Features, Metro

To the beat of drums, a night at Burnside Park

By , and
City & State Editor, Features Editor and City & State Editor
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Correction appended.

“Your tent’s weird,” Chris Tibedo told us.

About 20 minutes into our attempt to Occupy Providence, we were having problems. The basic two-person tent we had borrowed was proving not so basic after all.

We looked around. There were more than 70 well-pitched tents Tuesday night at Burnside Park, the home of “People’s Park,” an encampment supporting the Occupy movement since Saturday. Ours was not one of them.

Tibedo, our neighbor, lived about two feet away, though he graciously moved one foot further once we settled in, to comply with the city’s stipulation that three feet separate tents.

We were also warned to pitch our tent at least 10 feet from the park’s fence. Though Occupiers declined to file for a city permit to avoid setting an end date, they try to obey city rules.

Saturday was the first day of the park’s Occupation, but Occupy Providence considers its start date to be Oct. 1, the first day it started meeting in general assemblies.

Occupy Providence exists as a communal society within a bustling downtown, directly opposite from the Kennedy Plaza bus terminal. Though there is no typical Occupier, many spending the night at the camp were unemployed or between jobs.

Volunteers and vegan bread

In the end, it took two men named Chris to help us build our tent. Our second helper, Chris Goncalves, mocked our tent’s “fancy” aluminum poles. We later learned that Tibedo is far more familiar with tents than he let on — before moving to the park, he had lived in his 9-by-12-foot tent elsewhere in the city since April.

Tibedo and Goncalves help out at the food tent and with cleaning. The food tent uses donations to cook big meals open to all, including the homeless, some of whom were living in the park prior to the protests. Rob Greyfox, who volunteered the late-night shift at the media tent, estimated 45 to 55 percent of tents in the park shelter the homeless.  

Volunteers cleaned up the dinner of salad, pizza and vegan banana nut bread we had missed. The Occupiers emphasize the movement has no leadership or assigned roles, but people volunteer when they can.

Goncalves also picks up the park’s litter. He refuses to throw even cigarette butts on the ground and instead tucks them under his shoelaces. Goncalves usually prefers not to wear shoes at all, but he recently stepped on glass and has since been playing it safe. His occupation of the park is “nothing political,” he said, but is about spreading “love and positive energy.”

The recycling bins by the park are often full, Goncalves said, so he and other volunteers push rattling shopping carts filled with bottles and food packaging several blocks down Washington Street to the AS220 trash and recycling area. The venue allows the Occupiers to use their bins, he said. As we sorted through bottles, a restaurant staffer who came out to dispose of trash waved hello.

West Warwick resident Peter Calci III helped sort out bottles. Though he does not sleep at the park and continues to go to work, Calci said he spends as much time as possible at Burnside, volunteering and speaking with residents. The protesters all have a common goal, he said, acknowledging that it can sometimes be imprecise. He sees the parks as “a meeting of the masses to just talk.” The purpose, he said, is “if nothing else, maybe just getting people’s attention.”

Community power

There are other daytime visitors who support the cause, like Cranston resident Renae Chaves, who sometimes brings her 7-year-old son Rowan. She takes him home at night so as not to “disrupt his schedule,” she said. On Monday, she held an impromptu storytime at the base of Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s statue for Rowan and the handful of other children visiting that day.

These visitors bring many of the donations necessary to keep the park running. A large whiteboard displays a request list for items like toothpaste, tents and apple cider vinegar. Already donated items include pasta, fabric pads for sleeping from Lorraine Fabrics and the generator that provides the camp with electricity.

“We have more than enough power,” said Providence resident Amanda Magee, who volunteers in media outreach. The media tent contains the laptops and Wi-Fi hotspot Occupiers use to maintain a social media presence, host a live feed and enable individual Internet access. Residents stop by to plug cell phones into the community power strip or just to say hello — the brightly lit canopy, donated by the firefighters’ union, is always staffed.

Providence resident Michael McCarthy often sleeps in the media tent, though for part of the past week he has only slept two hours a night. Like Magee, he gives many interviews to local media outlets, who are often “disarmed” by the suit he wears for interviews — an anomaly among the protesters, he said.

Serving needs

The encampment is officially substance-free, though intoxicated visitors are not uncommon, and there have been a few appearances of alcohol, residents said. In those cases, violators were asked to dispose of substances, and most complied.

The camp now has a public safety patrol that walks around looking for violations and checking in with residents. Two patrol members asked if we needed any blankets or wooden pallets for our tent before moving on.

Next to the “legal tent” is a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag hanging in a tree. Similar to flags used by Tea Party protesters, it strikes a seemingly discordant note amid what has been characterized as a left-wing movement.

Chris Kairnes, a member of the legal team, pointed out that the flag had a long history before the Tea Party unfurled it at rallies.

Kairnes said his job is to offer legal advice, alert the Occupiers of their rights when dealing with law enforcement and communicate with lawyers sympathetic to the cause. “We’re just people that want to uphold the law,” he said.

He does not have formal legal training. His political views defy the “left-right paradigm,” which he thinks is just a way to divide Americans. “I actually wish the two-party system would collapse,” he said.

The camp has two medical tents. At around 11 p.m., there were two volunteers at the first medical tent: Oi, who goes by a single name, and Linda Perreault. The strongest drugs they give out are Tylenol and Ibuprofen.

