Occupy Story

Sam Adams, the Mayor of Portland, had given the Occupy Portland encampment at Chapman and Lownsdale parks three days’ notice of eviction. “At 12:01 am on Sunday, November 13, all persons and property in Lownsdale and Chapman Squares will again be subject to enforcement of all laws including the laws against being in a park after midnight (PCC 20.12.210), and erecting structures in a park (PCC 20.12.080),” Adams said, and added that “on or after November 13” the parks would close for repair.

Occupy Portland was torn. Some seemed to agree with Adams’ reasons—that the camp had become unsafe, unsanitary, a mire of squabbles and drug use. They advocated abandoning the camp and leaving camps behind, to focus on other strategies. Others thought the eviction would at least be an opportunity to “clean house” and make a fresh start with a new encampment. And many were determined to hold the camp at all costs, seeing eviction as a quashing of the movement.

As I studied all these viewpoints, I was torn myself. Processing with my head and not my heart, I could see logic in all perspectives, and having only slight, surface experience with the encampments I didn’t have a lot of hard data on how well it functioned and whether or not it served a purpose for the movement. Occupy Portland put out a call for all citizens of Portland, as well as brother and sister protesters in Seattle, to come rally at the midnight deadline to stand together against the eviction. My head was torn, but my heart was telling me to be there.

As Saturday wore on, I tried to settle myself about the issue. I’d discussed the matter with Annie, and she assured me that if I was arrested we could handle that as a family, and I had her support. I felt like I’d gathered all the data and opinions I could, so the only thing left was to turn to instinct and emotion. What was my gut telling me?

My gut told me that while I was unsettled about the validity of the encampment, I needed to be there for the people. I realized I didn’t have enough experience and knowledge of the camps to know if it was best to abandon them or defend them, and that if I made a principled stand for the camp I’d be offering myself up for arrest for the sake of something which I had no personal stake in and on which Occupy Portland was incredibly divided. I didn’t have the credibility to make that choice. But the people, on the other hand, were my sisters and brothers. With the people I could stand, without reservation.

So I went down to the parks at midnight, guided clearly by my heart, intent to be there and bear witness, but not to hold the park and be arrested. I was prepared for the worst, with the National Lawyer’s Guild phone number Sharpied on my arm, but I was at peace with my course. I hoped I could be some small help—a voice of encouragement at the very least, and a witness, especially if things got ugly.

When I arrived, the crowd was HUGE: park blocks packed, and opposite sidewalks lined with spectators. A lot of these seemed to be mere rubberneckers, here for the show, even to heckle, but many were clearly Occupy supporters. I thrilled to the sight. This is what everyone had hoped for! A massive show of support, the people of Portland turned out in droves in solidarity with the hundreds who had made the encampment their home. And here they were, thousands strong.

I circled the perimeter on the outer sidewalk, cautiously, but there seemed no need for fear. There were police all around, in regular uniforms, but they hadn’t surrounded the Occupiers or made any threatening moves. I crossed over to the park blocks, and walked along the 3rd ave sidewalk, threading through tightly packed protesters as they held signs and waved at traffic. This traffic included the now famous Bike Swarm, a fleet of Occupy cyclists who rode en masse in laps around the site all night, showing support and helping keep police from mounting an offensive.

I felt a twinge of panic in the middle of that crowd, thinking that if the Police did make a move now, I’d be trapped. The concern was unfounded, and when I emerged onto Salmon, I felt no fear for the rest of the evening, even during the fateful confrontation that was to come.

Because the Police did eventually make their move: at 2am, at the corner of 3rd and Main, right next to my perch on the ledge of the Justice Center steps that I shared with hundreds of others. Portland’s five Equestrian police cantered up to the protesting crowd’s perimeter, followed by an orderly formation of cops in full riot gear. I caught my breath when the horseback officers charged their mounts into the crowd, causing a momentary panic! The Occupiers stood their ground, though, and the police backed their mounts out of the group, with no apparent injuries. I beamed love and compassion to those people standing, so peaceful, so brave, daring the crush of hooves. My people!

