Movement Man

Meet Chris Faraone, Occupy reporter for the Boston Phoenix

The week before Occupy Boston changed Chris Faraone’s life, grassroots revolution was already on his mind. Faraone, who covers rap music and social injustice for the Boston Phoenix, had filed a 2000-word story about a progressive group called MassUniting, which had organized a series of flamboyant protests against Bank of America; Faraone called the group’s efforts “a multilateral attack for the ages,” and left readers with the definite sense that the best was yet to come. Three months later, with the Occupy movement a worldwide phenomenon, the story seems less a prediction than a prophecy. “You can tell when shit’s goin’,” says Faraone. “Sometimes it’s just in the air.”

Over the past few bleary-eyed months, with little concern for health, nutrition, or REM cycles, Faraone has spent almost every waking hour honing his insight into America’s economic counterculture. He has covered Occupy like a one-man swarm: embedding full-time at Boston’s Dewey Square encampment; visiting other movements around the country; juggling feature stories, blog posts, radio spots, and Twitter fights. The recent eviction and dispersal of the Occupy Boston HQ turned into a marathon two-day reporting session interrupted only by a three-hour nap and a French Dip sandwich. “I’ve stayed up twenty-four hours in the past couple of weeks more than I ever have in my life,” he says. “I’m so used to holding my piss at this point that I forget to go.”

Faraone, thirty-two, is short and bearded, with the sort of aggressive, open-hearted personality well-suited for bar fights, foxholes, and city rooms. A former graffiti artist, he speaks in short, colorful bursts that illustrate his familiarity and frustration with the state of things. He carries himself as if he is forever rising to challenges that nobody expects him to meet. “People think I’m not capable of anything,” he says. “I wear a hat, I drink a lot, I always smell like weed—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.” He is not exaggerating.

Though born into a literary family—his father, an armchair neuroscientist, wrote a seminal book on hugging—he was an unlikely candidate for the ink-stained life. After an unfocused early twenties marked by dead-end jobs, legal troubles, and a stint as “the fucking dumbest kid at the New School,” he landed in Boston in 2004, determined to pursue a nascent interest in journalism. He soon found work at the Weekly Dig, a witty, shambolic local paper that, at the time, was a hub for those writers too smart, caustic, or ragged to thrive anywhere else. “They once had an eighty-year-old intern. That’s just the sort of place it was,” says Faraone. “They had an eighty-year-old guy sitting in the corner, getting drunk.”

In 2008, after a series of editorial changes ripped the heart out of the Dig, he followed many of his colleagues to the Boston Phoenix, the city’s major alt-weekly, where he’s been ever since, covering prisoners, protesters, and others who have given their lives to rebellion. He writes frequently about rap music, a lifelong passion. (His first printed piece was an aggrieved letter to The Source, berating the editors for running three separate cover packages on Master P.) On his right forearm, an intricate tattoo honors his hip-hop influences: the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, and the show Yo! MTV Raps. His left arm is adorned with an old Royal typewriter and blank pages running up to the hand. “It’s a way of telling myself that I’ve got to do this shit,” he says.

When, on the last day of September, Occupy set up camp in Dewey Square, a small, oblong park across from Boston’s main train station, he was ready, even if the Phoenix wasn’t. “If you’re a fuckin’ alt-weekly, and you’re not covering Occupy, I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. It’s a lens on all the stories you should be covering,” he says. “I’d be damned if I was going to give them the opportunity to say that we’re not going to cover this.”

For most of this autumn he was a permanent fixture at Dewey Square, reporting, blogging, Tweeting, and knocking heads with quarrelous protesters. His diligence has made him one of the few reporters who, rather than idealize or scapegoat the Occupy movement, has seen for what it is—a disparate group of generally well-meaning individuals who are alternately and at once inspiring, obtuse, galvanic, and ridiculous.

“They’re a difficult group to write about,” says Faraone. “They’re so hypersensitive. They hate criticism. I learned early with them to make sure that everything I write is solid. Did I talk to ten people about this one sentence to make sure it’s right?” A tour of the now-cleared park reveals some of the oases that helped ease his long days—like Biddy Early’s, a nearby Irish bar which became a second home for many of the tent city stalwarts: “Reporters on one side, occupiers on the other, undercover cops in the middle.” The men’s room at South Station proved just as useful for surviving long reporting stints: “At hour fourteen or fifteen, there’s just a row of people at the sinks, splashing water on their faces. It really does help.”

In February, he will self-publish a book called 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, which will compile his months of reporting into a ground-level overview of the Occupy phenomenon, punctuated by stylized features, like a haiku timeline of the ninety-nine nights (“Zuccotti renamed / Now it’s called Liberty Square / Their park now bitches”). The book will draw on the sights he’s seen while traveling the country visiting various camps: a massive, tense march through Seattle, in weather that, he wrote, “couldn’t be more cliché if it was raining lattes”; a weekend at Occupy Oakland (“just one big angry peaceful mob”); an entire block of foreclosed houses in Chicago. “I went to Chicago because instead of guessing what Occupy Boston’s going to end up being like, there’s this movement in Chicago that’s been nomadic and struggling the whole time,” he says.

Now, of course, Dewey Square has cleared, Occupy Boston has dispersed, and the movement is revising its tactics. In a recent story, Faraone described how Occupy is transmuting into something less frenetic and, perhaps, more sustainable. That’s fine with him, as the last few months have taken their toll. “My life is so much anxiety,” he says. “I’ve lost a lot of weight. My pants are falling off.”

Still, he has no plans to abandon the story. “They’re harder to cover now, but I’m as tapped in as I can possibly be without being so deep that journalistic ethics become a problem,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “I’ll be on the case all year.” It is as if, having grasped hold of the biggest story of his career, he is reluctant to relax his grip, lest it get away. “I have no idea where I’d be without this. I have no idea what I’d be writing,” he says. “Something like Occupy comes along, and it’s like everything comes together at the right time.”

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: , , , , ,