Sunday, November 20, 2011

The End of Act I

Under the yellow ginko and elm leaves fluttering in the drizzle, the mood at Occupy Portland was resigned. Police swarmed the camp, milling about with their ventilated face masks—presumably to protect them from the disease vectors of a rabble idealistically ignorant enough to believe that the Constitution protects vermin like them. Billy clubs and zip ties hung from their utility belts; their barrel chests, thick with kevlar. Three women whirled through the crowd, singing a protest song. Most of the Occupation's infrastructure had been torn down. The library's books had been stored offsite. The yurt and tarp were gone. The kitchen no longer stood before the statue of a pioneer family, which had been unwrapped from its Cascadian flag, and whose metal mouths were now silenced by duct tape. On the second day of the Occupation, I helped four total strangers erect two storage tents behind the statue. These tents too were gone. Brown leaves littered the ground and covered what few tarps remained. A dog named Chuck Norris ran beneath a sign hanging from a giant elm: SACK MAMMON.

Effective at midnight on November 13, and in concert with mayors around the country, Mayor Sam Adams ordered the removal of Occupy Portland. The city would once again enforce the anti-camping laws it had relaxed just one moon cycle before.

From the beginning, Occupiers disagreed about the location and value of Chapman and Lownsdale Squares. In the first General Assembly I attended, I heard an anarchist, bandanna shrouding his mouth, shout that the Occupation held a "tactically flaccid" position, situated between the jail, the federal courthouse, city hall, and police headquarters. It's location near banks and businesses, however, made these parks an ideal launching point for protests and direct action. Once the Occupiers settled in, inertia kept us in this location.

The showdown was scheduled for midnight. I wasn't present. I had promised Helen, who was in New Orleans, that I wouldn't get arrested, or place myself in a position where arrest was probable. Since I couldn't gauge the likely actions of the crowd or the police, I decided it might be best to stay away. Besides, I had a stack of tests awaiting my attention. As much as the media likes to portray Occupiers as unemployed good-for-nothings, I remain committed to my day job as an educator. If the students committed the time to read and think critically about eight short stories over five weeks, I owed them a close reading of their efforts. And I couldn't live up to my side of the bargain while recovering from pepper spray in a jail cell. Although I might regret it later in life, I stayed away from the activities of the next twenty-four hours.

Before bed, I watched the Occupation's Livestream. Police had brought in Klieg lights, which lent an eerie mood to the human mic speaking from the obelisk in Lownsdale Square, where one speaker warned, "We will be filled with rage because it will be outrageous."

Fears ran deep. Snark from the Willamette Week held, "The Portland Police Bureau prediction [for eviction night]: There will be anarchists waiting in a bunker dug in the middle of a park, holding wooden shields and planks with nails hammered in them—seriously—while 'people may be in the in trees.' "

I awoke the next morning to find the parks still Occupied and anarchists cleaning up trash. Portland Occupier has a good live blog of the dance party, bicycle swarm, and standoff where Occupiers pushed back the Portland Police.

Sarah Mirk had this to say: "Here's what we didn't see last night: Mass arrests, violence, naked people covered in Crisco, anarchists hiding in trees with makeshift weapons.
"Here's what actually happened: Curfew broken, dance party, street closure attempt, police officer injured, rough arrest, hours-long street standoff, COOL HEADS PREVAILED."

As Sunday raged on, I divided my time between reading about evictions and actions across the country and watching the growing tensions in Portland. The parks were cleared by 9:30 am. Soon police had broken up a General Assembly by billy-clubbing Occupiers, wounding an American Sign Language translator in the melee.

Eventually, the Livestream showed the Occupiers and police falling into a tense standoff at SW 4th and Main. Occupiers chanted, "Please take off your riot gear. I don't see no riot here."

Police answered: "This is the Portland Police Bureau. Under authority of Oregon law, SW Main Street is being reopened to vehicular traffic. You must immediately vacate the roadway and proceed to the sidewalk. If you remain in the road way and show the attempt to engage in physical resistance to removal, or if emergency circumstances require, you may be subject to the use of force, including chemical agents and impact weapons. If you remain in the road way, you may be subject to arrest for disorderly conduct and other state and city offenses. Please move to the west on the sidewalk immediately. Thank you."

To which one Occupier answered, "You can disorderly conduct my nuts."

"We are peaceful," another said to the police. "You can beat me up, and I'll still love you."

By this time OPB and all the broadcast television channels were reporting from the standoff. Police reinforcements arrived from Salem and Vancouver, Washington. On KGW, Sgt. Pete Simpson stated, "more than fifty were arrested today."

Meanwhile, two Occupiers arrived with Voodoo doughnuts. The police did not accept the peace offering. A tent appeared in the road way to shouts of "Occupy Main Street."

The police finally stepped back. I feared mass violence was about to be unleashed on the streets of Portland, but soon traffic was rolling down 4th. Occupiers spilled into the street and marched to Pioneer Square, with little resistance from the police. Chapman Square, Lownsdale Square, and Terry Schrunk Plaza had been surrounded by Cyclone fencing.

The first act of this Occupation had ended. The second act was about to begin, and it promised to be much more exciting. While Occupiers had been rooted out out of the parks, the unevictable idea of Occupation had taken root.

For a moment, let us consider two upshots of these coordinated moves against the Occupy Movement.

First, by driving out the Occupiers just before winter weather sets in, these big city mayors may actually have done us a favor. Instead of allowing us to shrivel on the vine, the mayors have pruned the Occupations in a way that will help us survive the winter. Not only need the Occupiers no longer contend with wintry weather, but we have been sent out on a righteously angry note. Moving underground for a winter of regrouping, dreaming, scheming, and loving, the Occupiers will sprout this spring from the fertile ground. This will be easy in Portland, where the NBA lock-out and a season without the Trailblazers leaves the entire city yearning for something to do during the wet months.

Second, from a tactical standpoint the mayors made a major mistake. While it was true that the Occupations were a thorn in the sides of city governments, at least they were a single physical location that could easily be monitored and policed. Now spread out to the four corners of the map, the Occupiers will launch unmonitored and unpredictable attacks against the 1%. In Portland in particular, the move against the camp soured what had been cordial relations between the city and the Occupiers. Occupy Portland's city and police liaisons resigned en masse from their assumed position as a conduit between the city and the Occupation. No longer will the police have a direct line of communication to the protesters. As a result, I expect to see more tear-gassing and other acts of repressive violence from the police. Given the viral resonance of a photo of Portland Police pepper-spraying a twenty-year-old protester, such violence can only work to the Occupiers' advantage.

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