Notes from Occupy Portland: The Liberated Voice of a New Generation

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Portland, OR—The floodlights police set up in the streets surrounding Occupy Portland’s encampment just prior to last weekend’s eviction lent a slightly surreal air to the scene at Lownsdale and Chapman squares.

Ordered by Mayor Sam Adams to vacate the parks by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, Occupy Portland’s response had been defiantly upbeat. The evening’s events on Saturday, November 12 were planned as a celebration of the group’s month-plus accomplishments, with music and a potluck. There was also a call for “self-generated” feeder marches from the neighborhoods to converge in support of those who planned to continue occupying the parks.

At 7 p.m. a crowd of a few hundred had gathered in the small outdoor amphitheater next door at Terry Schrunk Plaza, the federal park where the nightly general assemblies have been held. For a while anyone could take the microphone to talk about why they were there and what the Occupy movement mean to them. Elsewhere, others continued to pack up their belongings at the already partially dismantled camp. The evening was cold and rainy and it remained to be seen how large the turnout would be for the scheduled 12:01 a.m. eviction.

For those willing to risk arrest, however, the energy in the air was palpable, almost festive. There was a sense of victory in the impending confrontation, as if the occupiers were already resigned to losing the park space, but knowing that it didn’t really matter to the movement’s future.

The Night Belongs to the People
To the surprise of the police and probably also many Occupy supporters, as the deadline for eviction neared as many as 6,000 Portlanders arrived at the parks. The outpouring of support made short work of Police Chief Mike Reese’s effort earlier in the week to isolate the occupiers with his expressed concern over “reports” (Who reported this?) that brigades of “anarchist reinforcements” were headed to Portland from other cities.

Only the day before the Associated Press (Nov. 11) dutifully echoed similar propaganda, warning that “some protesters inside the Occupy Portland encampments are building shields and makeshift weapons—including nails hammered into wood” in preparation for a showdown with police.

None of it was true, of course. Ironically, when police saw the huge crowds descend on the area in the late evening, their warnings of possibly violent “outside agitators” coming for battle turned into its opposite. A police spokesman told local TV reporters broadcasting from the scene it was his impression many of those crowding the sidewalks across from Occupy Portland were just there for “the show,” like fans at a football game.

In fact, the crowd was overwhelmingly united in support of Occupy Portland. This became especially evident in the early morning hours as the crowd ringing the park squares and those in the parks willing to risk arrest merged as one, uniting in the streets in peaceful defiance of the police. The night belonged to the people.

Of course, it was always a given that the Lownsdale and Chapman square parks were never more than just a temporary tactical acquisition of this infant movement. After all, who could deny that the police with their batons, helmets, visors, vests, handcuffs, horses, bean bag rounds, pepper spray, flash grenades, tear gas, and live ammunition could always at some point physically take back the parks? Later they did, waiting until the next morning when the crowd had thinned out to move in. The occupiers remaining in the camp were arrested, while city crews worked to clear the parks of tents and materials.

As word spread of the Sunday police action, a crowd of nearly 1,000 soon gathered on a nearby street. Despite repeated loudspeaker warnings to disperse, including threatened use of tear gas and flash grenades, the young, courageous demonstrators refused to do so. After a while police just gave up on the threats.

Obviously, Mayor Adams was under pressure from the Portland Business Alliance to shut down Occupy Portland. After the parks were closed, the media predictably touted the “restraint” of Chief Reese and Portland police, an assessment that might be interpreted to mean demonstrators should be grateful the police didn’t beat the crap out of them like their counterparts in Oakland and other cities.

Still, some local business leaders must privately question the mayor and police chief’s decision to issue an eviction ultimatum for Saturday night at midnight! (as opposed to, let’s say, Tuesday at 10 am?). The thousands who turned out may not have come to watch a football game, but there is a reason the old Elton John song declares, “Saturday night’s all right for fighting.”

But this fight was a nonviolent one, at least on the demonstrators’ part. It was also a victorious one, revealing as it did the abiding sympathy this city has for the anti-Wall Street protests.

Occupying Hearts and Minds
Unlike the 1%, Occupy Wall Street is not a movement that measures success in material acquisitions or armed might, or in the corruptions of greed and money, but in the ideas and values of genuine grassroots democracy and social justice. This is a movement growing organically in the soil of a society where for many hopes for a better future have long faded.

In the course of a few remarkable weeks the Occupy protests have tapped into deep public anger at the injustices of the American economy. In response our flustered rulers have had almost nothing cogent to say. Their reply has been less in words than in constant police harassment. In cities pockmarked by poverty, unemployment, and economic distress, the mayors of America are obsessing over petty city ordinances and nighttime camping rules.

In Portland, Mayor Adams argues that he had to close down Occupy Portland before someone died there. As if the chronically homeless with their myriad problems don’t already die on the streets of Portland. As if Occupy Portland is somehow responsible for the suffering, marginalized individuals who turned up at the camp, a group already poorly served by the city and county’s underfunded social services. In reality, the occupiers did what they could to help those in need, with whatever resources the camp could muster. This they did as a natural expression of what the movement represents.

The “liberal” Adams says he is sympathetic to the Wall Street protests. But who really cares where Adam’s private sympathies lie? Is it even possible these days to imagine how a big-city mayor could use his or her office to reinforce and legitimize dissent, to provide resources to grassroots protesters to get their message out? Unfortunately, the bar for politics in this country is set so low it occurs to few to conceive a city administration actually facilitating a community’s protest against corporate injustice.

Clearly, there is now a coordinated national effort among mayors and police departments to shut down the protests. Unfortunately for those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo, they will fail. As Portland, New York, Oakland, and other cities are proving, this is a movement that lives less in any park than in the hearts and minds of growing ranks of dedicated young activists and a sympathizing public.

“You can’t evict an idea whose time has come,” declared the statement of Occupy Wall Street in New York following the Monday night police attack on Zuccotti Park.

Nor can you frighten into silence the newly liberated voice of a generation on the rise.

1 comments on “Notes from Occupy Portland: The Liberated Voice of a New Generation”

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