On the afternoon of April 4, following a four-hour rally for public transportation, several members of Occupy MBTA unfurled a banner in front of the State House and announced a new occupation. The banner read “Camp Charlie.” For the next ten days, Occupy activists would maintain a round-the-clock presence on the steps of the State House, advocating for public transit.
The new declaration of occupation was just one component of Occupy Boston’s “Day of Action for Public Transportation.” Over 300 people had gathered at the State House to demand that state authorities neither raise MBTA fares nor cut services. They were accompanied by a live band and a giant puppet of “Charlie,” the character made famous in the Kingston Trio’s 1959 tune “Charlie on the MTA.” Charlie’s original purpose, more than half a century earlier, had been to protest high fares on the Boston subway, and his appearance this day was no different.
Stepping up to the “people’s mic,” Noah McKenna of Occupy MBTA said “We have come together to demand public transportation for the 99%.”
“You’re still not listening!”
Earlier in the day, a public forum on the MBTA budget crisis took place at the Massachusetts Transportation Building in downtown Boston.
In the months leading up to April 4’s final hearing, thousands of aggrieved T riders had come forward to protest plans to raise fares and cut services. At 30 public forums held by the MBTA, 6000 Bostonians came forward to demand that officials and legislators find alternatives methods of addressing the deficit.
The hearing on April 4 was similar to those before it, except that time had run out. Today was decision day. In the hour allotted for public comments, speakers from Occupy MBTA, Mass Senior Action Council, the T Riders Union and a number of private citizens stood up to ask the MBTA Board of Directors to “just vote no” to the proposed budget plan. “Just vote no” became a chant, rising from the crowd and interrupting the proceedings half a dozen times.
Jonathan Gale, of Cross Disability Action Group, addressed the Board of Directors with candid frustration. “There were a lot of legitimate proposals from the people behind me. Not one of them appears in your recommendations. Not one,” Gale said. “You’re still not listening!”
Despite the concerns raised by the public, the MBTA Board of Directors voted, 4-1, to adopt the plan of limited service reductions and fare hikes, including a 20% increase in fares for bus service and a 100% increase in the cost of THE RIDE, a service for disabled riders.
MassDOT Director Ferdinand Alvaro cast the only vote against this plan. “I cannot in good conscience support a budget that covers the gap and burdens the most vulnerable people in our population with covering the gap,” stated Alvaro, “It is time for the Legislature to come to the table.”
Following the MBTA board’s decision, hundreds of people spilled into the streets to hold a ‘People’s Assembly’ in front of the State House. 400 protesters were present at the height of the day’s actions, a number somewhat short of organizers’ expectations.
April 4th had been planned as a “National Day of Action for Public Transportation.” The call to action had originated with Occupy Boston and was answered with similar protests in at least 18 cities, including Chicago, Portland, Seattle, and Detroit.
In Pittsburgh, for instance, about 125 people – including members of Occupy Pittsburgh and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) rallied against a set of severe anticipated cuts to the Pittsburgh Port Authority. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted ATU international president Larry Hanley saying “Service cuts, transit worker layoffs and higher passenger fares…are really just another kind of tax, levied on those who can least afford it.”
Detroit’s protest was small but resonant. A few dozen held candles in a vigil for public transit and in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 44 years ago that day on April 4, 1968. King was a strong advocate for increased access to public transportation, declaring in 1968 that “Urban transit systems […] have become a genuine civil rights issue.”
The Second Occupation
With the ruling of the MBTA Board of Directors, protesters’ focus shifted to the State Legislature. Lawmakers, controlling the state’s purse-strings, had greater power to close the budget gap than did the MBTA itself.
The ten-day occupation of the State House steps was part of a strategy to focus public attention on the Legislature’s ability to alleviate the MBTA’s budget woes. Ariel Oshinsky, a Northeastern student and organizer for Occupy MBTA, confirmed, “Our focus, now, is not on the board, but the State House. It’s [House Speaker Robert] DeLeo, [Senate President Therese] Murray, and [Governor Deval] Patrick.”
“We’re on the doorstep of those we’re trying to affect,” she added.
As for the encampment itself — it may not have had the dense network of tents that came to be iconic of the Occupy movement last fall, but “Camp Charlie” still had all of the familiar trappings of a protest encampment.
The sprawl of sleeping bags, pads, umbrellas, tarps, tables, signs and rugs on the state government’s front porch might look familiar to those who had seen Occupy Boston’s original encampment on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. An “Info Table” was stocked with free pamphlets, and a “Food Table” was restocked regularly for anyone who wanted a sandwich or, on occasion, a hot, fresh meal.
Many of the day-to-day activities of the Dewey Square encampment were also retained. Several experts came to speak on the history of the MBTA’s budget problems, and Rutgers professor Barbara Foley gave a speech on maintaining a radical perspective in a climate of ideological moderation. General Assemblies took place on battered rugs unrolled in front of the steps.
Even in its short duration the camp was the scene of a solemn ceremony honoring Andy, a fellow occupier and member of Occupy Boston’s Logistics team, who passed away in early April. Like Dewey Square, the encampment served simultaneously as an ongoing protest action and as a gathering place for those who supported the group.
At one point, the encampment was briefly forced to disband. The Massachusetts State Police ordered occupiers to disassemble their encampment, reportedly at the behest of the Secret Service, in preparation for the arrival of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the State House. Without the people-power necessary to hold their ground, the group chose to transport their gear out of sight for the night. The occupation resumed the following afternoon.
“We all understood that occupation is a powerful tactic,” said Oshinsky. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a way of making a commitment for sustained pressure.”
Changing Up the Game
Compared to Dewey Square, “Camp Charlie” was a relatively small encampment, hosting between ten to twenty dwellers per night. Without tents and with greater visibility and personal accountability, a safe environment was easier to maintain.
It was also innovative in the specificity of its focus. It brought attention to a single issue – public transportation – and issued a set of distinct demands – ‘no service cuts, no fare hikes, no layoffs’. The use of such finite, precision encampments may well become the norm for the Occupy movement, which finds itself in need of adapted and revised tactics this spring.
One of the strategies used in the course of the encampment was a first for the Boston occupiers: they made a direct appeal to the government for action. On the morning of April 9, occupier Katie Gradowski made a presentation to the Joint Committee on Transportation on behalf of Occupy MBTA.
“Let us be clear,” Gradowski said, “The current mess that the MBTA finds itself in, burdened by more debt than any agency in the country, […] is the direct result of inadequate funding by this Committee and the entire Massachusetts legislature.”
When Camp Charlie was disassembled on April 14 as planned, the state legislature had not taken the steps necessary to maintain our public transportation system. While next fiscal years’ service cuts and fare hikes will not be as severe as the MBTA initially announced, the MBTA still faces a long-term budget deficit that will have to be revisited this time next year.
Occupy MBTA and its collaborating organizations did not succeed in winning their demands. However, a broader assessment of Occupy’s three-and-a-half month campaign – inclusive of the April4 Day of Action and Camp Charlie – is a more complicated task, one that participants are just now beginning.