Friday, July 19, 2024

Police divert traffic from a protest Wednesday at the Democracy Center in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Matthew Sage)

Protests continued to complicate the closing of the privately owned Democracy Center in Cambridge on Wednesday as a group of almost 40 rallied in support of an ongoing occupation of the building by its former tenants.

Organizers feared that on day three of the occupation police would “raid” the building and try to remove people by force. The rally was summoned in the morning in calls made through social media.

Police made no attempt to enter the building to remove protesters, but diverted traffic from the area where organizers led chants and marched through the streets next to 45 Mount Auburn St., Harvard Square.

“The systematic closing of acceptable spaces … where we can gather without censorship, is going to affect our ability to organize,” said one protester, who did not identify themselves, during a speech to the crowd. Without “at least some semblance of a fight, it’s just going to continue and continue and the city will be stripped of any of these spaces that mean anything to anyone.”

The center has supported nonprofits, activist organizations and other progressive causes since 2001, along with events such as drag shows and clothing drives. It is sponsored fiscally by the Foundation for Civic Leadership, an incubator and funder for progressive voting initiatives. The closing for renovations focused on making room for a program called Democracy House was announced April 6, leading to a series of meetings that did not change the minds of FCL leaders.

A sign explains demands at the Democracy Center, where on Wednesday some former tenants were in day three of an occupation against the closing of the structure for renovations. (Photo: Matthew Sage)

Among those protesting the closing was the Democracy Center’s former coordinator. Elizabeth Rucker, who had managed the center’s day-to-day operations since 2016, resigned just moments before joining Wednesday’s demonstration, citing the fear of police forcibly removing protesters from the space.

“Over the past three months, I worked as hard as I could from my position to ask FCL to right its course, to do true community engagement [and] to share power,” Rucker said. “I cannot stand by while people that I love are inside that building and could be harmed.”

Rucker acknowledged the mutually agreed upon need for renovations that will improve accessibility and safety, but said management did not properly take tenant input into account when making the final decision to close the building indefinitely.

“FCL has fallen short of its values and mission statements, and has failed to engage in democracy,” she said. By closing the center and restricting groups’ access to operating space, Rucker said, the foundation has chosen not “to abide by what they’re saying they’re trying to do in the world.”

The building’s entrances appeared blocked by protesters from the inside. One poster, draped from the building’s roof, read “Welcome to the People’s DC,” while another detailed the occupying group’s demands: an end to the closing and evictions, community representation in the FCL’s board and on renovation planning and no repercussions for demonstrators. 

The foundation also faces a resident petition to the Cambridge Historical Commission to initiate a landmark study for its 1846 double house and the 1928 clubhouse addition next door. A landmarking study might complicate renovations or at least slow them – but since the foundation announced the Democracy Center closing with no designs or contractors in place for the work, there is nothing to delay. And a landmarking usually protects only the outside of a building.

The landmarking hearing will be at a commission meeting 6 p.m. July 11, watchable by Zoom videoconferencing.

In addition, FCL board member Aaron Tanaka resigned Sunday in protest of the leaders’ approach to the closing. “A more measured and inclusive process to achieve this goal was (and still is) possible,”  Tanaka wrote in a press release.

Matthew Schreiner, who lives only a mile from the Democracy Center, was present at the Wednesday rally. He described the Democracy Center as a “convenient and cheap and friendly” community resource and lamented the building’s loss on behalf of “any number of organizations that need a cheap space to be able to operate.”

“It makes it harder for the organization to continue,” he said. “There’s some that are close to the edge, and they might fall off.”