Observations on Occupy Portland & other complicated stuff

Carla Axtman

It would so much easier if the world just laid itself out at my feet with people wearing black hats & white hats. This way I could just sort out the bad guys from the good guys and move through my day unscathed. Alas, it's not that way for me.

Within this context: enter Occupy Portland. This is something I could get behind from the beginning. These are a group of people that are tired and pissed off about the fact that a bunch of banks and Wall Street types set us up for the long con. A con resulting in a massive economic meltdown for vast numbers of Americans. The anger at the arrogance of those in positions of power lying and stealing and cheating the rest of us--all without arrests or recompense is appropriate and entirely justified. And to add insult to injury, we taxpayers bailed out these fiends without any strings attached to the checks our lawmakers decided to send them.

Occupy carries on the long tradition of civil disobedience in this country. Ironically they're much like the real and original Boston Tea Party, whose members rebelled not only against an arrogant government, but against a corporation that ran roughshod over the people: The East India Company. The current group that's taken on the Tea Party name bears little resemblance to this band who flung tea into Boston Harbor. In fact many of their population, based on what I've seen and read, spent the time to date belittling the Occupy movement--complaining about dirty hippies daring to speak up. Unsurprisingly, the roots of their namesake has been lost on them, the repercussions of buying into their own jingoism.

And so the camp was formed in downtown Portland. A sit-in that offered no list of specific demands in order to vacate. They just wanted to be heard by those who had consistently turned a deaf ear.

But as the days turned into weeks, things began to transform in the camp. Occupy Portland became a refuge for many of the 2000+ homeless persons in Portland's inner city. They were attracted by free food, blankets, kindness and some unreserved acceptance. Jason Renaud of The Mental Health Association of Portland was a frequent visitor to the camp. He told me that he continued to visit because he received daily requests from various Occupy Portland organizers for training, intervention, navigation.

"Our chronically homeless are for the most part untreated and un-treatable by the City and County's underfunded social service system," Renaud said. "They have been literally abandoned to the elements. Any open door is better than a wet and windy doorway. And Occupy Portland found them annoying and demoralizing and wanted them gone."

Renaud went on to say that Occupy Portland also contacted County mental health agencies and County bureaucrats for assistance but doors were not opened. They further asked the police and paramedics to intervene and were rebuffed.

Thus conditions in and around the camp continued to deteriorate. Somewhere along the line, the camp became as much or more about the homeless population and late stage drug users than about its original intent.

I don't know where the bad guys start and the good guys end in this tale. Certainly Mayor Adams appeared, at least on the surface, to try work with those whose intent was to participate in civil disobedience. But the city is also unwilling or unable to substantively deal with the homeless and late stage drug addicts that infiltrated the camp. Something had to give.

I don't think anyone's especially thrilled with the reported cost to repair damage to the parks. Or the overtime for the police presence, although having been down to the parks since Sunday's eviction, it seems like the number of vehicles and riot-gear wearing police circumventing the area are overkill. But the idea that this cost is somehow meaningful relative to the billions of dollars lost in the economy due to modern day robber barons is ludicrous. The media focus on these costs is a distraction from holding our so-called leaders accountable for failing to do their jobs.

Occupy Portland is about something good and right. I want to see it move forward. But the city has to take some responsibility, too. And those in higher office need to hear the frustrations of those of us out here in the real world as opposed to the lobbyists and well-heeled power brokers who currently have their attention. The Occupy Wall Street movement has real potential to be a part of getting us there.

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        It's not about being a homeless/housing movement, but it should be a part of the conversation at every level — especially in the city of Portland.

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    Carla, this is a great post. You've done a great job of articulating the tension between the aims of the movement and what developed on the ground over the course of six weeks.

    Now, certainly, the media coverage has been wildly at odds with the reality on the ground - but for those of us who want to push forward the Occupy movement, to articulate the case for policy change that begins to restore economic fairness - it's critical to move beyond discussions of encampments and their impacts.

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      Occupy Portland failed to send a unified message for any legislation they may want to support or repeal or have considered. I did not once in my several visits to the Occupation seen any signage that asked for a specific redress of economic guidelines or practices. It seemed instead a selection of disorganized people who are unhappy about something but have no real proposals to place before city, state or national leaders to correct the behavior they feel has created an unfair balance between certain citizens and other citizens. If the Occupy movement wants to change things, they have to remember how things change in the current political state. There has to be a functional and rational piece of legislation that can be put to a vote. Votes, not messy, destructive tantrums, pass laws.

