The Triumph of Occupy Portland

Written on:November 21, 2011
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It’s been an amazing few days in Portland, Oregon. For those of us who spend our lives dedicated to something like this, it is hard not to be consumed by everything Occupy. But Occupy has been brutally hard in this city. The GA process has been dysfunctional, not very democratic at all, not organized, and not representative of the larger community. It failed to pass a zero tolerance policy for drugs/alcohol/violence in the first few days, and those facts, combined with the fact that Portland has a huge houseless population and street kid population, made that camp go downhill fast. It became a nightmare for many.

These last few days, after witnessing the excruciating withdrawl of support and increasing and understandable anger on the part of many in the community toward Occupy Portland, many of us were calling for shutting that camp down and rebooting OP – calling for OP 2.0. The camp had become unfixable.The camp (and the GA, as it was) were alienating. Meanwhile, while the city and the business association tried to pin the problems of the camp solely on the occupiers, the occupiers shot back that they were doing the job this city was failing to do – feed and care for our houseless and needy. We’ve been caught in a crossfire of moral and political imperatives.

Meanwhile, I’ve privately felt distress over the fact that many of my friends in Portland are judging this thing – looking at it from the outside, seeing the chaos and ugliness and brokenness and likely wondering what the hell I’m doing. People have turned their backs on this in anger and disgust. People have turned their backs on me. I have had moments of feeling really angry over our failure to stay connected to the larger whole. I’ve clashed with strangers over how the hell we would begin to solve this. I’ve made many new friends. I’ve juggled too many feelings every day, and I know I’m not alone.

Many of us have painfully tried to walk a fine line this last week – shut a non-functioning thing down with the goal of starting over, at the very real risk of losing it all. To call for the shutdown (or just passively accept it with relief) was to both cave in to those who were judging too quickly and potentially to betray a tenuous but powerful movement that requires the reclamation of civic space in order to keep opening up our collective psychic space. Yes, for now, we do need to occupy (in different forms) – in order to awaken the dissent of DNA in this country. We worked hard to accept the painful reality that we had to move forward, instead of getting more deeply entrenched in the mud of Chapman and Loundsdale Squares.

We held that paradoxical space for days – arguing over it, clashing over it, painfully staying with it, painfully staying with each other no matter what our stance has been on this. The one thing we all agreed on yesterday was nonviolence. That, no matter what happened, we had to hold a space of nonviolence. But still, at first I wasn’t going to go down to the encampment last night. Things have been so heated I was afraid that violence was inevitable. But I made myself go there early, for the party and GA. It was quiet at first. People were somberly packing up their things. A good band was playing at one end. People were holding it together, determined, but somber, worried, but still holding onto hope.

At the GA, I was surrounded by a lot of our houseless and street kid population. They dominated the open mic – many of them likely never having had the chance to have a voice like this before. I realized, as I stood there, how much our backgrounds divide us. That, even though I had every right to be concerned about violence, my fears were also stoked by our society. I am legitimately afraid. I am trained to be afraid. The truth in the middle of those two things is our fragile shared humanity – and THAT is what I saw last night. And that is what I found more of in myself, amidst the dirt and the smell, and the labor union folks and the moms with strollers and the drunken guy dancing with the flag – the guy who got up and spoke into the mic and said “I miss my girl. She is in jail. And NOBODY is perfect. Do you hear me? Nobody is perfect!!” He reeled as he spoke and he spoke with heart. And I stood there holding all of this, and I stood there with myself, and I heard him.

I walked away from the GA with my feet frozen, even though I was wearing nice, well-made Canadian boots. (I’m not wealthy, my parents and I both lost everything long ago, I live with a ton of debt and have no security, but I am still very fortunate). As I walked away from that camp, wet with mud, sidewalks lined by bemused, slightly tense but still friendly police, leftover tarps sagging and boxes of kids toys and soggy books and a broken chair at the curb, my heart was afraid that no one would come down to say goodbye to this tumultuous, unbelievable thing. That this iteration of Occupy Portland would quietly fade in disgrace. That our city had turned its back on us in disgust, and, although I knew they were partly right – I also knew they were profoundly wrong.

My frozen feet, in nice boots, reminded me to look harder around me before I left. Past the dirtyness, past the smell. I had a home to go home to – I would easily get my feet warm. If the world falls apart (even a little more than now), we could be homeless too. We have nothing holding us up but what we do, show to show. It is the way it is right now. I can’t continue my work on RevolutionTruth without an income, and jobs I qualify for, with a Master’s degree, pay less than I made 13 years ago – and don’t even pay my bills.

I decided to go home and make peace with whatever happened – whatever outcome we had last night. That no matter how angry or frustrated I’ve been or how hard this thing has been, I would work with others toward better outcomes. No matter how tiring, no matter how hard, with sorrow tempered by hope in my heart, I vowed to ensure OP survives and thrives, as I walked to my car.

One of my many new OP friends Reid Jackson messaged me at midnight to ask if I was watching the livestream. “There are thousands of people here Tangerine!!” I turned on the news and watched Portland engage in a miracle. Despite anger, disgust, discouragement, despite many in this city clamoring for this to “just go away already”, thousands of people came down to hold a space for this awkward, crazy, amazing thing. Thousands of people came down, and they HEARD the call for nonviolence – and they honored that call in their hearts and in their actions.

Portland is a major biking town, and Occupy Portland heard yesterday that we’d have a “bike swarm” come down to ride between the occupiers, occupy supporters, and police. And they did – they rode in circles for hours! At one point, when the police stood blocking the road, the bike swarm rode right up to them, and waited while crowds chanted. And then something broke, something shifted, and the police let them through! The police moved to give the people the street back.

Last night in Portland, people peddled for something bigger than all of us, people stood for hours in cold and drizzle despite the ugly and embarassing and dangerous parts of that camp, people come together, in what easily could have been a terrible mob – all committed to one single perfect, complex thing: Together – holding on – to something.

And we won! We ALL won last night. The occupiers, the non-occupying supporters, the city, the police, the Mayor. We won something, and we did it together. I’m not going to romanticize the times ahead. We have a long road to travel and we have innumberable challenges to tackle. And we are all flawed, all beautiful, all going to make mistakes, all going to struggle with just how conditioned we are to living in survival mode in the midst of toxic systems. And no matter what our class or status – no matter what our job – we ALL share that fact – we are living in survival mode in the midst of toxic systems. But Occupy Everywhere is going to begin to change all of that.

Last night, we regained something that has been steadily taken away from us. We proved something to ourselves, and to the world: We do, indeed, have power! And we are capable of engaging the RIGHT kind of power. We can stand together when it truly matters. We did this, in Portland. I’m crying as I write this, because, together, we ARE changing our world. And we are, step by painful, humbling, sweet, scary step, transforming ourselves.

Cheers to the people! To our Mayor. To the Portland Police Department. To Occupy Wall Street. To Occupy Everywhere.

Now onward and upward all! We have a lot of work to do.

One Comment add one

  1. JOHN EYRE says:

    Well said Tangerine :-]

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