Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Seventh- and eighth-graders from Cambridge’s King Open School tour Camp Dewey, the Boston site held by Occupy Boston, on Friday, only days after mass arrests when protesters tried to expand across the street. (Photos: Marc Levy)

Students got to see everything from Camp Dewey’s welcome tent to its dishwashing operation and were around for lunch and a general assembly, where Occupy Boston addresses such issues as whether to raise its own money to pay back the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy for wear and tear on plantings.

Cambridge Day is part of a project called Voices of MainStreet — a weekly, nationwide Q&A in which editors at the money and lifestyle site ask questions and bloggers answer them. For this entry, we were again allowed to choose our own topic.

There was the latest in a steady flow of tourists, the woman who said she comes every day during her lunch break and, on Friday, the seventh- and eighth-graders of Cambridge’s King Open School visiting Occupy Boston’s Camp Dewey to see, as they say, what democracy looks like.

The tour went smoothly amid tents packed nearly atop one another at the former and future Dewey Square, a half-acre midway along 16 acres of park — once roadway, now transformed and overseen by the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, a privately run nonprofit using some public money. Since the entire greenway “is a public park and is available by law for the expression of free speech,” according to the conservancy, Occupy Boston’s use of the land between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. daily since Oct. 3 is a given; its use of the land at all other hours is being allowed without permit as “an extraordinary situation … In addition to supporting free speech, we’re aware that asking the protesters to leave will create conflict and significant expense.”

This is inspiring on both sides, and it made sense that a Cambridge school, not to mention one named after the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., would come to see firsthand the nearest, biggest and most dramatic example of social justice in action in decades. (School Committee member Alice Turkel was along as well.) The fact 141 people had been arrested only days earlier, some of them veterans and some with great force by police in riot gear, only added to the luster.

“They really attacked,’’ said Cambridge’s Urszula Masny-Latos to The Boston Globe. As executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s Northeast regional office, she was on hand as an observer and surprised to be among those arrested Tuesday. “They used force that was completely unnecessary … It was just brutal. I have no idea why they arrested us with such force.’’

The obvious question

By the time of the King Open visit, things were quiet again. The kids got to see everything from the welcome tent to the dishwashing operation and were around for lunch and a general assembly, where the Occupy Boston crowd addresses such issues as whether to raise money themselves to pay the conservancy back for wear and tear on greenway plantings.

One reason for the peace, despite the clear scorn of a handful of police officers paid to stand around and watch Occupy Boston go about its business, is that the Tuesday arrests were watched by thousands of people via webcast and read about instantaneously by thousands more via Twitter. Again as they say, the whole world is watching.

But the ability to see and read what happened on the greenway in those early morning hours just raises an obvious question the media didn’t ask, let alone answer, and the sheer need to know was what brought about my own Friday visit to Camp Dewey. The question stems from the reason given for the arrests, which were across the street from Dewey Square on a square plot the Occupiers were calling Camp Rose. The reason: Because of recent, delicate and expensive improvements, according to Elaine Driscoll, police spokeswoman. The recently planted shrubs cost the city $150,000, according to The Associated Press, and so the protesters had been asked to stay off.

The question: Given this, why didn’t Occupy Boston skip past the block of expensive shrubs to the even bigger Fort Point Channel Parks? It’s at least twice the size of Camp Dewey.

From the perspective of Occupy Boston, here’s what happened:

An Oct. 10 march estimated by an Occupy Boston spokesman as being upward of 10,000 people inspired people to join the campers, and Camp Dewey was going to overflow. “We’re all-inclusive and we want people occupying here with us. We weren’t going to turn them away,” said the spokesman, Philip Anderson, in a Friday interview at Camp Dewey. “We reached out to Menino’s office and the [Boston Police Department] to see if there was a location where they would feel comfortable or safe having us. As far as I know, they didn’t get back to us in a reasonable amount of time.”

“So we made the logical decision to move in to the public park across the street,” Anderson said. “Our decision was just to expand outward so we were all connected to each other.”

No distinction

Logical because as Anderson explains it, the conservancy made no distinction between the expense or delicacy of the landscaping at Dewey Square — where the conservancy confirms the protesters clean daily and have roped off vulnerable plants — or elsewhere on the greenway, and even since the arrests has not really backed up the police version of why the rousting of Camp Rose was necessary.

“From the beginning, the conservancy and the Boston Police Department have made it clear to the protesters that they could not expand to areas of the Greenway beyond Dewey Square, out of concern for public safety and our belief in the importance of maintaining public access and enjoyment of the Greenway by all,” said its executive director, Nancy Brennan, on Tuesday.

That doesn’t leave much leeway if people continue to join Occupy Boston. People returning after the arrests moved their tents to the last unused portion of Dewey Square or into existing tents, Anderson said, something that is only possible because the camp operates 24/7 and people rotate sleeping assignments.

“We have absorbed a lot more people,” he said. “My tent got a little cozy. We expanded out of necessity. If it happens again, we’ll reach out again.”

In the meantime, the decision on raising money to replant and repair is pending — at Dewey Square, the conservancy says replanting is part of its regular park operations budget, 40 percent of which comes from taxpayers through the state — and Anderson hoped it would be approved.

“We don’t want to cause any damage, but when you have 200 people living and working here, some grass is bound to get it a little trampled,” he said. “But I found it odd they were protecting some grass over our free speech rights.”