Greater City Providence
Occupy Providence

The Occupation and Public Space

Occupy Providence

Occupy Providence in Burnside Park. Photo © Jonathan Beller from Facebook.

Eventually, at some point, the current situation with Occupy Providence at Burnside Park is going to change. In this post I’m not trying to talk about what the movement is trying to accomplish, or to take a side, or to pass judgement, this is about what that next step could be and how the park can/might play a roll in the future.

As has been widely reported, the City has begun taking action to set up for removing the protesters from the park, Occupy Providence has a copy of the eviction notice from Commissioner Pare here. The notice basically tells protesters they are in violation of a number of city ordinances, most notably, remaining in the park after it closes at 9pm. The notice gives the protesters 72 hours to comply, which would result in them needing to be out by Sunday evening.

Occupy Providence is calling for people to join them on Sunday in the park in an action they are refering to as “Solidarity Sunday” to resist eviction. As the AP reports, Comissioner Pare has stated that the police will not forcibly evict protesters on Sunday evening if they remain in violation of the eviction notice.

Commissioner Steven Pare tells WPRO-AM the city won’t “physically remove them” from Burnside Park and instead will seek to force them out “peacefully and civilly” through the court system.

He said that could take several weeks.

So all this said, eventually, something will change. Perhaps the Occupation will continue to resist and change and grow. Perhaps the City will work through the courts and remove the Occupation, that could happen peacefully, or there could be a repeat of what happened in Oakland (something I have no doubt that everyone from the Mayor on down wants to avoid). Apathy or weather could see the protesters slowly disperse.

If the Occupation simply leaves, with no lasting legacy, that somehow feels sad. Regardless of how you feel about the protesters, their motives, or their actions, something is happening here, and they are said to represent the “99%,” that’s just about all of us.

This Occupation, like it or not, is now part of Providence’s history, it will forever be in the history books that Burnside Park was the site of a round the clock occupation that… That what, what will history record?

That was broken up in a violent riot where scores of protesters and police were injured… That ended peacefully and resulted in minimal change in the banking industry or government or whatever was trying to be changed by the movement… Or, that continues today in some way.

Occupy Providence

A member of Occupy Providence cleaning Burnside Park. Photo © Jonathan Beller from Facebook.

While some of us may feel less welcome in the park while an occupation is taking place, and while the tents are surely not good for the grass, by and large the occupyers have been caring for the park, treating it as home and taking seriously their caretaker status.

The park is becoming as much a symbol of the movement as the act of occupying it is. So when this movement evolves, when someday, be it weeks or months or years, the tents leave, what should the occupation’s legacy be in the park?

Should the movement continue to occupy the park with some sort of Speakers’ Corner style intervention? Should the movement work out a way to have monthly or weekly demonstrations in the park? Is there a way that parts of the Occupy movement can have a lasting relationship with the park, and what should that look like?

Again, this post is not to pass judgement on the protesters, their motives, or the occupation itself (but certainly feel free to address those things as needed in the comments if you must), this is about how a political movement can and should interact with a public park. What are your thoughts?

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • I don’t want to spark a discussion that digresses from the real point here, but I want to observe something that really bothers me.

    Two years ago Providence had tent cities in out of the way places inhabited by people with no homes that were reviled and forced to move almost weekly.
    Today, Providence has a tent city in its showcase park downtown inhabited by relatively well-heeled protesters and they have an indefinite lease to the space.

    Is this supposed to be progress or proof the homeless weren’t aggressive enough?

    Thanks for the chance to rant. Carry on.

  • I have felt the same way, there are two points that make me feel somewhat better about that seeming double standard.

    One, the two events were under different administrations. Two, the current administration says the City went through similar legal machinations to evict the homeless camps under the highway to what they are doing now in response to the situation at Burnside Park.

  • What part of “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” don’t they get?

    Here we are: One tiny example. BP can dump umpteen gallons of poison in the ocean and not be forced to reveal what the chemicals are, oh that is proprietary. Proprietary! – in whose ocean?? And no one gets in trouble.