      The Vietnam conflict protesters wanted the draft repealed and the military action halted. Those are direct actions that can be enacted. The Civil Rights movement wanted legalized segregation to be repealed and equal opportunity laws to be set in place. Those are direct actions that can be enacted.

      I understand the right to a public protest: picket signs, chants, rallies, speeches, etc. Why did they need to be there at 3am when no one else was downtown to observe the protest? Is it so difficult to show up when the park opens, then spend the last hour cleaning up and return the next day?

      Putting forth a serious effort impresses people. Tall-biking and juggling and speaking a thousand words from a thousand voices is confusing and dismissible. One word from a thousand voices; that will get attention and respect.

      One policy that Occupy Portland could have incorporated is that only those who were active participants would be fed and allowed to be part of the protest. Why? To keep the message on point. To keep Occupy Portland a political organization with a goal and a purpose.

      People in a society have opportunities, and they have responsibilities. Stealing the parks from other citizens and forcing the city to spend tax dollars on repairs and police overtime and trash pickup and sewage issues is irresponsible and selfish. Sort of like the “corporations” and the “rich” that the protesters are complaining about.

      Sure, the expense is miniscule compared to the macro Wall Street picture, but the more spent on cleaning up after Occupy Portland’s selfish tantrum the less the city will have when the budgets are slashed because of the money spent on this anomaly. There are only so many taxpayers, and they only pay so much in taxes.

      It was destructive and expensive, and that impact IS relevant because I think the movement was actually harmed by these Occupations. It’s time to deploy more effective strategies.

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        Well said, and there are many who share your observations and sentiments, particularly regarding the lack of focus and agenda.

        Due to the ridiculous decision to camp in the public parks, the movement inevitably became focused on the right to squat in public parks.

        And thus, it is lost the public's sympathy. As polling indicates.

        I don't recall much of a public outcry when the DNC arranged for Obama to meet with donor-friendly Wall Street executives last June. In fact, a search on Blue Oregon indicates the topic was completely ignored.

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      Having tried to walk through them with my seven-year-old Civil-War-buff son who likes to frequent the Howitzers in Lownsdale, I disagree. Wouldn't protesting directly at the bank & government buildings be more fitting and poignant anyway?

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    Kari — to your second comment. It's not about being a homeless/housing movement, but it should be a part of the conversation at every level — especially in the city of Portland.

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    Occupy Portland is people living in glass houses. Take any extended family and put them under such a microscope for two weeks, with every blemish exposed and.... hey, it's just not an easy gig. For anyone.

    But they do stand for something, a great deal bigger than any local picture provides. The American Dream is being held hostage. At the federal level, we pay an enormous price for political gridlock that puts the health and fortunes of millions of families at risk and offers extremely limited economic opportunities to 99% of us.

    The movement is about changing that, most of all. No one person, no one leader, no one local group can possibly have all the answers, the legislative proposals, the solutions to business practices too unethical to sustain this extraordinary, enormous team that is our country.

    We all want a positive outcome and soon. Many of us have opinions about better ways to proceed. But there's so much work to be done, much of it above the common levels of political activism that works at one issue, that the path is not at all clear.

    As was a constant reminder in the Civil Rights era and during every major reform movement in history, the thing we must keep telling ourselves is 'Keep our eyes on the prize.'

    Solutions will emerge. Arguments will occur, especially about tactics, about missteps and setbacks. The only thing we need to yield is the impulse to advance division and the despair that leads to surrender. There is no magic recipe printed on the box.

    There's just us. At times we'll jog; other times we'll slog. But we have to move the agenda forward, for us, our children and grandchildren.

    I support what Carla's written because it's tempting to think we can advance faster, by shedding burdens as we go. Those burdens, however, are not dead weight. They are living human beings. And every just society bears some of the weight of its weakest members. It cannot shed them and ever reach justice.

    Nor can we ignore the concerns of everyone else who's commented here. Let us listen. Let us accomodate. Let us develop the patience necessary to bring as many great ideas and healthy communities to fruition.

