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Crew of 'Occu-Pirates' Gets the Nod to Protest Again

By DNAinfo Staff on June 17, 2012 12:23pm

By Stacey Szewczyk

Special to DNAinfo.com New York

MANHATTAN — A scrappy crew of Occupy Wall Street veterans that call themselves 'Occu-pirates' sailed out of the 79th Street Boat Basin once again on Saturday morning.

The destination was Staten Island, for one in a series of Occupy Wall Street events held in the five boroughs, that organizers have staged as town hall meetings, aimed at keeping the OWS message, and awareness of America's sinking middle class, afloat.

But the makeshift pirate ship, captain and crew, which made waves in New York City last week after the parks officials tried to give the floating drum circle the boot, saying they were violating public marina rules, didn't make it to their destination.

Tom Fox (l) and Gene Wagner (r) sail down the Hudson River on June 16, 2012.
Tom Fox (l) and Gene Wagner (r) sail down the Hudson River on June 16, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Stacey Szewczyk

As with so many of the Occupy protest efforts, for this group of sailors, the end result isn't the point. In true pirate fashion, the battle itself has become a mechanism of survival.

Last week, it was a battle for the freedom of speech. Tom Fox, who put his 30-foot sailboat "The Druid" in the service of the OWS movement, said he's now sorted things out with the Parks Department Chief Dockmaster, Seth Goodwin, who had ordered him to stop the peace-disturbing drumming and banner waving on his boat or risk being booted from the 79th Street Boat Basin.

Now he says, he's been told they can keep the banners and the drumming on board, just as long as they are outside of the perimeter of the marina's "mooring field" when the flags are hoisted and noise begins. That means they can't anchor anywhere between West 70th Street to West 110th Street, but below 70th, they can start the drums. Fox sees the floating protest community as one solution to the hostility OWS encampments have encountered in public spaces.

There's a tree-house camaraderie among the the six-man crew, all of whom met at Zuccotti Park last September and joined Occupy Wall Street's drum circle. The self-proclaimed Occu-pirates spend much of their time on the boat cutting-up in craggy pirate voices, drumming, and talking economics.

All but Fox are unemployed or underemployed, and each member tells a different story about the path that led him to Zuccotti Park.

Gene Wagner, 42, the boat's unofficial first mate, travelled to the park after losing his job as a crane operator for NASA. Affordable housing is an issue Wagner has felt strongly about since his mother lost her home to foreclosure after she developed cancer and was unable to work or pay her mortgage.

Daniel Baez, 28, arrived at the Occupy Wall Street encampment with upwards of $75,000 in student loan debt. He works a mixed bag of service jobs, like bartending, waiting tables, and doing display painting at art galleries to make ends meet. Baez views his degree in urban planning as the prelude to the post-graduate work he is currently doing in the school of hard knocks.

"In my household with me, my wife and daughter we have four Master's degrees," says recently retired Saeed R. Bokharaie, 65, who acts as a kind of Zuccotti tribal elder. "In the last three years we've made $8,000 a year combined."

Bokharaie, a former audio-visual producer, has a 19-year-old daughter who is bound for college this fall. To ease the burden of the debt, he plans to sell some family property, contribute as much as possible toward the cost of her first year, and hope she can find scholarship money after that.

Fox decided to turn his boat into a protest vessel because he thought it would be fun, but he himself cannot afford to spend the whole summer on the boat. As a general contractor, Fox currently earns about half the $100,000 per year salary he enjoyed prior to 2008's Wall Street meltdown.

"I'm struggling," says the married father of three. "That's why I'm demonstrating. We're getting screwed!"

Even though the protest boat's crew never made it to the Staten Island OWS meeting, which took place too far inland to connect with, thousands of regular New Yorkers who strolled and biked along the miles of waterfront promenade caught a glimpse or earful of the festive voyage.

A small gang of 'Occu-pirates' or members of Occupy Wall Street, take their protest aboard a local's sailboat on June 13, 2012.
A small gang of 'Occu-pirates' or members of Occupy Wall Street, take their protest aboard a local's sailboat on June 13, 2012.
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DNAinfo/Stacey Szewczyk

Along Staten Island and Manhattan, onlookers appeard to get a charge out of the boat's bright banners and jamming rhythm section. They cheered, snapped photos and danced to the Occu-pirate beat.

There were scores of fist pumps and when, occasionally, someone flipped them the bird, the crew was unfazed.

"It's a free country," said Fox smiling.