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News :: Occupy Boston
Boston Occupier Tries Being a Democrat, Hates It
by Robin Jacks
04 Sep 2014
Another anniversary of Occupy Boston is approaching this month, so I’ve had almost three years to analyze how and why the movement failed.
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Bpstpm Occupier Tries Being a Democrat, Hates It
Click on image for a larger version
Bpstpm Occupier Tries Being a Democrat, Hates It
There were major outside influences at play. We endured ridiculous crackdowns over petty items and issues such as tent stakes and at one point a dish sink. These were huge distractions, as was the obsessive, seemingly useless spying on us by police and other agencies.
Analyzing these sorts of influences isn’t something I can do in any real depth; they were circumstances beyond my control, and I was way too involved to have any healthy perspective on it other than to feel rage and sadness. What I can think about, however, is why we were unable to ignore the interlopers who eroded our resolve. For better or worse, due to my recent experience in a parallel political universe, I’ve thought about these things a lot over the past few months.
FOLLOW THE FOLD
I’m not into party politics. Never have been. Although Massachusetts is more progressive than other states, the system feels too rigged for me to make a serious investment. I’m a registered Democrat and have been for a long time, even though I don’t identify as one. I vote in every election not because I feel like it makes a huge difference, if any, but because it only takes about 10 minutes, so why not?
On the grassroots side of things, I’ve been an activist since I was a teenager in Mississippi and Tennessee, and have protested on and off in Massachusetts since I moved here almost a decade ago. Whether in Boston or in the South, the most impact I’ve made has always been when I’ve worked outside of the system.
In Mass, I’ve done some work with progressive Democrats, most recently on the statewide initiative to raise the minimum wage and number of available paid sick days. It was through this work that I was introduced to an activist who turned me on to something I had never heard of in a local context: caucusing.
I always assumed that candidates on a primary ballot had simply gathered enough signatures. That’s not the case; rather, they’re voted on by delegates. Every four years, in the run-up to gubernatorial elections, parties host their statewide nominating conventions for attendees to tap future hopefuls. In a lot of districts, campaign volunteers jockey for said delegate spots, making for one hell of a contentious scrum.
It blew my mind that I hadn’t heard about this essential part of the election process. What the hell? I’m active; even if I’m not involved with an issue, I still tend to hear about it. I contacted a few friends to see if any of them had a clue. Crickets.
As I would later come to learn, the caucus process is odd and sort of quintessentially Weird Massachusetts. A bunch of party faithfuls huddle in a relatively small room and argue for hours about who is The Best. In my experience, a number of attendees seemed to come from central casting: zombie neoliberal sycophants looking to take selfies with candidates, college Dems in polo shirts and pearls who look “Kennedyesque;” older hippies in ratty skirts who float from event to event carrying wrinkled petitions.
As my friend who introduced me to the game explained, there are several ways to approach caucusing. Theoretically, though, anyone can get elected if they show up with a mob of friends. The whole thing seemed shifty, like a certain stacking of the political deck. Still, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Or maybe I did.
Looking back on fall 2011, I’m certain Occupy Boston’s greatest failure was our General Assembly, the most important tool we had to build some semblance of structure. The ethics behind GAs were so pure, so hopeful, so emblematic of a group of people who believed, however naively, in the best of humanity. But with attendance often in the hundreds, the framework proved disastrous: painfully slow, technical, procedural to a point that it extinguished the fire that delivered us to Dewey Square in the first place.
By the end, GAs devolved into screaming matches between a few dozen people. The first time I escaped a GA was during a proposal about what color we should be. Seriously. We couldn’t be blue, because that was too Democrat. Purple was a mix of red and blue, so it was bipartisan, but it was also the “color of monarchy,” which a few didn’t like. Someone wanted a rainbow, and lots of people didn’t want any color at all. Much argument and back and forth ensued, and it didn’t seem like it’d end soon. Finally, a friend from the media working group nudged me and whispered, “Hey. Let’s ditch this and go to the bar.”
I was incredulous. Ditch GA? This was unheard of. “Oh my God, are you serious?” My friend laughed. “Yes, I’m completely serious. Fuck this shit. Let’s go to Biddy’s and drink beer.”
CAUSING A CAUCUS
I wake up at an ungodly hour on a Saturday in March, make some coffee, and walk to my local caucus in a neighborhood nonprofit near my apartment in Jamaica Plain. It feels like the first day of freshman year. I know no one, yet a lot of people are talking to me. And they’re shoving clipboards in my face. I’m not a shy person, but the excessive stimulation kind of freaks me out. I sign a few petitions, then head to the breakfast table. There’s a friendly guy making eggs who I vaguely remember from his failed Boston City Council bid a few years back. He tells me not to be nervous, wishes me luck, and hands me an omelet.
