(Temporarily) De-Occupied Portland
I began the drive south out of Portland with a visit to the two now-empty, tree-filled Lownsdale Square and Chapman Square in downtown Portland that housed Occupy Portland for 39 days. They’re lovely parks, but are now inaccessible, surrounded by the modular chainlink construction fencing that has recently begun to replace tents at many post-eviction Occupation sites.
The original eviction notices were still taped to the light poles, offering “shelters and resources” to protesters, apparently without a trace of irony.
It has seemed that every Occupy stop has been somewhat shaped by parking meters. Here, I had only enough change for 25 minutes. Combined with wanting to get to Salem and then Eugene before dark, my Occupy Portland trip was limited to a walk around, if not in, the park.
I truly hated to leave, knowing that the group was planning another march and occupation the following evening. Seattle was planning a march to a new location this very night, so I was very tempted to drive back to Seattle for that, then come back here the next day and then on to Eugene. But, work called at home and I kept going south. I’ll likely be coming back for Christmas, when I’m planning on trying to connect with the actual people involved.
The city is claiming that Occupy Portland did tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to the parks. I could see a bit of graffiti here and there, but things looked relatively intact from outside the chainlink fencing.
Here is one YouTube video of the beginning of the eviction. Search through the Occupy Portland website archives and on YouTube under “Occupy Portland” for a ton of material on the encampment. According to one news cast, it was the longest-running protest camp in Portland’s history.
[And Occupy Portland shows no signs of letting up, taking an active role in the upcoming December 12th West Coast Port Blockade day of action.]
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Scooting out of town without a parking ticket, despite being three minutes over my meter allotment (I used to have terrible parking karma, so I feel lucky when I don’t get a ticket), I headed toward Occupy Salem. Pulling over at a rest stop south of Portland, I checked in on their website, only to find that they had just finished camp tear-down and cleanup the previous day.
Despite no daily physical encampment presence in Salem, Oregon’s State capitol, the ocupiers are still holding regular General Assemblies and planning events.
As I said in an earlier post, I was making these stops completely cold, to get a sense of what any average citizen would see who was curious and decided to drop by. On my next trip, if I have time to do any reporting, I’ll be making more of an effort to prearrange things so I can get more background and personal stories from each Occupation.
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I found Occupy Eugene by accident, deciding to take the one of many routes into town that delivers a steady stream of traffic right past and actually over the camp. As it was nearing dusk, I scurried around to get photos before the light faded.
It was much bigger than I’d expected, the photo above showing only a quarter of it or less. They have a big kitchen under the overpass. Nearby a generator was running, but with few lights on, I couldn’t tell what it was powering. There was a well-stocked zine library, medical tent and numerous other resource-oriented tents. That’s to be expected in such an activist town as Eugene. People here know how to organize and it’s obvious that they have significant public support.
Having volunteered as a protest-medic many times in the past, I checked out the first-aid tent. The medical teams tend to be the best-organized people in any action camp or event. I spoke briefly with the one person at the tent [sorry, writing this nearly a week later and I don’t recall his name]. He had been a combat veteran and said that the encampment here had a mix of people doing medical support, including a paramedic and I believe at least one doctor and a nurse.
Like so many Occupy camps in towns with a large homeless population, the protesters were providing basic services for free to people in need. When these camps get raided, often at massive expense (evicting Occupy Oakland was reported to cost $2M in police costs), the services are not replaced by city officials. The brutal irony is that “health and safety” or “sanitation” are frequently cited as reasons for the evictions. In other words, having people sleeping on the streets, shitting in alleys and going without food and medical care is acceptable, so long as they are not together in one place with signs that embarrass the wealthy or the political establishment.
The hypocrisy is vicious.
While I was talking to the veteran at the tent, I felt an odd sensation on my head, like a branch of leaves or the corner of a banner flapping in the wind touching me. I turned around to find some creepy dude with his fingers on me. The medic reminded him that some people don’t like to be touched as I stepped back a foot. Now, I wasn’t afraid of him or anything; it was more annoying than anything. Still, important as the symbolic imagery of the tent in the public place is, I understand why the vast majority of supporters will happily drop off material support, but never stay there themselves.
Yes, Occupy camps often contain a significant number of homeless or others with mental health issues (this guy was definitely not all there), but that is exactly the problem. There are trillions of dollars for corporate bailouts, but not dozens of dollars to keep someone in a tent for a night and feed them. For every dollar it would have taken to solve the homeless and mental health crisis for people on the streets, a Wall Street speculator was given ten times that.
I had sent email messages out to many friends in Eugene the night before, but no one apparently got them till the next day. when I was back on the road home. (Next time I’ll just call.) I was faced with the choice of either leaving immediately and driving six hours to Arcata, or getting a motel room. Of course I may have been able to scrounge bedding and camp in the park with everyone else for the night, but I’ve done my share of action-camping and dealt with my share of creepy dudes, so I went and got the cheapest motel I could find. Besides, it had internet so I could write and tweet about it all.
I had intended to get back for the GA, but it was short, quick and uncontentious, so by the time I returned to camp, I’d missed it. I was talking with a small group of women outside the large, heatable geodesic dome that is used as a meeting space and ran into my friend Chris. We went off to the Ninkasi brewery for a beer and more talk about the Occupy phenomenon.
From what I gathered talking with him and the women outside the dome, the Eugene City Council has temporarily lifted the normal camping ban for this little-used park. On December 15th, they will vote on whether or not to reinstate it, a possible precursor to eviction. There is talk of getting another space from the city to set up a camp space like this for the houseless population. Typically, when a city does studies about how to provide housing, it always comes up as a huge expense due to having to meet impossible regulations and codes. Occupy Eugene has been able to shelter people for free, so why not use that as an example and set up a self-organized camp like this for people?
As we were discussing this over beer, I pointed out that none of us want to be homeless-shelter managers, which is what such a place would require. Once a standard was set, the campers could work to maintain it, but there would still have to be an adult in the room, given the prevalence of mental health, behavioral problems and addiction among the street population in nearly any town. Making Occupy a permanent camp for houseless sounds good, but ultimately would require at least some oversight and funding.
What these Occupy camps do show, though, is that it can be done and done cheaply. If you give people basic respect, dignity and a secure piece of dirt to put a shelter on, you can quickly solve the crisis of simply surviving and eating that so many face daily. The ultimate solution is to dramatically edit the screenplay we’ve been acting out for so long so that the villains no longer run off the stage with the loot at the end. Occupy is our attempt at writing a new Third Act that includes everyone.