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Occupy Portland Experiences


Occupy Portland Alpha Camp--thanks to Katie Mentesana for all photos.

[If anyone from the Occupy movements from around the country reads this, please offer your thoughts below. Anyone not affiliated is also very welcome to post their thoughts as well.]

I'm writing this after having just returned from spending the evening in the Occupy Portland camps talking with people there. Very, very interesting. Lots to think about.

Around 10pm this Friday night, my friend Katie and I parked downtown on SW 3rd and Yamhill and walked down to Alpha and Beta Camps of Occupy Portland. Turns out two city blocks filled with tents and structures aren't immediately easy to navigate. It really is a society within a city.

After wandering for a bit, we found the information booth--they were very friendly and gave us a quick run-down on the logistics. Basically, there are many, many committees: finance, education, medical, relaxation (which is apparently a euphemism), strategic planning (i.e., logistics), and so on. There is no centralized authority.

The various committees all hold meetings and if they come up with a proposal that affects everyone in the camps, they bring it up for a vote in the nightly General Assembly (GA). I had heard they make decisions by consensus, asked about this, and was told that they do base decisions on consensus and if you don't agree with the consensus, you don't have to go along with it.

I would describe their decision-making method as a model closer to pure democracy than consensus, requiring a high super majority, and that does not punish dissenters from acting against the decision. I wanted to talk with someone about their governance system but didn't meet anyone who I felt like I could have asked without sounding like a condescending political philosophy geek.

We were then directed toward a large poster that explained the democratic process and the consensus process, though unfortunately we never actually found it. It would have been interesting.

Just a few minutes later we came across a prayer station set up by a local middle school teacher and evangelist, where we met Joseph (or "Tequila"). Joseph is an early 30s, almost-seven-feet-tall black gay transgender ex-prostitute traveler who left his apartment in Cincinnati, Ohio on a premonition just three months ago.

Joseph "Tequila" at the entrance of his tent in Occupy Portland Beta Camp

He seemed just a tiny bit self-conscious about using the word "premonition," probably because of the stigmatic association with the super-natural that it garners. But I didn't have any weird feelings about him--he's one of those people you just respect because he has so much respect for others.

In 2003, Joseph was the victim of a robbery and was shot in the stomach--the bullet went through his liver, stomach, small intestine, colon, and still resides somewhere in his lower half. Later, he turned to prostitution after he couldn't get a job because, he explained to us, no one wanted to hire a transgender gay black man.

He's been in the Occupy Beta Camp--primarily "activists," families, and children--since the second day, nearly one month ago and recounted the changes he had seen. Beta Camp, across the street, consists mostly of homeless people, anarchists, and inhabitants of the economic basement. The "activists," as he called them, began leaving in larger numbers once the homeless people and travelers started moving in. Of course, he was both frustrated and amused by this, since the homeless are the bottom 1%.

Many times, he repeated that the activists were hypocrites, but always added, "really, we all are." It became very clear that the very power structure the movement had sought to protest against has been developing within the movement itself.

He used to volunteer in the kitchen, but had a falling-out with the kitchen staff on two occasions. He commented with a smile that Portlanders are the nicest people he had ever met, but that passive aggressiveness is also rampant. Where he grew up, "you let someone know when you have a problem."

Joseph was then kind enough to show us his tent, which was probably about half his size, and among a sea of other tents sheltered from the rain by sheets of plastic (or tin foil, in one case). True to social habit, he apologized that his tent was messy--also true to social habit, I assured him that my room was probably worse. At this point, I was briefly struck by the ridiculousness of what I had just said, but he didn't seem to notice.

He showed us his sign, which had two sides, one of which he called the "family friendly" side: "How much you made your boss today?" opposed on the flip side by, "How much have you made your pimp today?"

Joseph's Occupy sign

We then began talking about the financial controversy that had erupted in the last couple of days. More than $10,000 of donated money are unaccounted for, someone on the finance committee had filed to incorporate "Occupy Portland" to gain non-profit status (which the GA had voted against on multiple occasions), and apparently a member of the finance committee was handing out donated money to some of the needier occupiers without GA approval.

According to Oregon Live, the financial committee was recently dissolved, to be replaced with a more transparent approach, but it didn't seem to matter to the people I talked with. There is a lot of resentment and anger with the financial committee, who one man reffered to as, "those f***ing poli-sci students." He also told me that there's a group planning to "overthrow the revolution," as he put it, and suggested I join in.

As we talked about the financial controversies, Joseph marveled over what seemed to be for him, the hilarious, angering hypocrisy of it all. But again, "really, we're all hypocrites." We then walked over to the camp library, which is actually quite impressive, and where anyone can borrow the books for free, whether they were living in the camps or not. All of the services from education sessions to medical care are free to anyone, regardless of whether they're part of the camp or just a passer-by.

Occupy Portland Library--it's actually quite large, and extends back to the left.

At this point, I began talking with Julian, a woman in her mid-30s who teaches art at various after school programs when she can find a position, or works as a cashier at a bookstore when no one has money to hire her to teach. Her house was foreclosed upon and she lost everything, so she's been struggling to provider for herself and her young child.

Three weeks ago, she met a man in the Occupy camp who she is marrying tomorrow in Beta Camp--they're going to have a traditional Irish wedding. The Officient will be dressed as V, from the movie V for Vendetta.

She told me she's there because she and her child have nowhere else to go. She's planning on staying in the camp with her new husband and child as they try to work and save money to buy a house. She thought I was a college student, and suggested that I move into the camp because, "it's a great place to live if you're struggling and trying to save up to buy a house."

These are not the "lazy whiners" I hear about in the media and from many of my peers.