    Invest your spirit. And keep your eyes on the prize. We can overcome our fears, our cynicism. We can and will get this done.

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    The burdens of being a city, county, state and nation are that occasionally folks will want to exercise their rights and that might cost $$$. As a Labor leader I often hear the burdens of businesses. Inconveniences like taxes, safety, minimum wage, labor laws, you can't assault employees, etc. Don't be in business and don't run for office if you don't like it. While we point fingers about the mess or costs of any protest remember that those who govern were elected to have this conversation and budget for this prior to it happening. Short of looting and rioting it's reasonable to assume costs of such a large scale non violent protest are the burdens of a free society. If as Mayor, Commissioner, Governor, etc. you are feeling pressure, you could pick up the phone and ask that the group’s issues are addressed, that is the point.

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    "They further asked the police and paramedics to intervene and were rebuffed."

    At several GAs it was "consensus" to try and keep the police out of the parks unless something really ugly happened.

    While the original idea to occupy the two parks was a noble gesture, it quickly became apparent that it was not prepared to handle the influx of unaffiliated hangers on.

    The idealistic worker bees were overwhelmed by those that were just there to hang out. I think they are secretly relieved that it is over. There was lots of burn out expressed.

    On Saturday I went down to break down the veterans encampment and saw city workers, police and occupiers breaking down and cleaning up. For every one occupier doing the work, there were ten that were just milling around.

    As I was coming back through the camp from loading some gear into my car, I came across a women who appeared to be a "street person", (she was about 5 ft tall and maybe 100 lbs soaking wet), struggling with a huge trash bag on her way to the dumpster. There were several men standing around and not one of them offered to assist her. I took the bag from her and she picked up some other junk and off we went to the dumpster.

    As I continued to clean out the vets area, and going back and forth to my car, it became clear that the parks had become a fetid, festering, pestilence ridden dump.

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    Kudos to you for your brilliant response that few other people seem to recognize. I fully support the right of the movement to protest, redress grievances, and generally be pissed off at what's going on in our country on many levels. But the movement has failed to create a cohesive, sensible message that can be turned into specific policy proposals, advancing of candidates with specific values, or develop concrete solutions for any one of their many grievances.

    Public Policy Polling (PPP) has support for the movement at 33% nationwide and falling as it loses credibility. I agree with Mayor Adams that the movement needs to move on and find itself. It's quickly going to become an annoyance if it fails to regroup and find a concise and consistent message beyond being the 99%.

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    I find it ironic that people are up in arms about the cost of something like this - people trying desperately to be heard on topics that are tearing our country apart - but many of the same people don't care about the amounts spent when politicians come to town. Some of those events are huge fundraisers where the taxpayers are on the hook for all the security costs.

    I'd much rather pay for people to have their right to assemble than to pay for a politician's fundraiser.

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    Great post and good discussion. I read yesterday in the Huffington Post about Occupy movement going to homes that were being repossessed by banks. Not a bad idea! They also helped temporarily prevent a family from being thrown out of their home.

    This type of action calls attention not only to the movement but the cause behind the movement.

    I for one think the our traditional political system has failed us. It is time to pick up the pace - stand against the oligarchy and stand up for democracy! I'm marching tonight!

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    The OWS movement was an initial success in mobilizing the energies of those in the 99% who are fed up with the rigged economic and political system we have and want change. However, OWS is not about camping out in tents and smoking dope in parks, so the movement needs to participate in actions that reflect and mobilize public opinion around its real purposes.

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    Sonja, there was no reason you couldn't have gone to look at the Howitzers and taught your son about the Civil War and the Occupy movement.

    I saw children there most of the times I was there including the GA last Saturday night.

    It seems that you and several others here are the folks who always have reasons why the current movement is not right: occupation isn't right; direct action at banks will annoy people; whatever.

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      Might learn something about the Spanish-American war also.

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      Oh, we DID go down there, Bill. If you want to hear a really impassioned critic of Campoutgate, talk to him. I'll be lucky if the experience doesn't turn him into a goddamn Republican.

      And regarding your earlier comment: I know history too, and I've been a Marxism-fueled critic of economic disparity since I was a teenager, which is why the counter-productive effects of the Occupy actions thus far bother me so.

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