Occupy Boston Gets Temporary Reprieve, But Questions Remain

Download Audio

Occupy Boston has won a big victory. A Superior Court judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked Boston Police from evicting the protesters and their tents from Dewey Square.

WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness was in court for the ruling and joined Morning Edition Thursday.

Occupy Boston, following Wednesday's ruling (Nick Fountain for WBUR)
Occupy Boston, following Wednesday's ruling (Nick Fountain for WBUR)

Bob Oakes: So why did Occupy Boston go to court Wednesday?

Bianca Vazquez Toness: They were concerned about what happened in other cities, where police went into the encampments in the middle of the night and removed tents and arrested protesters — most recently in New York City's Zuccotti Park.

Occupy Boston was trying to prevent that from happening here, because they say what they're doing — camping — is protected as free speech. And they wanted the court to hear that argument, before the police go in and try to move them.

We'll get to that free speech question, but were police planning to raid the square?

No, they said they had no plans. And that was one of their main arguments against the restraining order: that this is premature.

But since the second week of occupation, Mayor Thomas Menino has said they can't stay forever, and the city reassesses on a daily basis whether to evict them. So, protesters felt like they were in imminent danger.

On Wednesday, the judge agreed that there was imminent danger of the city violating free speech rights of the protesters. However, she made it clear that police can go in if there's immediate danger, like a fire or an "outbreak of violence."

So, how did the city respond to all of this?

Attorneys representing the city and police department were not pleased. They say this ties their hands; for example, what if hundreds more people join the camp and the police sense danger? Here's the city's chief attorney, William Sinnott:

My fear is that our police officers, in the event that they seek to do a removal — and there is certainly no plans to do that — will be placed in danger. Protesters may be placed in danger. The general public in the area of Dewey Square may be placed in danger. Because there is potentially an influx — predictable or foreseeable — of hundreds or more of additional protesters before any action could be effected.

But this is temporary; the restraining order lasts until Dec. 1, when the parties go back to court to decide whether the protesters have a right to stay long-term.

Exactly. And what will be at issue then is whether camping out is an expression of protected speech. The attorney for Occupy Boston says that it is, that the occupation — camping out — is central to their message. Here's the protesters' attorney, Howard Cooper, laying out some of his argument:

That message is we're taking a small piece of the city, a small piece of land, and we're occupying it as part of our message to show you as an exemplary city, as a community, the economic justice that is not taking place elsewhere.

So, that's an attorney representing Occupy Boston, but this is portrayed as a leaderless movement. How does the court hold them accountable? What if the judge, like the one in New York City, says no tents and sleeping bags are allowed in this camp? Can you really enforce that when the group is so apparently amorphous?

That was the same concern the judge had, and it will be a question moving forward. The judge is basically requiring Occupy Boston to vote on whether they would honor a court order as a group. They might be voting on that Thursday night, and this could be a real test of their democracy. They do everything by three-fourths consensus, so if they can't get a consensus on this the judge likely won't consider them a group with legal standing.

This program aired on November 17, 2011.


More from WBUR

Listen Live