Portland attacks Occupy camp

November 15, 2011

Camille White-Avian reports on the city's attack on the Occupy Portland movement and activists' determination to build the movement even bigger for the next battle.

ONE OF the largest Occupy movements outside New York City mobilized thousands of people through the night of November 12 to defend its encampments in adjoining parks--but by the next morning, Portland's liberal Democratic mayor and the police who answer to him were able to move against the camps and shut them down.

Police sealed off Lownsdale and Chapman Squares, which are separated by one street, and city crews went through on Sunday and Monday, taking down the remnants of the Occupy camps.

But Occupy supporters, whose numbers peaked at about 8,000 during their standoff with police on Saturday night and Sunday morning, feel a sense of defiance, not demoralization. Some of the occupiers have transferred the protest to downtown Pioneer Square. And with a planned November 16 walkout at Portland State University (PSU) by students eager to begin their own Occupy and the November 17 national day of action, the struggle in Portland continues.

The weekend showdown was triggered by Mayor Sam Adams' decision to issue an eviction order against the Occupy encampments for Sunday, November 13, at 12:01 a.m.

Riot police fill the street between the two parks held by Occupy Portland
Riot police fill the street between the two parks held by Occupy Portland

In his statement, Adams asserted that the eviction was not "an action against the Occupy Portland movement," but rather was in the best interests of the movement. "I have said from the beginning that I believe the Occupy movement would have to evolve in order to realize its full potential," Adams declared

Apparently, Mayor Adams figured that the best tool for this "evolution" was police nightsticks and pepper spray.

Like city officials in New York City and Oakland, Adams cited "health and safety concerns" as a pretext for the crackdown, but no one who supports Occupy Portland was fooled. Even before a General Assembly could issue a statement, the activist and labor communities had already put out the call to defend the camp. As Occupy Portland's stated in its press release:

The city's evidence of increased crime around the Occupy site has only verified what is already clear--interpersonal conflicts, substance abuse and disorderly conduct arrests have increased. What the city of Portland has failed to prove, however, is that the protesters of Occupy Portland are direct threats to public safety and economic activity.

Occupy Portland itself is not the root of whatever ills affected the camps. On the contrary, they had become a gathering place for the 99 percent, including people reeling from attacks on social services, the national foreclosure epidemic and poverty.

The system's inability to address such pressing social needs gave rise to the Occupy movement in the first place. If Adams truly shared the goals of the Occupy movement, he would have sent social workers, not police, into the camps.

THE NOVEMBER 12 action to defend the camp began with a 2 p.m. march from the downtown waterfront to Lownsdale and Chapman Squares, each of which occupies a city block between SW Third and Fourth Avenues divided by SW Main Street. Throughout the afternoon, activists held safety training classes to prepare for the police repression anticipated by protesters.

Other activities included performances by radical troubador David Rovics, a community Occufest/Occupotluck and a bike swarm. Nonviolence was the watchword for the entirety of the events.

As the midnight deadline loomed, the protest grew. What had been hundreds of dedicated activists throughout the day grew into a mass of thousands who took over the camp and the one-block section of Main Street between the two parks.

A police line met the protesters in the streets at the intersection of Main and Third. Meanwhile, hundreds of demonstrators stood on the steps of the Portland Police Bureau building across from the camp, many with cameras in hand and an elevated view of the action--giving added force to the frequent chants of "The whole world is watching!"

As the midnight deadline passed, the energy of the crowd grew. Earlier chants of "Hey, Mayor Adams, send the police home!" morphed into "We won't go! Send the cops home!"

When organizers confirmed that police had been given orders to not make people leave until 2 a.m., a cheer went up. Among the protesters who pushed into Main Street, between the two squares, the mood was festive, with people laughing, dancing and talking excitedly. The sheer number of people filled everyone with a sense of giddiness.

Meanwhile, the police began to line up and restrict movement by stopping people from crossing Third Avenue while the occupation of Main Street continued. Tensions ran high as police and protesters maneuvered for position. The police could be seen in full riot gear, batons drawn and ready to swing. Protesters held their ground and called on others to pull in closer and reinforce the front lines.

When a protester allegedly threw a firecracker near police, police from the Lownsdale Square side of Main Street began to roughly push people backwards. There was a great deal of confusion when the police grabbed and arrested a man near the front, claiming as justification that he had thrown the object. Chants of "We are peaceful, you are not!" and "Peaceful protest" erupted. Some chanted directly at the police, "Quit your jobs!"

Other protesters began to link arms and cover their faces with bandanas as police pulled out canisters of pepper spray and pushed demonstrators even more aggressively. Then four police on horseback moved in to further intimidate and push people out of the intersection. During the chaos instigated by police, several people were pepper-sprayed.

But every time police aggravated demonstrators, it only served to harden the resolve of activists to peacefully hold the street. After roughly half an hour, protesters had pushed out into SW Third, forcing the visibly shaken riot police to stand on the steps of their own station and on the sidewalk of SW Madison around the corner from the protest.

As several thousand people danced, milled about and talked in the streets surrounding the squares, the police regrouped. Throughout the night, people came and went. Sometimes, it seemed like the crowd was thinning out, but still the number of people hovered above 1,000 well into the early morning.

Feeling victorious and exhausted, many people went home between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m. When the crowd thinned out enough, police felt confident in clearing the squares of whatever people and belongings remained.

OCCUPY PORTLAND held a General Assembly at noon on Sunday in Terry Schrunk Plaza, which is adjacent to Chapman and Lownsdale Squares, to discuss next steps after the police took down the encampments. During the assembly, occupiers decided to move back into the parks from which they had been evicted, and over the next several hours, there were a series of confrontations that drew more and more protesters back into the streets as the police attempted to force an end to the demonstration.

For several hours, the local media reported a stalemate between police and protesters, until protesters eventually decided to move to Pioneer Square, a privately owned square in Portland's shopping district.

Meanwhile, city officials are attempting to turn the public against the Occupy movement by focusing on "damages" and "clean-up costs" at the parks that amount to some $50,000. But far more costly and wasteful was the money spent on police overtime--money that could have been used for social services so desperately needed by the 99 percent.

"We may have lost the parks, but from our standpoint the events of the weekend were a victory," Occupy activist Kari Koch told The Oregonian. "The turnout by the community was amazing. We are in a strong position to keep the movement going forward."

"We are out of the parks and into the banks," she added.

With spirits high, it seems only a matter of time until Occupy activists decide on one of the many parks in the area to set up a new encampment.

Nicole Bowmer, Meredith Reese and Adam Sanchez contributed to this article.

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