The tour is over.
I’m on my final train, from Eugene to Jack London Square. I’ll publish this as soon as I get home. I’ve already begun mentally drafting a logistical summary of the nuts and bolts of the tour, which I’m eager to review and share, but right now I want to talk about Occupy Portland and some other broader reflections on the movement.
When I got to Portland last Sunday, the occupation was my first stop. Immediately I was impressed by not only the size, which rivaled New York (when I saw it at the end of September) and Los Angeles, but with a more extensive infrastructure of tents and overhead tarps stretched between the trees. This was in marked contrast to Seattle, as were the organizers’ relations with Portland police. I overheard some folks who had kind words about the local force, but still I felt incredulous (and this was even before the horrific events in Oakland on Wednesday), until I witnessed one interaction I witnessed swayed me at least a little. I was hanging out by the Peace & Safety tent when two foot patrol cops approached. They explained that there were some folks smoking weed on the sidewalk. They were willing to look the other way, but only when the smoking was done inside a tent and out of public view. The organizers thanked the officers and asked if they wouldn’t mind if Peace & Safety went and talked to them instead of the cops, to minimize any unnecessary confrontation. The police agreed that this was an acceptable course, and the issue was resolved without any further fuss. This may seem like a small affair, and that’s because it was, because these particular officers worked cooperatively with community members to find a solution without the usual dramatic heavy-handedness. I’m grateful Portland’s mayor and police force have been able to do this well so far, and I hope it continues.
But every Occupation has its challenges, and Portland is no different. Each place I’ve been has had its share of homeless and street folks, some of whom have apparently come more for the food and shelter than for the cause. I think this is both to be expected and embraced: homeless folks are among those savagely victimized by economic injustice. Often they have been for quite some time, and I think supporting and honoring populations and communities who have been under the gun since long before the current ‘mainstream’ crisis began is one of the most important things this movement can do to be inclusive and more universally meaningful.
That principle being stated: Occupy Portland has had to deal with a lot of issues apparently coming from members of this population, namely fights breaking out, theft and drug abuse including overdoses. Their Peace & Safety team seemed like they were run ragged doing a lot of babysitting, and were having to call in authorities to assist, whether cops to settle a fight or an ambulance. This was limiting their ability to focus energies on organizing actions, and threatened to harm the thus far positive relations with the law. I was asked if I had seen any creative solutions to these kinds of situations in other Occupations, and I was embarrassed not to have much to offer. I really think it’s a conundrum. I believe in offering care and assistance to vulnerable populations, but I don’t want to see any Occupation jeopardized by an inability to maintain a physically safe environment. And don’t forget that there is, in fact, no way to actually kick any one ‘problem’ person out of an Occupied public space.
I did have the honor of being asked to contribute a piece to the website Seattlest.com, which you can read here (a lot of it revisits what I’ve already written on this blog, but perhaps more organized). Tuesday night I spent glued to Twitter, wringing my hands like a worried mother. Feeling powerless and frustrated, I went down to Occupy Portland on Wednesday to work it off. I scrubbed dishes, made PB&Js, dumped dish water into urinals–then, put on some latex gloves and unclogged those same urinals by hand. Good, honest work.
Here on my couch in Oakland, I’ve decided to break this blog in two. Shamelessly idealistic second half to follow.