The caucus starts with speeches by candidates for various local and statewide offices. After they deliver what I presume are short, far-left versions of their stump speeches to please the JP audience, the caucusing begins. Everyone who wants to be a delegate needs to be nominated, then seconded. To that end, nominees give short speeches about themselves, and note if they’re committed to a candidate. I look around at other caucus folks and note, based on T-shirts, that there are seemingly two gubernatorial camps in the mix: one for Don Berwick, and another for Juliette Kayyem.
Having heard good things about him through the activist grapevine, weeks earlier I emailed with a Berwick organizer in my ward, who explained that she was firming up a slate for the progressive candidate. Any potential delegate with definite plans to prop him would go on this slate, so that all Berwick supporters know to vote for one another. I committed.
While the Berwick and Kayyem contingencies are organized, the former slate has greater numbers, and both sides know it. It’s clear from the get-go that pro-Berwick candidates will be elected as delegates, and that any additional spots will be given to people who seem as though they can be pushed to vote for Berwick, rather than to those who are more likely to pull for other candidates.
Per party rules, male and female delegates are elected in equal numbers. I’m slated to speak at the end of the list of female nominees, so I first sit back and listen to what others are saying. The speeches are underwhelming: “Hi, my name is so-and-so, I live on so-and-so street, I’ve lived in Jamaica Plain for X amount of years, and I will go to the convention and vote for Y candidate.”
In my turn, I mostly talk about my love of community and Occupy Boston (which got some woohoos), mention this would be my first time as a delegate, and declare my allegiance to Berwick. But soon after, with all the votes in, a fire alarm starts beeping. Sprinklers go off, and black goo sprays the room. Everyone runs out the door. At some point, the ward leaders round everyone up and head to the Catholic church across the street. It’s now officially a religious experience.
Once we settle in the sanctuary to resume caucusing, the Kayyem supporters see their chance to strike. They claim that while the male votes were tabulated before the sprinklers popped, the female votes had not yet been counted. Therefore, the story went, those latter results could have been changed or lost during the dash across the street.
Eventually the Kayyem supporters relent and allow the counting to take place. I am unceremoniously elected delegate, and my name is written on a whiteboard. Unfortunately, the caucus is not over. Now we have to elect alternates, and so the process begins all over again. Plus I can’t leave without my delegate paperwork. On top of that I’m having a near-panic attack after learning that I have to pay $75 in fees to participate. Anyone who has ever lived paycheck to paycheck knows this feeling: an unexpected bill can be heart-stopping.
After another round of voting, it looks like I’m all set to leave. But nope – we have to elect second alternates. Motherfucker.
THEY KEEP ON CALLING
Perusing the appropriate delegate forms at home, I note that there’s a low-income fee waiver application. I fill it out, explaining that $75 is a hardship, and that I’ll likely have to skip work to attend the convention, meaning it will cost me even more in the long run. I feel embarrassed, and wonder how many people are too humiliated by the question to bother answering.
I have other concerns. If you’re an LGBT person, too bad for you: The convention is taking place on Pride weekend.
The next few months are a waiting game. I hear nothing about the fee waiver. Meanwhile, I begin to receive constant phone calls and mailings from candidates; closer to convention time, I receive multiple mailings almost daily. The phone calls are worse, coming at all hours. At dinner one night with friends, I receive no less than 10 calls, all from the same number. I never answer, but they keep coming. You’d think I signed up for a Scientology course.
Whenever I mention to anyone in my life that I’m to be a delegate at the state convention, their eyes widen. They congratulate me, telling me what a big deal it is as if I’ve been elected to office. I casually reject the praise, but they invariably contradict me. Nevertheless, I explain that being a delegate is hardly a big deal. Anyone who survives the tedious process –and who has $75 – is free to participate.
Weeks after the paperwork submission deadline passes, I finally receive an email saying my credentials will be mailed soon. My fee was waived. Score one for the donkeys for sticking up for a working woman.
THE BIG SHOW
I skip the convention’s Friday night festivities: speeches from politicians and various parties thrown as last-ditch efforts to sway delegates. Like a lot of regular folks, I work on Friday nights. Besides that, in order for a delegate from Boston to get tanked and stay out all night in Worcester, they have to rent a hotel room. Factor in food, gas, parking: This is a pricey weekend.
By the time the big show arrives, my excitement centers around the fact that I will no longer be receiving multiple autodial calls an hour from candidates and their minions. Nevertheless, I wake up at 6am on Saturday and drive out to the DCU center. Inside the building, it’s political pandemonium, with people slipping into campaign shirts and complaining about hangovers. I have my delegate’s credential, but am not sure where to go. I grab a swag bag. Although it contains nothing fancy, it’s a big fucking deal to everyone else.