    Yet heads are being cracked in cities all over because something might happen to the grass.

    This is why the occupiers must stay until they see fit to leave. Then we will all celebrate by planting the prettiest grass ever.

  • This is why the occupiers must stay until they see fit to leave.

    But many people, I’d venture to say the majority, don’t get why they are there. There seems to be public opinion currently that says people are glad they are doing something, even if people don’t understand what that something is exactly. But as time goes on, simply occupying the park will not be enough, more and more people will want to know when the park is going to return to being not-Occupied, and as support goes away, the ability to transition the Occupation into something else with the support of public opinion wanes.

    The cause is not helped when Occupy Providence’s two latest Facebook posts are about free massages and the two “drum workshops” scheduled for today. It is a fine line in the eyes of the public between noble protesters and lazy hippies.

  • So let’s imagine someone has not been paying attention, can you see how that statement is unhelpful and off-putting?

  • If people don’t know why there are protesters downtown, or in any other city across America, by now, they may need to start listening. And as annoying as drum circles are, even lazy hippies have rights and value in this country.

  • You know they are taking better care of the park than the city ever did.

    And I love how the city is afraid to use the police to evict them. The mayor and his advisory people know that the police may well side with the Occupy Providence movement. As it stands, Occupy Providence has the CWA, and the Teamsters in their corner.

    It’s going to get INTERESTING, especially with the city wasting money to pursue legal remedies to this perceived ‘offense’.

  • ++Jeff…

    Very unfortunate, because the Occupy “movement” raises some gravely important issues. And issues with real potential for broad public support. Sadly, the occupiers (or, at least, a large number) appear hell-bent on shouting about symptoms, rather than articulating actionable positions to address said issues. That sounds dangerously close to “whining”, if one is watching it all on TV.

    I do like the Speakers’ Corner angle, tho.
    It’s the _camping_ that makes the movement look bad, imho. As long as this thing is in a state where it could be mistaken for a trust fund hippie festival, it lacks credibility…

  • One point about the occupation is that it has made downtown Providence livelier, which was sorely needed. Indeed, I decided to do some errands downtown for a change as an opportunity to talk with the protestors, and I am glad I did.
    I think they have already succeeded in changing the political conversation which beforehand was largely about deficits, and how unions, public employees, and government itself was bad, and now the conversation includes jobs, corporate abuse, rising income inequality, and loss of public services. So I appreciate what the protestors have done, and so should the city administration which should value both that shift in conversation and the opportunity to liven up downtown.

  • What is off-putting is the point that folks no longer appear to take it upon themselves to research, give due diligence to, investigate and educate themselves on events that are happening around them.

    This is one reason the protests exist in the first place, because the majority of America fell asleep at the wheel through much of the last decade and we now ‘happen’ to find ourselves in a financial and social mess.

    We must be willing to actively seek answers to the questions we have, whether this be about the protests and what they mean or how it is we have reached this crisis in the first place. We can’t simply follow what the media tells us and that’s: “We don’t know what they [the protesters] want?!”

    We have to take a little more responsibility for our own knowledge and what we know about the world around us; not to leave it to the airwaves, pundits and politicians to figure and answer it all out for us.

    The, “We don’t know what they want?!” pandemic is a pretty lazy way of saying “I really don’t care to be informed or to educate myself” and continues the progression of fear.

    Its like the Gay, Civil and Women’s Rights Movements- we’ve had to educated ourselves to understand what they were, are, about.

    If we’re so worried about the grass at Burnside Park (which by the way, the growing season is over), even on a site dedicated to “growth and development” of our urban core, we’re missing the point entirely.

    These people [the protesters] are doing what most Americans will not, bare their every being to fight for a just and social America where we do have a right to assemble and where we do have parks to gather for various cause. If not for these characteristically American institutions we have no space or time for the growth and development of our civic, social, financial and intellectual prosperity.

  • More and more as I read about the Occupy movement, those who purport to be within the movement have taken an, “if you don’t know what the movement is about, you are not paying attention…” stance and restort to some variants of calling such people who are trying to learn more stupid or lazy or something else insulting.