“I think a lot of issues are being addressed here all at once,” Oi said earnestly. He spoke of a litany of problems — capitalism, dependence on the monetary system, oppression — and of his desire to “work towards a world that is not so destructive.” Oi, who now lives in the park full-time, said he plans to stay there until decisions are made to confront the problems he cares about.

Perreault was recently laid off from her job as a unit secretary at Kent Hospital in Warwick. Her job that night wa
s to monitor sanitation and make sure tarps on the tents were secure, since rain was forecasted.

“Chapped lips were a big thing tonight,” she deadpanned. The medical supplies at the tent are all donated, mostly from individuals. She reached into a large green bin to hand out a Tylenol for a headache. Like other Occupiers, she feels strongly about many causes. She said she is a member of the Coffee Party, a progressive third party that seeks to reform taxes, Wall Street and campaign financing.

James Paycheck, a young Providence resident with an affable grin and a bandana around his head, came over to see if we needed help with anything. Paycheck works in the medical tent and as part of the security team. “I make sure people are being safe, that they get what they need,” he said. His job includes everything from distributing Band-Aids to ensuring that diabetics get their medication. He also makes sure “no one’s getting too rowdy.”

Occu-party?

There is never a dull moment at the camp. Daily routines include workshops, fitness sessions and training seminars. Residents of the park also train each other on how to identify police misconduct in the event of an arrest.

So far, the camp has had no arrests.

Paycheck still works a day job, but he returns to the camp at night. “We have so much fun that we don’t want to leave here,” he said. “Our family is here.”

“This is the best thing to happen to Rhode Island since this park’s been built,” he said.

Willie Paycheck, James’ brother, chimed in. “I felt safer here than I do beyond that gate,” he said, gesturing to the short fence — currently covered in the protesters’ signs — that surrounds the park.

The brothers were recently evicted from their home in Providence. Willie said he was “struggling” when he arrived at the camp, and the camp’s residents posted someone by his tent to make sure he “was going to be all right.” He grinned: “Now that’s what I call ‘Occupy.'”

‘Radical solutions’

“If I were to make a sign, I would write, ‘too complex to argue,'” said Greg Guernon, a Providence resident who comes to the park to join the protesters in his spare time and then bikes home around 1 or 2 a.m.

“I graduated from Brown with $100,000 in student loan debt, and it’s ridiculous,” said Chantal Tape ’09. “It’s a really (expletive) time to try and start your life.”

“We’re obviously not going to stay here forever,” she added. “This is part of the solution. … More creative, radical solutions.”

“Brown’s full of privileged brats who like to talk the big talk,” said Austin Peters-Miller ’12, who camped out at the protest for the first time Tuesday night. He joined the protest “to change the world,” he said sardonically.

One small tent had a chair perched invitingly out front. “Take a seat,” called a voice from inside, and a blond woman came out to introduce herself. Mel St. Laurent works on the protest’s media efforts. She was determined to inflate her air mattress — a clever call given the plummeting ground temperature.

St. Laurent grew up in Portsmouth and now works as a high school teacher in Providence. “I’m not an activist, and I don’t claim to be one,” she said, though she has been residing in Burnside Park since Saturday evening.

A few weekends ago, she stumbled upon a YouTube video of the Occupy Wall Street protests. “I was really bothered by what was happening in New York,” she said, referring the media’s lack of coverage of the demonstrations. She started to say more when the sound of quiet chanting arose on the other side of the park and she instantly paused. “I gotta listen,” she explained. When the chanting died down, she continued.

“(President) Barack Obama promised change,” St. Laurent said. “If our movement is all about change, where is he now?”

Like some other residents, St. Laurent said she goes home every few days to check on her apartment. “I slept in my bed, I fed my cats,” she said.

Two Occupiers announced a head count — 225 people were sleeping in the park that night. St. Laurent high-fived one of them exuberantly and searched for her laptop. “I have to put this online,” she said.

In one corner of the park by the large fountain, a group sat in a circle playing drums. Every time we returned to the corner, a different set of people were playing. “Everyone here is making music for solidarity,” explained Lisa Pellegrino, a Providence resident.

Pellegrino and three of her friends, who comprise a marching band called Extraordinary Rendition that performs at “community- strengthening events,” were just hanging out in the park for the night. They planned to return later in the week to camp out and play for the protesters.

Back to reality

Around midnight, Mike Hennessey, a Boston resident, passed through the park looking for a store to buy cigarettes. “It’s all more blown up in the news,” he said, looking around him. “It’s just a bunch of people hanging out. … I don’t see a bunch of angry people.”

It was about 3:30 a.m. by the time all three of us tucked into our sleeping bags. The Kennedy Plaza lights ensure it is never quite dark in Burnside, and about a dozen residents were still up around the park, staffing tents and playing drums.

We woke up only a few hours later at 7 a.m., to the light drizzle that would turn to heavy rain later that day, and packed up our tent.

Chris and Chris were cheerfully awake in the food tent and offered us breakfast — bananas, donuts and pastries stacked neatly in staggered columns. Instead, we headed up the hill to class, promising we would be back soon.

“No,” Tibedo said. “You won’t.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the three editors spent Wednesday night at the park. They spent Tuesday night through Wednesday morning there. The Herald regrets the error.