Ruminations on Humility and Privilege: A Visit to Occupy Boston

I was expecting to feel energized, motivated, powerful. Instead I felt humbled by the realization that I wouldn't do what these people do.

Oct 27, 2011 at 5:01pm | Leave a comment

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This morning I had breakfast on Newbury Street, one of Boston’s more upscale shopping districts. I went to a cafe of which I have been a sporadic patron since 1995, when I was a freshman at Boston University, still starry-eyed in love with this city.

Despite its tony reputation, back then Newbury was a popular destination for goths and gutter punks, most of whom congregated at the “bottom” of the street, where Tower Records used to be. Beside Tower, there was a broad inclined concrete slab that we called the Newbury “beach”, as it was where strange people like us would sit and hang out for hours on end, chain-smoking Djarums and drinking cheap coffee from the little local coffee shop that is now a Starbucks. 

I had friends, then -- classmates, really -- who panhandled on Newbury Street. These girls were students at one of the most expensive private universities in the country, subsidized by well-off parents, and not really in want for anything, but they would dress up in their tattered best, like two gothic hobos, and ask strangers for money on the street. And they made quite a bit of coin at it. 

Even then, before I had even the most tenuous concept of how privileged my life had been so far, this made me extremely uncomfortable. 

So many of us then thought of ourselves as “poor”. I chafed against my lack of endless cash flow, the irritating restrictions of having to walk two miles home from the nightclub I visited several nights a week because cabs were too expensive, and the fact that a quality meal in an actual sit-down restaurant had become a once-in-awhile event. 

But while I may not have had limitless funds to spend however I liked, I was never poor, and I really did know it. I went to classes that cost an amount of money I’d never fully appreciate, and then I’d go out dancing to Pulp’s “Common People,” fascinated by my own sacrifices but secure in the knowledge that -- as the song goes -- “if you called your dad, he could stop it all.” It was fun to be a tourist of financial struggle then, as sickening as that sounds to me now. It was fun.

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I left college with several maxed-out credit cards I could barely pay minimums on (who approved these for me, a silly girl who’d never managed her own budget, didn’t have a reliable income, indeed, who wasn’t even sure what she wanted to be when she grew up?) and lots of student loans. 

Following grad school, I had more student loans still, and if you tally up what my husband and I both owe for our educations, we could have a nice little vacation home somewhere for what they cost -- a cost we will both be paying past retirement, and possibly beyond the grave, according to our current payment plans. When I die, will Sallie Mae come to harvest my organs and liquidate my assets, will they sell my kidneys to make up my debt? I would not be surprised.

Nevertheless, I live comfortably in an owned home, with an aging but functional car and more shoes than any individual person could possibly justify. I have a job, and health insurance. My student loan debt is an annoyance, but not a burden I can’t carry. I have enjoyed enough privilege in my life that it is difficult for me to imagine an existence in which these things could ever change. 

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I went down to Occupy Boston on a cold and rainy Thursday at midday. The site is situated downtown, in Dewey Square, immediately across the street from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, a tall metallic slab that seems to loom over Dewey Square on two squat legs. The camp occupies every available inch of grassy space in the park, and when I was there -- probably owing to the weather -- it was very quiet, with most folks seemingly indoors.

The first thing I realized was that I could not remember the last time I’d seen so many people of color all in one place in downtown Boston. This city is rigidly segregated in a way that still shocks me even after having lived here for 16 years; I grew up in South Florida, where racial diversity is pretty normal. There are certainly areas down there that are racially inclined, but nothing so dramatic as the Boston area, where in many neighborhoods one can walk for hours and not see a single non-white face.

The mood was relaxed and quiet, and I took a few turns around the camp, getting a feel for things. Some folks were outside, having amiable conversations and standing with shoulders hunched against the cold drizzle. Noises from inside the closed tents included snoring, boisterous discussion, and one unseen man sobbing inconsolably in an otherwise silent area. I shivered, feeling like a ghost accidentally bearing witness to someone’s private pain.

The night before, Boston’s occupiers had marched in support of Occupy Oakland, which has faced some significant attacks from local police, including the use of tear gas on nonviolent, unarmed protesters. In the widely distributed video below, a police officer throws a flashbang grenade into a crowd of people who are trying to remove an injured man to safety. The injured man in question, who remains in serious condition, is actually an Iraq war veteran.

This is just one video of many. The omnipresence of photos and videos immediately transmitted has meant that nearly instantaneous responses are possible with little delay. The documentation of successes and failures elsewhere can galvanize people on other fronts. Folks in Oakland are teargassed, and folks in Boston respond, with a nation of perplexed, dismissive, angry and supportive spectators stretching between them.

There is something in the way we’re digesting these protests into mainstream understanding that is making them seem petulant and childish and ridiculous and laughable. But these are not impulsive college students “protesting” just to be different. This is not fun and games. These are not children camping in the backyard, knowing they can run inside to the warmth and safety of their beds should the novelty of outdoor life wear off. People are living here. There are young people, but there are middle-aged people and older people too, all holed up under Boston’s chilly rain, prepared to stay because they cannot go. 

I knew this, conceptually, but it is something else to see the reality of it. I am a tourist in this space, because I am not motivated to do what these people do. I am, after all, an intellectual. I am not the person who pitches a tent in a public park in a major city -- courting arrest, suffering the weather, sitting still in one place because I feel I have run out of other ways of being heard -- at least not now, at least not yet. I am the person who writes about the person who pitches the tent, some of whom are there because they wish to be, and some of whom are there because they literally have no where else to go.

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What shocked me most about Occupy Boston was the way the site evokes a refugee camp, a gathering of the transient and the disenfranchised; I was not expecting that. I don’t know what I was expecting -- kids playing in a tent in the backyard, I guess. This admission embarrasses me, but I am making it because I doubt I am the only one to be misunderstanding things in this way. 

Of course, people smile in this little city of tarps and tents, under the Federal Reserve Bank’s shadow; there is a meditation tent (with signs proclaiming strict regulations against sleeping), there is a media tent, there is first aid, food, and this being Boston, of course there is a library. Where the ground is muddied by the occupation, people have put down boards and pallets to walk on; the ubiquitous signs bearing handlettered slogans are as humorous as they are emphatic. Notices are posted for a free flu shot clinic on Friday. Occupants talk and grin and elbow each other and nod. The bored policemen bracketing each end of the camp shift their weight uneasily from one foot to the other, and I wonder if they can fathom the idea of firing tear gas at these seemingly innocuous people they’re meant to be protecting the rest of us from. 

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Yesterday, Occupy Boston received a surprise inspection by the Boston Public Health Comission, which found no significant problems. This occupation is organized, serious business, and the commitment of the participants to making it work is astonishing. I have argued before that the Occupy protest communities are not movements based in traditional politics or in a particular ideology -- if they are movements at all, they are movements simply in favor of humanity. I continue to believe this is true. If all of this were about one or two issues, or a particular platform, it would actually be less powerful -- what makes it impressive is the emphasis on people and community first.

I left Occupy Boston this afternoon soaked through, freezing and more than a little exhausted, thinking only of driving home and making a pot of tea, still stinging with the realization that these people are doing something I could not imagine doing. I may not be the person who pitches the tent; I may be the person who only has the pretty words. 

But I am so grateful for the people who can do what I can’t, or won’t. I am grateful for everyone who stands up to defend human rights and human dignity, because it is on their shoulders that the rest of us can comfortably stand. Even if we do not agree; even if our goals differ. These people have reminded me of what I have, and how easily it can be lost if we do not fight for it.