    So, let’s imagine, someone reading this thread was trying to understand what the movement was about, how have you helped them to understand that? Have you done anything to make them think maybe they don’t want to investigate further?

  • The fact that you do not want to engage in a civil discussion about the issues is duly noted, thank you.

  • I support most of what the Occupy movement wants in theory. But what are they doing to get what they want? They’re camping out in a public space holding signs, beating drums, playing guitar, giving massages, smoking pot… sounds like a bunch of lazy hippies to me (I consider myself a bit of a hippie, but you won’t see me out there because I don’t think they’re accomplishing anything).

    Why aren’t they beating down the door to the State House? Why aren’t they beating down the door to the US Capitol Building or the White House? That’s where change needs to come… not a bunch of trustafarians and well-off hipsters and hippies choosing to camp out in a park… that accomplishes nothing but dead grass.

    And sure, they might be cleaning up the park better than the city… but in the process they’re killing the grass. It’s not a win-win to me. It’s not good for the environment.

    So maybe when they actually do something productive with their time, then people will listen. I don’t have time to research what a bunch of lazy hippies are doing in their tents in a city park. It makes me not want to care. The people on Wall Street are going after the execs, that makes sense. The people I saw standing on the side of the road in Rutland, VT doesn’t make sense. The people camping out in Burnside park doesn’t make sense. No, we shouldn’t be sending out the full police force on them (unless they’re breaking the law), but why should we support them in their movement with no direction?

  • “The people I saw standing on the side of the road in Rutland, VT doesn’t make sense. The people camping out in Burnside park doesn’t make sense.”

    The protesters are digging in for a long haul because they know their task is like explaining water to a fish. The water we swim in is the enormous privilege enjoyed by corporations and the financial elite.

    I could write a list with hundreds of examples of corporate privilege. The wall between the 1% and the 99% is made of thousands of bricks like these:

    Why are there patents on genes and seeds? Why is there no labeling of GMO foods?

    Kids who downloaded music have suffered serious consequences. Mortgage bankers who jammed through bogus loans, took the money and ran have not.

    Ever read any of those “terms of service?” One typical bit in there waives your right to sue. Oh, you can take it to some rigged arbitration. Yeah. But when that corporation wants to avail itself of a real court, it will.

    Call a strike and 1000 cops will show up before there is trouble. Catch an employer brazenly violating labor law and try to get some law enforcement.

    The media have always told us this is the natural order of things. It is not.

    I could go on. When you ask what is being protested, it is hard to decide where to begin. How much time do you have? That is very different from having no point. Knowing what you are fighting against sometimes comes first. Figuring out exactly what you want to replace it with is what democracy is for. It is going to take some work.

  • Andy, if you don’t know what this post is about then you obviously did not read it and you are lazy and stupid. How’s that?

  • Andrew I, yes it is very vast and complex and I think a problem that is developing now is that many are viewing the occupations themselves as a distraction from the issues at hand. The occupations are becoming preoccupied with maintaining the occupations and collecting donations to maintain the occupations. The actual issues that the occupations started in response to are getting lost.

    That is why I’m asking, what should the next steps be, should the occupations go on until society is completely equitable and just, or is there something the occupations can morph into, that continues to involve the park and that more people feel they want to support that doesn’t get in the way of the issues that need addressing?

  • With all due respect, “It is a fine line in the eyes of the public between noble protesters and lazy hippies” is pretty insulting since so called “lazy hippies” are also part of the public.

    “The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. [Wall St.] for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons|and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson|we raise children and send them to war.” – Eartha Kitt to Lady Bird Johnson regarding the state of the country in 1968

    In fact, the hippie phenomenon was 40 years ago and the people who are protesting, I would say, aren’t lazy nor are they hippies. That was a movement bestowed upon the children of the 60’s and 70’s.

    Bill Maher To Republicans: Quit Calling Occupy Wall Street Protesters ‘Hippies’

    I’m not from “within the movement,” however, I do give respect to those to whom I disagree with since we are a free society and given the right to assemble- after all, I thought this post was more about the park and less about WHY there are protesters in it – that shouldn’t even really matter since we have that inalienable right as a free people to assemble; on public space, otherwise they’d have to move where?

