On Saturday, January 7, members of at least fifteen Massachusetts branches of the Occupy movement arrived at Encuentro 5, a community space in Boston’s Chinatown, to plan the first statewide General Assembly and to brainstorm future coordinated actions.
Represented activist groups included Ocupemos el Barrio, Occupy Acton, Allston-Brighton, Brockton, Brookline, Jamaica Plain, Natick, Needham, Newton, North Attleboro, Quincy, Salem, Somerville, Weymouth, and Woburn. One woman expressed hopes for the formation of Occupy Cambridge; another for Occupy Dorchester. Each occupation had been asked to send at most four representatives, so as not to exceed the room’s capacity. Over fifty people attended.
As individuals introduced themselves, they mentioned other organizations of which they are a part, forming a sort of roll call of Massachusetts progressive groups. These included Boilermakers Local 29, Brookline Pax, City Life/Vita Urbana, the International Women’s Day Committee, Mass Alliance, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Socialist Alternative, Stonewall Warriors, and Veterans for Peace. Also named were Occupy Boston working groups such as the Socialist Caucus, the Women’s Caucus, the Spirituality Tent, and Interoccupy Communications.
Two Massachusetts occupations were not officially represented: Occupy the Hood and Occupy Boston. Occupy the Hood, organized by and for people of color in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester, was committed to another event at the same time – a town hall meeting at the Dudley Library to rally against the state’s new “3 Strikes” sentencing law. As for Occupy Boston, there were a number of individuals from the community in attendance. However, as Jorge Alvarez, a member of nearly a dozen Occupy Boston working groups, stated, “Our General Assembly never discussed this meeting or sent anyone to represent Occupy Boston.” Alvarez added, “I’m just here as an interested individual.” Occupy the Hood’s absence was noted ruefully throughout the day, with calls for more outreach and diversity in Mass Occupy. Occupy Boston’s nonparticipation went undiscussed.
After introductions, an open dialogue about “the 1%, the 99%, and the movement” ensued. Participants added their names to a queue to speak. Bryan Koulouris, of Occupy Quincy and Socialist Alternative, started the conversation by encouraging Mass Occupy “to look to the West Coast for inspiration,” noting the success of the port shutdown on December 12 and the upcoming Day of Action for Education on March 1.
Many more speakers followed. Betsy Boggia, of Occupy Natick, suggested the power of having town councils pass resolutions. “There are, what, 351 towns in Massachusetts?” she asked. “If each town passes a non-binding resolution against corporate personhood, that’s going to move up to the state level and then the national level.”
Justin Ihlein, representing Occupy Allston-Brighton, emphasized the need for communication between different occupations. “Talking with one another first, that’s the way we’re going to reach politicians and we’re going to reach the general public,” Justin said, “so we won’t be voices in the wilderness.”
Genevieve Morse, of the International Women’s Day Committee, Socialist Alternative, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, spoke passionately about how “the 1% is looking to smash public education and public services.” She urged listeners to “defend and extend” these services instead.
The most universally galvanizing issue was the recent proposal by the MBTA, to hike fares and cut services. Proposed changes would raise fares by as much as 43%, end weekend commuter rail service, slash bus routes, and reduce discounts offered to seniors and students.
Kay from Occupy JP said, “This is totally wrong. Public transportation is the future. How are we going to fit more cars on the roads?” Matt McLaughlin, of Occupy Somerville, pointed out that 30% of the MBTA’s deficit was interest owed to banks. “Why not refinance the T?” he asked. Several asserted that the state should tax the wealthy rather than impose costs on those least able to bear them. People batted around ideas for coordinated actions to “occupy the T,” but nothing concrete was planned.
After a short break, a call for proposals led to many being put forward; some very general, a few specific. They included advocating to make November’s Election Day a state holiday, declaring Occupy 4 Jobs an official working group, and taking more action to fight evictions and foreclosures. However, it was unclear what, if any, decision-making process might address the proposals. Some in attendance expressed uncertainty about their license to make decisions on behalf of their respective occupations. Additionally, there were more proposals than there was time to discuss them.
Eventually attention returned to the meeting’s stated aim: to plan and prepare for a statewide General Assembly. It was announced that the Boston Teachers Union had offered the use of their hall, which could hold more than a thousand people. Paula from Occupy JP proposed that the assembly take place on February 18, but many thought it should be sooner. “We need to build on our momentum after this meeting,” said Bryan Koulouris.
As discussion went on, differences in communication styles became evident. One woman from Occupy Salem politely expressed frustration with the process. “What are we doing?” she asked. “I don’t know what this means” – she wiggled her fingers up in the air – “or this means” – she wiggled them downward. “Maybe we need to define some things.” Carlos, from Ocupemos el Barrio, said that such hand signals weren’t used in his Occupy community. “We have our own traditions of communicating,” he said, “and they’re not that.”
In the end, the only proposals to reach consensus were those connected to planning the statewide assembly. Participants agreed that February 18would be the best date, giving those who were participating in Mass Occupy enough time to collect ideas and feedback from their respective occupations. Another planning meeting was scheduled for late January.
A statewide General Assembly is now in the works. Given the absence of Occupy the Hood and Occupy Boston from this planning session, it remains to be seen how diverse or inclusive the conversation will be. Nonetheless, Saturday’s meeting did bring together new interlocutors and foster some lively connections across Massachusetts. Not a bad start.