My first impression after scanning the hall: There seem to be equal amounts of men and women, but the crowd is majority white. There’s no way that the cross-section in here accurately represents the kaleidoscopic makeup of Massachusetts. I don’t see a lot of flaming queers walking around either, but perhaps that’s inevitable when the party irresponsibly schedules a convention during Boston Pride. On another note, the crowd leans older. This comes as no surprise, as very few people my age and younger have the patience for the caucus process, much less an entire weekend to spare.
I glance around at my fellow ward delegates. There are a lot of presumable add-ons in the mix, as spots are made available for youths, LGBTs, persons with disabilities, and/or people of color who weren’t elected but would like to represent the district. While these folks are clearly psyched to be here and, in my opinion, have become delegates for honorable reasons, it occurs to me that the minority add-on system has its pluses and minuses. While it likely makes the convention more diverse in the long run, it’s also an easily exploitable loophole. For example: I’m queer. If I want to go to convention every year, I can skip my caucus and try to be an add-on based on that aspect of my identity.
At center stage, Thomas McGee, state senator and chair of the Mass Democrats, bangs the gavel a bunch of times, then starts into a self-congratulatory spiel about how great Democrats are. There is plenty in the speech that makes me gag, like when he claims that Senate President Therese Murray “ushered Massachusetts out of the Great Recession.” That would be great if it were true, but it never happened. No one with a pulse believes that.
Finally, a couple of hours in, the candidates begin to speak. The process of moving through all treasurer, attorney general, and lieutenant governor candidates goes surprisingly quickly, considering that everything else leading up to this has lagged.
By the time the gubernatorial candidates speak, I’m hungry and thirsty, and I have to pee. This is never a good combination, and I feel certain that I’m not alone in my misery. Berwick speaks first. His words are incredibly moving, centered around the story of a young leukemia patient who eventually died, not of cancer – Berwick and his team beat that – but on the streets “in despair.” The room loves Berwick, and people all around me chat about changing their votes. There’s just one problem: Some have already committed to another candidate, and fear embarrassment or broken alliances, as voting requires shouting out your choice across a crowded aisle. Instead of selecting in their best interests, they choose to save face.
The bathroom smells like everyone from the convention has been by peeing in adult diapers and discarding them in the stalls. The other accommodations aren’t much better. While outside food is forbidden, the convention guide suggested we bring empty bottles for the water stations inside the arena. I find one such oasis, the kind with a turn-knob common in elementary schools. The sad trickle sends me back to the smelly bathroom to drink from the faucet.
Occupy Boston had its problems, but there was always water to be found somewhere on site, and containers of it never cost anything, much less the $3.50 vendors charge at the DCU center. Amidst so much political cacophony, I think of the Sikhs who came to Dewey Square every Sunday during Occupy Boston, commandeered the food tent, and served us tasty lentils. I remember the grandmothers who brought us trays of freshly baked ziti, and the two women who drove up, handed us two large grocery bags full of instant hot chocolate, and drove away. Occupiers, it seemed, were loved and cared for by complete strangers simply because we were standing up for what they believed in when they couldn’t. That kept me going.
At the DCU Center, I walk out to the concourse and peruse the concession choices. The options are low-rent, overpriced sports arena fare: wrinkled up hot dogs, nachos with watery liquid cheese sauce. The dumpstered Occu-bagels I once despised would taste great right now.
I start conversing with a delegate from Brockton. She is also a first-timer, and feels both over- and under-whelmed by the weekend. She is an expertly coiffed, spray-tanned, and hairsprayed mom. It’s clear that she had dressed to impress, but by this point in the long day, her black eyeliner is creeping down a few millimeters, and her curls are frizzing up. She missed a day of work for this, hired babysitters. She’s certain that she won’t make it home on time, because everything is running so far behind schedule. She tells me that she’ll never do this again, and is on the verge of anger and tears.
When I return to my seat, I note that the second round of voting is supposed to begin, even though we haven’t done the first round yet. Overall, the process seems as though it was created several hundred years ago by men in powdered wigs and pantaloons. It works like this: A district’s tellers move through their section as quickly as possible, collecting votes verbally and recording them on paper. They’re accompanied by various campaign volunteers who tally votes on their own in order to make sure everything adds up. While this process was likely hatched with a roundtable type of setup in mind, we’re in a hockey arena. At times the acoustics make it difficult for the tellers to hear what delegates are shouting, while going up and down the rows takes forever.