    I too find the claims that “support will go away” and that the “support of public opinion will wane” to be quite inaccurate since this is a ‘growing’ movement. Yet to insist on calling it an “occupation” used in certain vernacular becomes misleading and to the point of fear mongering amongst those who do not take the time to understand what and why it is taking place, but then to also undermine its cause.

    It is not my role, since again, I am not within the movement, to provide anyone with a wikipedia description of what the protests are about. After all, this very site I assumed to be dedicated to an open source of ideas and not the end all be all of its related topic(s).

    I don’t rely on GC:PVD to supply my entire file of info on urban development as I’d hope folks don’t rely on wikipedia for their base of information on anything that is anything.

    This doesn’t mean one has to agree with the protests, but willfully or un-willfully to not seek truth in information
    IS an act of laziness; not opinion.

    A “Speakers Corner” great idea!

  • Be wary of the establishment line right now. It goes like this: Oh very nice you have made a good point. Look! The experts on NPR talk about jobs 11% more than they talk about the deficit crisis! Now be good boys and girls and run along. What? you think you can stay there until things actually change?

    If they leave the occupations now, business as usual will be back solid in no time. The point of the ongoing occupations is there is no going back to business as usual.

    This thing is still just beginning. I think the time to close up camp will be when the danger of everything going back to business as usual has passed.

    The park has never been a safer, friendlier place. Everyone needs to turn off the TV, go there and strike up some chat with people. There are still plenty of parks where you can find grass and near-solitude. Right now, Burnside park has been repurposed.

    The grass could be saved if there was a paved space that could be occupied, but OMG that would interfere with parking and traffic!!

  • One final note. Yeah, I know, “shut up already.”

    The tents that were evicted from under the highway was because the bridge that the folks were camped under was being prepped for demo as part of the I-Way project– there was an immediate safety and endangerment case before the city.

    Quite different from what is happening at Burnside.

    Since on any given day or night preceding the occupation, one could find folk sleeping on benches, camped in the grass and under makeshift shelters out of newspapers and garbage bags, nothing has changed besides its volume. Hopefully it [the protests] sheds greater light on our homeless population and their needs as well.

    PS. I really do think a speakers corner is a great idea incase that was misread.

  • Really, the grass is what everyone is worried about? 🙂

    I am not sure I quite get what the end result will be with the occupy movement, but i wholeheartedly support their efforts. I protest in different ways, however, by actively working against the things that I think are ruining our country and way of life (pollution, lack of environmental regulations etc) and by making sure my elected officials know how I feel about things, and reminding them that I vote. I can’t camp out in burnside park, or on wall street for weeks at a time, so I do my part, and they do theirs.

    ANYTHING that raises awareness of how f&cked up things are in our country, and urges us to think about what we can all do to make it different is ok in my book.

    Although i did hear that it smells a lot like pee at the park.

  • Just because this convo needs yet another Andrew…

    OWS and it’s franchise occupations are fine and should stay. I’m not sure how else they are suppose to oppose the prevailing, undemocratic, choking power structures in this country because ( I’m sooty, Jen) I don’t think reminding your Representatives you vote is particularly effective anymore.

    I am a little put off by the name “occupy,” we’re a country that’s been sending our poor to kill people overseas for a decade now…not sure we need war at home. I’m thinking though that the early formation of OWS was done by anarchist kooks, and hopefully it can grow past them…as the Tea party has clearly grown beyond its AstroTurf, Fox News, Taxed Enough Already beginnings.

    On urban issues, at least the OWS movement can remind us of what wonderful common resources we share and tend to overlook, mismanage, undervalue. Parks are just one example. The street is another. What about the electeomagnetic spectrum? We practically give it away in exchange for teevee that seems mostly to be one big ad aimed at the lowest common denominator, or to have corporations sell it right back to us as cell phone minutes.

    I’m only 29 and I rant like I already have my AARP card!

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