The police van with loudspeakers trundled up 3rd, ordering everyone to vacate the roadway, or else you would “show your intent to engage in physical resistance…and may be subject the use of force, including chemical agents and impact weapons.” Things could have turned very ugly indeed when a man in the crowd hurled a lit, sparking firework at an officer. But what happened next was amazing: the Occupy crowd itself seized hold of him, and passed him, struggling, out of the group where officers wrestled him to the ground and arrested him. Neither crowd nor cops made any violent moves after that. It looked like peace might win the day!

Hemmed in at 3rd and Main, the police decided to give ground, and let the crowd (with the usual chants: “The whole world is watching!” “You’re sexy! You’re cute! Take off that riot suit!”) back their ranks down to 3rd and Salmon. The van reappeared at that intersection and repeated its announcement, but then the cops ceded the street and formed a line across Salmon, and waited.

I suddenly realized that my commitment to remain on the outside of the demonstration made little sense—except for that single choke point, there was no standoff. The “in” and “out” distinction had melted away. I left my perch and moved freely throughout the parks, mingling with the crowd, meeting familiar faces, drinking in the sights.

Everywhere I went there was joy. Dancing and drumming in the streets, and celebratory “mic checks” for hours. Smiling faces, and a throng vastly outnumbering police, radiating peaceful strength. At one point a fight began to erupt, but a flock of Occupiers swarmed on the aggressor in an instant, and chanting “Peaceful! Peaceful!” we backed him out of camp, and into the rear guard of cops. The commitment to peaceful defiance was inspiring and pervasive.

At another point, I was passing behind the mass of protesters that faced the riot police line, and a call rang out from toward the front: “A fresh batch of police officers is approaching! We need more people to move up, now!” Well, there seemed to be nothing to do but to move up! There was no way I was going to take a step back while my brothers and sisters all took a step forward. This seems like a violation of my earlier resolution to only observe, but as I said, the situation had changed. Following my heart still, I could respond to the shifting tide. Boundaries had been erased. Aside from this one line stretched across a single intersection, there was no police cordon. Behind was an open space that people moved in and out of freely. The very idea that the police would surround us, trap us and cage us was an illusion dissolving away.

5am had been picked out as the symbolic time of victory, since that was the time the parks would be technically open to the public. When that time arrived, we cheered, we laughed, we congratulated ourselves. We had stood peacefully and had not been moved. I shuffled to my car and made the long drive home, and crawled into bed.

I want the story to end there. There’s a part of me that’s ever searching for the end of the story; the saga ended in triumph OR tragedy, final curtain drawn. I want things to be settled. But of course stories roll on and on, never ending, only flowing into each other like the waters of a river.

And so I awoke at noon to find, via KGW News streaming live, that a fresh shift of police had regrouped in the daylight and taken  the park, arresting a small core who insisted on staying, but also antagonizing a group only there to hold General Assembly. My underage friend was caught in the front lines and arrested, and a dear, gentle man was the victim of horrible brutality. The parks were cleared and fenced, and so began a tense week that culminated in an ugly day of police violence and angry, confused protesters.

And then, on Nov. 19, the tide turned again, with a seeming miracle: Portland Police Chief Mike Reese issued a statement apologizing for ugly misinformation he had spread, but what’s more announcing a new policy of allowing Occupy Portland demonstrators to police themselves. Now, two days in a row, Occupiers have marched, with no police escort, free from violence and vandalism and following all traffic laws.

And so it goes. The river of story flows, stopping for no person and certainly for no blogger. I’m caught in a powerful narrative that will include MANY victories and defeats, and will last beyond the Occupy Movement, and will last beyond my life. I’m glad that my fellow Occupiers are flowing with me as we swim toward a better world, guided by our hearts.




1 Response to “Occupy Story”

  1. November 21, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    Wonderful wrap-up of these events, Joel. So glad you followed your gut and went downtown. That was and shall remain a glorious night where the will of the people was celebrated. I will never forget it….nor the contrast of the following day. Rose and I were just talking about it again and how the act of public dissent ought not result in an infantry line of robocops antagonizing and arresting citizens practicing democracy.

    So much my daughter- and son- are learning in these events.

    When I can, I plan to write a lengthy piece. I’ll let you know!

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