After screaming all my votes to the tellers by 4:30, I ask if I can leave. My seatmates explain that the second vote is yet to come. The follow-up, I’m told, is to make party endorsements for candidates who haven’t garnered a 51 percent majority of votes, but who have enough votes to be on the ballot (15 percent). For any categories in which this is the case, there’s a runoff between the top two candidates. I came to support Berwick, so I stick it out.
It’s almost 7pm by the time all of the results are finalized. In the gubernatorial race, Steve Grossman comes out on top with a solid 35.2 percent of the delegate vote. Although it looked at one point as though Berwick might have the momentum to sneak past Attorney General Martha Coakley, he finishes in third at 22.1 percent, just behind Coakley’s 23.3 percent. I’m disappointed, but I also feel a sense of relief. My job is over. I can leave. I say some goodbyes, wade through the mountains of trash in the aisles, and jog out of the DCU center, happy to make the drive down the Pike back to Boston.
Throughout all of this, a nagging feeling is burning inside of me, this feeling of bitterness and anger that I can’t really place. It isn’t until later that I realize: With the exception of a few good seeds, for the most part, the really hardcore people at this convention are the same types who constantly lambasted us at Occupy Boston for not being organized enough, for not being open enough, for taking too much time to do everything, for not having our shit together. I am giving the Democrat way of doing things a fair shot, but here I am, bored, hungry, tired, thirsty: and nothing is happening.
In some ways I believe that the progressive roots of the state Democratic party are invested in having a fair and equitable nominating process. But the negatives, like how lacking the convention is when it comes to representing people of color, and how expensive and time-consuming all this rigmarole is, rub me in awful ways. As invested as I am in improving my community, I know there’s little chance that I will be a delegate again. All of the time and money and phone calls and emails and junk mail aren’t worth it. I ran for delegate in the hopes that I could make some sort of positive impact, however small. In the end, I don’t feel I did that.
LAST GA 1
Occupy Boston though? I’ll never do something like that again, but I wouldn’t go back and undo it for anything, either. In the end, the events in and around Dewey Square gave me a space to say what I needed to say, to participate in building a hardworking, devoted community that lasted far beyond the two-and-a-half months we spent sitting in mud and stomping through the streets. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.
Being a delegate for the Democratic Convention, on the other hand? I wish I’d never set foot in my caucus. The only people who really enjoy stuff like that, I think, are either political wonks or folks who like having their asses kissed by powerful people who make personal calls and approach them in arena aisles. The kicker: the process of Democrats caucusing and the convention itself lasted over four months, and most Massachusetts people probably have no idea that they happened at all. Occupy Boston, on the other hand, lasted only two and a half months but won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
LAST GA 2
The last real Occupy Boston General Assembly at Dewey Square went down after we received an eviction notice of sorts from the city, meaning we were to be raided at any moment. Boston was one of the last larger-sized occupations left in the country, and with the presumption that our time would end soon, we had previously devised an evacuation plan. It was the end, and we had no clue what would happen. That night, I stood next to friends who shared my deep sense of grief that this odd thing we’d built together was about to be taken from us. By force.
I remember the proposal: “Should we have a goodbye party?” The pitch came from one of the most devoted, animated occupiers. This guy had given every moment of his life, every ounce of his energy to Dewey since he first arrived, and despite his instincts, he was doing his best to support Occupy Boston by “respecting the process,” as we were always so fervently urged to do. The proposal went back and forth for hours. The proposer seemed on the verge of tears; he desperately wanted the opportunity to share in joyful goodbyes, but the facilitators picked over every detail in a cold, almost sociopathic way, at which point a close friend, the same one who lured me out for drinks during the color war a few weeks earlier, said, “Fuck it, let’s have a party.”
She didn’t have to convince me. We ran to the other side of camp, pulled out our phones, and began texting and tweeting. We invited a Somerville marching band to bring the noise. They arrived within the hour and began playing, the sounds of their brass instruments echoing off of the empty skyscrapers around us. Others joined in, and within minutes most of the occupiers had moved from the GA to our end of the camp, shimmying and breakdancing and shaking their tails.
Before we knew it, Atlantic Avenue was filled with people from all over the Boston area. Some wrote messages of hope in the street lane paint strips with permanent markers; others sent balloons into the sky. A couple was married by a protest chaplain. Everyone danced as though the world was ending the next day, and in some ways it would. We had finally regained the energy that had brought us all there in the first place: this rebellion, this urge to free ourselves, this need to fucking dance. There were more people jammed into Dewey Square than I had seen in months. If there was a raid scheduled on that date, the police didn’t dare follow through.
The next night, Occupy Boston was destroyed forever.
Copyright by the author. All rights reserved.