By Ethan Martin
Recently I read Joshua Veldstra’s Nov 16 article about Occupy Portland and, having witnessed the same event, I felt compelled to offer an alternative assessment in keeping with the spirit of journalistic objectivity and equal representation. In an effort to keep the Homer Tribune editorial space from turning into a political battleground, I will keep the argumentative soap boxing to a minimum. After having spent more than a month studying the Occupy Portland camp as the subject for three separate political science, anthropology, and journalism research papers, I do not think Joshua and I could’ve reached more contrasting conclusions about the protestors.
Occupy Portland began on Oct 6 as a product of local Oregonian activists, clergy-members, unions, teachers, students, and the homeless. The initial Occupy Portland organizers, in the wake of building momentum behind the Occupy Wall St movement, managed to pull together a crowd of more than 10,000 citizens to march through downtown Portland.
Walking through the park, prior to the eviction, I could see that the occupiers were a diverse bunch: older men in tweed jackets and fedoras, young women in red sweaters and rubber boots, black-clad street youth with their pets, college graduates and military vets… the one thing that seemed common to them all was that they wanted to have an explicitly open conversation about what it means to live in our society in 2011. Any issue was fair game from health and sanitation, to immigrant’s rights and food safety, to police militarization to the issue of multinational corporations having personhood. Regardless of the issue, it seemed clear that what was working was the effort to construct a decision-making process grounded in consensus and direct democracy. There were many kinks in the system, but as those involved became more comfortable and adept at organizing themselves around horizontal rather than vertical hierarchies, it was clear that this movement was not about political issues but about being able to imagine a different political system.
The question is commonly and justifiably asked, what were they protesting about? The answer, as I have gathered from numerous discussions and observations in and outside the Portland camp, is that the only sound government must be derived directly from the people it governs. This translates into the message that many citizens feel our elected officials, be they Democrat or Republican, are no longer acting in the best interests of the people they govern. Instead, so the argument goes, many of our elected officials and much of our legislative structures now favor the richest 1 percent of Americans.
Much of the reasoning behind such arguments has come out of the 2008 financial crisis, when, as I’m sure we’ve all heard a million times, several large banks and lending institutions received taxpayer funded bail-outs and hand-me-downs to keep them afloat while millions of Americans were experiencing housing evictions, unemployment, and bankruptcy. Another commonly cited issue is the recent awarding of “personhood” to corporations for the explicit purpose of allowing them to donate unlimited funds to political campaigns. This is the most direct example of money influencing our democratic process. I don’t want to go into this too much because many people have written extensively on this elsewhere, but I feel it helps to give some background behind Occupy slogans such as, “We are the 99 percent, you are the 99 percent”, and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” before making statements that frame the majority of Occupy supporters as not knowing what they are even protesting about. After all, not all of the 7,000 Oregon citizens who showed up to support the protestors getting evicted on the night of Nov 12 could have been defecating, violent, and brainless, members of the Portland community.
In fact, many of them were quite the opposite. Having bused in with several of my friends from Pacific University where I attend college 30 miles away from Portland, I ran into Joshua the night of the eviction. We shook hands and wished each other well, unaware that we would see entirely different versions of the same event. As I walked through the camps at midnight, the excitement was high. Roughly 3000 protestors and non-camping protest supporters were gathered in Chapman and Lownsdale Parks in defiance of the 12 AM curfew and willing to risk arrest. Among those present in the parks with the protestors were Christian clergymen from several churches, a large group sent from the Portland Veterans Association, a “swarm” of roughly 200 bicyclists who biked around the parks to maintain the peaceful environment, professors from my college, and countless peaceful observers holding candles in solidarity with the movement’s unquestionably nonviolent approach. To the west, across 3rd Street, on the steps of the Portland Police Bureau building stood roughly 4000 more citizens who had gathered to support the protestors. To portray the gathered citizens as Joshua did is highly irresponsible and downright misleading to an extreme.
It should be no surprise that many of Portland’s hungry and homeless were attracted to the three free meals a day that Occupy Portland’s kitchen staff provided, and it should be no surprise that the most economically disempowered members of our society often defecate and use drugs along or beneath underpasses. What was surprising to me was how ardently Portland City and business officials suppressed the awareness that Occupy Portland discussions were raising about homelessness and drug use. It was as though they pretended that Portland did not have a drug problem or a homeless problem, and wished they would just slump back into the alleys. To imply that these people should not join an economic justice movement because they cannot intellectually articulate the coldness, or the alienation, or the hunger, or the loneliness of their lives, well, that is arrogance at its finest. After all, are they not protesting by their very impoverished existence?
Portraying the thousands of citizens who had gathered that night as mobs, or violently profane anarchists just waiting for the “first shot to go off”, reflects mainstream media’s penchant for dramatization and disregard for more nuanced, complex reporting. Joshua’s observations were clearly ones that didn’t question the use or threat of state-sanctioned violence on peaceful protestors. Having observed the eviction myself, it seemed that while the vast majority of the protestors continuously demonstrated their commitment to nonviolence, the 300 militantly armed riot police were continuously demonstrating and communicating the threat of violence, as well as a few minor instances of actual force. Directing tear-gas cannons at the heads of protestors from five feet away, pointing pepper spray canisters at point-blank range to protestors eyes, jabbing protestors in the guts with riot sticks, and using horse bodies to ram the protest lines, are all examples of violent police tactics that Joshua portrayed as admirable. This dissonance between our observations of protestor-police behavior gets at the fundamental ways our society consents to a state of exception whereby security agencies may utilize violent force against nonviolent dissident citizens. The reality is that the movement has never advocated for a riot. It has consistently hammered home its dedication to nonviolent tactics. When the police come prepared for a riot, tensions increase because suddenly, nonviolent citizens are subject to the threat of direct, violent police repression. The tiny sliver of militant and radical members hiding in the movement are then given an excuse to behave in ways that the vast majority of protestors have agreed are counterproductive and unrepresentative of Occupy’s values.
I was saddened when I realized that our wonderfully diverse and engaged community of Homer, tucked so far away at the end of road, only had access to such a narrow-minded and derogatory account of what has been for many, myself included, the first truly hopeful and inspiring political experience of our lives. I encourage everyone who is confused, excited, apathetic, or anti-Occupy, to educate themselves on the movement free of mainstream media’s influence. Talk about the state of our nation with each other. Offer constructive critiques. Join the conversation. But please, do not dismiss the hard work and determination of your fellow Americans as invalid or ignorant.
Note: If anyone has constructive or clarifying questions about the movement or his research on it, feel free to contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.