Earlier this week, I had lunch with a friend who works in Mayor Sam Adams' office in City Hall. She pointed out that it's a difficult situation because there's not much of anything City Hall can do to appease them, though the general sentiment towards the movement is sympathetic and understanding.

"It will eventually come down to either the protesters leaving, or the City removing them from the parks," she told me. It is, indeed, a difficult situation.

As Julian left to find her fiancé and I joined back into conversation with Joseph and my friend Katie, a young woman about 30 feet away erupted in rage. Apparently, a man had just groped her. After she screamed at him to never disrespect her like that again, or else, Joseph told us the history of the people involved and left to find out what was going on.

Everyone we met in the camp seemed to love Joseph, and he said that earlier that day someone told him they couldn't imagine what the camp would be like without him. I told him I wasn't surprised that they said that.

Katie and I strolled through the camps for a while, talked with some religious folks at the prayer station for a while: they told us they were there to spread the Word of God and had been there for a few hours. We walked and read the signs and admired the artwork.

A man in pink attire reminiscent of a flamboyant Jimi Hendrix in his mid-50s was dancing very enthusiastically to some 80s glam he was blaring from an old boombox. I noticed a couple of police officers nearby and wanted to talk with them about their experiences with the protest and camp inhabitants.

As we approached the officers, they walked towards the dancing man--by this time it was past midnight--so we stood back at the street corner to wait until the police were free once again. As they were confronting the dancing man, Katie wondered what the tape armbands on various passers-by signified.

A young man with a red armband just happened to be passing by so I asked him what the armbands meant. His signified that he was volunteer medical staff. For the most part, the medical tent is staffed by volunteer nurses and doctors. A few minutes into our conversation, the dancing man had turned off his music and made his way in our direction.

A young woman with a tight, bright orange pseudo-police uniform in toy handcuffs (a la Halloween weekend), and formerly with tape over her mouth, encouraged the man to keep dancing--he turned the boombox on, set it down, and obliged. The police officers were still milling around a quarter block down where the man was dancing a few minutes earlier, and didn't confront him immediately.

Just then, a young man in his early 20s came out of the camp and smashed the dancing man's boom box quite violently on the ground, yelling at him that he already told him he doesn't want "that awful music blaring at night 10 feet from my tent!"

At this, the formerly dancing man became very distraught, and the young boombox smasher as well, once he saw the police officers from around the corner quickly approaching. The officers asked the dancing man if he wanted them to arrest the young man, and he said, "no, this is a family matter," by which he meant to imply that everyone in the camp was part of an extended family.

The police arrested him despite the insistent protest of the dancing man and the many people who had gathered, and Katie and I continued to walk around the camp for a while before taking off.


Occupy Thoughts

The general feeling about the Occupy movement seems to be that while many agree with the thrust of it, there is no clear message, clear demands, or productive political action. I obviously have very, very limited direct experience with the movement so I don't expect to be able to make representative, wide generalizations. But here's what I saw.

Ok, so there doesn't seem to be a clear message, clear demands, or productive political action. Agreed--fair enough. The people I talked with tonight would probably wouldn't disagree with this much, except for the bit about productive political action.

I got the strong sense from everyone I talked with that they see themselves as the founders of a new society--one that will be around for a while. Not only did I hear this explicitly talked about on multiple occasions, but it was telling that the current project of the strategic planning committee is how to deal with winter when it snows (which they seem to be expecting down the line).

But it would be a mistake to presume that these people are representative of the wider movement. A friend of mine is helping to coordinate Occupy Eugene, and having watched one of the GAs and from briefly talking with him, creating a sustainable ideal society in a park seems to be furthest from their mind.

The creation of a utopian society seems to me to be more the concern of the displaced, poor segments of the movement, while the more privileged (by comparison) seem to be more focused on Wall Street/governance/political/etc. issues.

Before my visit to Occupy Portland, when asked for my opinion on the movement, I answered as follows:

The protests/camps serve an important purpose, but the purpose is not to effect direct political change as many of the protestors think. Protests of these kind are a form of direct social action, and should be thought of as functionally distinct but practically continuous with direct political action.

To get to the point, protests are not direct political action because they don't act through political mechanism: i.e., protests don't change laws. Legislators' vote in congress are political action because they do act through political mechanisms: i.e., legislative votes change laws.

This doesn't mean that protests are unimportant--in fact, I think, quite the contrary--but it's a mistake to confuse the social with the political. These processes are obviously continuous with one another, but it's important to distinguish between them in order to understand the roles that need to be played, how each of the efforts fit into the big picture, and so as not to think you're doing Y when you're actually doing X.

It's clear to me now that this explanation—while I still think it holds—is greatly complicated by the fact that there are multiple and starkly different demographics within the same movement. The tension between the super-poor and the angry middle/lower-middle-class is palpable.

The situation is incredibly complicated and interesting. My response to those who point to the negative impacts on local businesses/people and conclude the protest is irresponsible, or to the people who say that they're "just a bunch of complainers" would be to suggest that they go down to their local protest and genuinely get to know the people.

I say this because I thought I understood it to a degree, especially because I was sympathetic with the general thrust of the movement, but I realized after talking with the actual people living in the camps that I actually knew very little of what's giving rise to all this. The negative effects on local dealings are certainly a problem, but we need to recognize that there's also a lot more going on.

Of course, there are people involved who are violent, off the wall, lazy, and so on. We can all recognize that as a society, and you can be sure that they recognize it as a movement: they deal with it on an hourly basis, and I experienced it as well. It's easy to recognize that kind of thing.

It's less easy to see what's beyond all of these vices, but it's also what's most important. Most people agree that for all the wonderful things our country has to offer, there are some terribly difficult problems as well. We would do well to confront these problems through the people who embody them, rather than merely paying them lip-service with the lenses through which we might analyze them.

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