tent city will go the way of encampments shut down in several other major cities, including New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.

“I’m feeling optimistic,” protester David Lehnerd said during a court recess just before the judge handed down her extension. “Like more optimistic than cautiously optimistic, but not fully blown optimistic.”

“We’re very pleased that the judge is being as thoughtful about this as she is, how deeply she wants to consider these issues,” says Mr. Squibb. “And we’re pleased that a raid is no longer imminent.

The restraining order’s extension will last as long as it takes for the judge to come to her final decision, which may be before Dec. 15, according to Squibb.

Compared with officials' attitudes in other cities, Boston officials have maintained fairly cordial relations with the local movement. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has publicly expressed his support for Occupy Boston, stating after the November raid of Occupy Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park encampment in New York that there were no plans to evict the protesters.

"Good relationships with the Greenway [Conservancy, which maintains city parks] and the police department is why we’re one of the last cities remaining,” protester Ryan Cahill says.

But that seemed to change Wednesday, when the mayor’s office filed papers with the Suffolk County Superior Court system that would give the city the right to evict the Occupy protesters “if necessary.” The 200-page document pegs the Dewey Square encampment as a fire hazard and cites problems with violence, unsanitary living conditions, and drug sales in or around the camp.

“I think Menino’s rhetoric has changed depending on who he’s talking to,” says protester Ryan Cahill.  “At least he’s giving us leeway. He’s come out in support of us, but he has an entire city to look out for, not just the Occupy movement.” Still, he adds, “I don’t think the Boston Police  Department wants a violent crackdown.”

However long it hangs on, the Occupy Boston tent city will likely end up as the last standing of the major city encampments. Earlier this week, police cleared out camps in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. In San Francisco last week, Occupy protesters camping in the city's financial district were given a deadline to clear out. With that deadline long past, they are currently debating an offer from city officials to relocate to another site.

Tent cities in smaller metropolitan areas, like Des Moines and Providence, R.I., are still up and running.

In the event they are evicted eventually, the Boston protesters will have to refocus their efforts on other forms of protest, joining their counterparts in other cities. In New York, disbanded protesters have employed a number of tactics, including blocking the street in front of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s house for a 24-hour drum circle. In Los Angeles, recently evicted protesters are planning a series of smaller encampments outside of banks and country clubs.

"I think if we do end up getting evicted we have to react,” says Mr. Cahill  “That’s just an opportunity for us to try different direct action. It takes us out of our comfort zone and will show us the type of movement that we really are.”

He mentioned that the Occupiers might use the eviction itself as a cheeky opportunity for protest: “We might dress up like bankers, then do our tents up like banks, so we can say to the cops, ‘thanks for getting rid of the problem.’”

Meyer argues that a movement operating mainly online might actually get more accomplished. “It used to be you started a movement you needed a place to meet. But now when the occupation site disappears, the meeting places don’t have to be physical spaces.” And, he adds, alluding to the frustration of the movement’s in-camp general assembly meetings, “It’s harder to veto things online.”

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