In September of 2011, I started sleeping in a tent in Dewey Square, a hellishly loud, privately owned plaza across the street from South Station in Boston.
When I had first heard about Occupy Wall Street in New York, I looked at photos of the occupation in Zuccotti Park and recoiled in embarrassment. It looked like hippie bullshit, I thought. But when an encampment popped up in Boston, where I had just begun my second year of college, a friend from school asked if I wanted to take the train downtown to check it out. I ignored his message at first, but after further prodding, agreed to go.
I remember emerging from the subway stop and crossing the intersection outside of South Station — I would come to know the rhythm of its traffic lights on an almost cellular level over the next few months, as the train station’s bathrooms were the only ones publicly available in the hostile environs of the city’s financial district. My initial impression of the occupation was that it looked like an alien organism. People streamed by on narrow pathways fortified with wooden pallets that reverberated with each step. Threatening to spill over into the foot traffic were tents of every shape and size and state of disrepair that featured handwritten signs designating their purpose: food, direct action, media, and, yes, a healing circle hippie bullshit–type tent (I can’t recall the sign for that one).
And there were many tents that were, in fact, homes. My time at Occupy ultimately led me to a critique of prefigurative politics, but a key part of Occupy’s power for those who jumped in with both feet was that we lived together during the East Coast’s fall and winter, which also meant we suffered together. When the police would try to clear out the camp, it was an existential threat for the people who were living there, many of them homeless, leading to battles that played out in the middle of the night — as anyone who has slept on the street can tell you, there is no true respite when your home lacks walls.
I never left that original excursion to Occupy, really. My friend and I had separated to explore the encampment, and when he later found me, intending for us to take the subway back to campus, I told him I was going to stay a little while longer. I can’t say exactly what it was about the gathering that grabbed me, but it may have been a conversation I had with a woman from another country, one more restrictive of speech, on that first day.
She was mesmerized, enchanted by the protesters’ freedom to say what they thought and do what they felt was necessary to win. Could we really do that, I wondered. I’d hardly ever paid attention to activism. I was studying climate policy, thinking that it was through institutions like the UN climate secretariat that change took place. But here were people speaking in a language I’d never heard: change comes from us, the 99 percent, they said, whereas the institutions are designed to resist what we need. The more we talked, the more their case became unimpeachable: none of the international organizations were doing anything near what was needed to address climate change, nor were the powerful willing to act on policing, defending abortion, or redistributing wealth. We must fight for what we believe in, they said, we have a world to win.
An Entrance to the Left
Ten years on from Occupy, there will be a lot of pronouncements about the movement’s legacy; indeed, I have been getting emails about it for weeks, inviting me to attend press conferences featuring “Occupy leaders” (a pairing of words that gives me flashbacks). But it does have a legacy: there is a traceable line from Occupy to both Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns and the Black Lives Matter movement, as there is to union reform caucuses, the Palestine solidarity movement, and the Democratic Socialists of America, to name but a few directions into which its participants moved.
Many of us on the Left have known each other for exactly ten years. Two of the people who lived in the encampment with me — we then lived together for much longer after that, in actual apartments — recently successfully sued the Boston Police Department. Others I met that September are union organizers, or rank-and-file militants. Others, still, were the core of the Sanders campaigns. We see one another when we happen to be in the same city, relationships marked by a sort of care that is forged in a movement. And while much of Occupy consisted of people like myself — college educated, now white collar — it was broader than that. None of the people who really won me to the Left, arguing against my equivocations, lending me books, explaining what to do in the event of an arrest, had more than a high school education.
As for myself, I spent months waking up in a tent, grabbing my backpack, and taking the subway to attend class, after which I would get back on the train and return to Dewey Square. I became an anarchist, moving into an anarchist collective (upon becoming a socialist, I moved out). I marched for so many miles protesting the wildly cruel and murderous Boston police. I entered a PhD program to study inequality, but before long I was spending most of my time building a graduate-student union. I started writing about other organizing efforts, and I never stopped.
My decision to visit Occupy ten years ago changed the course of my life. It was an entrance into the Left — I’d never been presented with a door before, if I even knew it existed. The same is true of thousands of others. We don’t talk about it much — because Occupy was so messy, so embarrassing, even as it could not have been otherwise given how little experience many of us had in building a movement — but it is true.