OWS: 'Occupy' protesters prepare for winter

"Occupy" protesters endured their first major snowstorm over the weekend. Will potentially dangerous winter weather hamper the movement?

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
A member of the Occupy Wall Street movement looks for his tent in Zuccotti Park as the first winter snow falls in New York. "Occupy" protesters across the Northeast endured the region's first winter storm over the weekend. Members of protest movements around the country are making preparations to enable them to remain at their outdoor encampments through the long winter.

Winter is not a good season for an outdoor protest. Just ask any union member who has picketed in Minneapolis in, say, January. So when the cold began to descend on the Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered in cities around the United States, conventional wisdom had it that their movement would wither.

But if this past weekend's early snowstorm is any indication, the Occupiers have other ideas.

When the storm hit here in Boston on Saturday, for example, the local movement's "winterization" working group was ready. It employed a $1,500 emergency fund to buy tarps, snow boots, fleece blankets, wool socks, a special Gortex spray to waterproof boots and outerwear, and shovels and brooms for snow removal. For the most part, protesters living at Occupy Boston's Dewey Square encampment successfully weathered the storm.

“This was the best possible weather, because it gave people a taste [of the cold] without being dangerous,” said one winterization committee member. “It lets people know that they have to take care of this.”

“We got through it pretty well,” said Eric Martin, an Occupier and graduate student studying physics at Harvard, who has been living at the Dewey Square encampment since the second day of the Boston protests. “My tent was actually hot last night.”

With the full brunt of winter still several weeks away, the winterization group’s long-term efforts are still in the planning stages. But if the scope, organization, and level of detail in the Occupy Boston preparations are a barometer for the mood of “Occupy” movements around the country, one thing seems clear: the protesters have no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.

The group’s most immediate priority is educating residents on how to keep their living spaces warm and dry. “It’s going to be far easier if everyone knows something about winter camping,” said a committee member named Sam, who didn’t give his last name. “Training people will be more effective than us going around and winterizing the whole camp.”

To that end, Occupy Boston has its “winterization” Wikipedia page up and running.

The group also has winter camping training sessions scheduled throughout the week, which will put members of the small Dewey Square tent city through the basics: Always have a pair of dry socks on hand; use a zero-degree sleeping bag; never put a heating source inside a tent; don’t use air mattresses (any cold air circulating under a body can be dangerous); and always sleep two people to a tent. Someone suggested reaching out to local Boy Scout organizations to help with the training, or having the Red Cross come through and inspect the campsite.

The camp has long encouraged its members to use a buddy system to keep track of one another, a precaution that the committee thinks will only become more critical as the weather turns cold. Partners can watch for any signs of illness in one another. The winterization group is also working on making it a requirement that Occupiers use two-person residential tents, which are easier to keep warm than the larger ones.

The buddy system is important, too, in identifying residents who are particularly vulnerable to the cold, and encouraging them to seek shelter indoors.

“There are some people who just aren’t going to be able to stay there,” said Sam, the committee member.

Other immediate preparations include distributing fliers detailing the warning signs of hypothermia, inspecting the encampment and “citing” tents that aren’t fit for the cold, and setting up an “example tent” for residents to use as a guide.

The example tent will be a version of Mr. Martin’s tent: his two-person camper is outfitted with waterproof tarps overhead and underneath, with plastic lining along the inside. Keeping the tent dry is a top priority, and difficult in the muddy patch of land on which most of the tents sit. Martin has a plastic bag where he keeps his boots, and the floor of his tent is lined with yoga mats to keep water from seeping through the bottom.

To cope with winter in the long term , the winterization group is working with Jan Wampler, an architect and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to further improve the living spaces. Because of concerns about wet, muddy ground, Mr. Wampler and his team are working on a way to raise the structures while insulating them from cold air that could circulate underneath. They are also considering carpet insulation and foam pallets as added tent sidings.

Eventually, the tent city will have to be restructured, widening the space between units to make snow removal and drainage easier. The group is also working on getting an aerial shot of the campsite, to draw up a map for emergencies.

“That way we can say, oh, tent No. 3 is having a problem, and we’ll know right away where tent No. 3 is," one committee member explained.

Once Wampler’s design ideas are incorporated, the winterization group will figure out a per-unit cost for each structure, then present the proposal at one of Occupy Boston’s general assembly meetings to buy and outfit new tents, as well as retrofit the ones that can be weather-proofed. In conjunction with OB’s financial working group, of which Martin is also a part, the committee also plans to set aside an emergency fund for each major storm that comes through the area.

“And we can pass along what we learn to the other Occupy movements,” Martin added.

It might seem, with all of this focus on comfort and shelter, that the Occupy movement is losing sight if the “protest” part of all of this. But the committee also discussed using the new shelters and restructuring of the camp as a branding opportunity, presenting a unified protest message to be displayed across the tents.

To Martin, however, questions of shelter and living space are so important because having people actually living at the campsite is intrinsic to the whole idea of the “Occupy,” protests.

“It wouldn’t be an Occupy movement if we didn’t live here, ” says Martin. “If we’re going home every night, it’s not as much of a commitment.”

Martin recently gave up his apartment and plans on staying in his winterized Dewey Square tent indefinitely.

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