An Anarchist Account of Occupy Portland – “Whose Sidewalks?”

An Anarchist Account of Occupy Portland – “Whose Sidewalks?”

A Former Occupier

I write this because I see many of the same problems occurring at occupations around the country and I hope to share a perspective that may be of use to other anarchists trying to understand the dynamics of the Occupation movement and how to engage with it.

I was excited by the potential of Occupy Wall Street, and thought that horizontal organizing would be conducive to anarchist participation. In Portland, there seemed to be a commitment to organize the march and occupation without seeking permits, which to me signaled a positive development in Portland’s protest culture.

However, leading up to the 3rd GA a number of troubling issues began to surface. A self-appointed and unaccountable leadership, later nicknamed the ghost committee, established plans for peacekeepers and police liaisons in the face of clear objections and without discussion or agreement in the GA. Once their existence was a fait accompli, the GA insisted that police liaisons only convey information in one direction, from police to occupiers. Police liaisons were not empowered to negotiate on behalf of the GA, yet they repeatedly did. Some of the same people also tried (and failed) to keep the opening march on the sidewalk and blocked a proposal to keep the march route secret from the police. A Green Party organizer even attempted to obtain a march permit on behalf of Occupy Portland in defiance of the GA. The fact that the march was unpermitted, despite heavy pressure from the city, was in my opinion one of the chief reasons for the incredible estimated turnout of 10,000 people.

Controversial and unaccountable decision-making on the part of the ghost committee continued. Initial plans to use Terry Schrunk Plaza as the occupation site, due to legal precedent protecting freedom of speech on federal property, were suddenly reversed at the last minute when a ghost committee member, Gina R., announced on bullhorn that she had negotiated an agreement with the police and that’s why riot cops weren’t storming us right now. The agreement was that we could stay at Lownsdale and Chapman Squares, but not Terry Schrunk. This was not brought forward for discussion either at Lownsdale/Chapman or at Terry Schrunk – it was decided for us. There should have been intervention at that point, but everyone was so exhausted and confused that it wasn’t openly challenged.

Soon we learned that while the city had offered Lownsdale/Chapman for the night, they threatened our arrest and removal the following morning due to a contract with the Portland Marathon to use the area as the staging ground for their event the following Sunday. We demanded to negotiate directly with the Marathon, a small victory. The Marathon stipulated that they would agree to some of us staying in Chapman Square behind the chain link fence and black curtain traditionally used at the end of the Marathon route. No one would be allowed in or out between 4am-5pm Sunday except for medical emergencies. This was presented by the Marathon as non-negotiable due to security concerns.

The GA agreed that a skeleton crew would remain behind while others would leave the park before 4am, regrouping to march from PSU on a route to be determined. At the Saturday evening GA, a man announced that he had met with the city, the police, and the Marathon, and negotiated to allow Occupy Portland to march at 2:30pm with the mayor and police along the marathon route. He also said, wouldn’t it be great if we all sang “Imagine” by John Lennon because the march date coincided with John Lennon’s birthday. This met with immediate opposition for not going through the GA process. It was stated by the facilitator that this had been organized autonomously and that whoever wanted to go should go; the man wasn’t asking for the endorsement of Occupy Portland. However, the information for the PSU march was then changed to reflect the information for the “John Lennon march” on the Occupy Portland website.

At the PSU march the next day, police liaisons negotiated with the police, in violation of their mandate from the GA to only convey information one-way, that the march would take the streets initially and return to the sidewalk at Yamhill. The police desire for us to stay on the sidewalk was announced to the crowd via megaphone. There were impassioned pleas to take the streets, as well as a couple of confused arguments against. Thousands began marching – most people staying on the sidewalk through the park blocks. I helped to lead a small determined group of people in the street. It was a miracle, the cops weren’t attacking us! Despite pleas from the peacekeepers to stay on the sidewalk, eventually the whole march ended up in the streets and headed to Pioneer Courthouse Square, the central public forum in the city. It was clear to me at that point that the police had orders to stand down because we were operating with too much public support. Being heavy handed would surely backfire at this stage.

From Pioneer Courthouse Square, those of us who didn’t want to march with the cops and mayor began to march to O’Bryant Square to meet and rally. Someone with a megaphone began directing people away from us, telling them we were not the “official” march. People began shouting and eventually everyone agreed to a facilitated consensus. Many people spoke passionately about not marching with the police, including a young African American woman, an elderly white woman, and a disabled man on crutches. A consensus to continue to O’Bryant Square was assumed, with only the man with the megaphone blocking, and his objection was dismissed due to the fact that the John Lennon march was not a GA-endorsed event. Subsequently, there were two more efforts made to reroute marchers to the John Lennon march and these were more successful. In the end, about 20 of us marched down Broadway with an escort of 10 or so motorcycle cops. We marched all the way to city hall, across from the still temporarily enclosed occupation site. That night at the GA, we agreed to retake Lownsdale Square and Main Street.

On Monday, we began to receive pressure from the city about Main St., which runs between Chapman and Lownsdale Squares. This one block had been closed up until this point. In fact, the police had closed it for us, and it was their barricades that were blocking the street for us. Through liaisons, it was communicated that the city was concerned about emergency vehicles and Trimet bus access. Multiple people pointed out that they had been operating fine with detours for the previous four days, that streets are routinely closed for corporate-sponsored events, and that what we were doing was worth accommodating. There was also a concern for safety of pedestrians, especially children, crossing between the two camps. People were also concerned about giving up our primary meeting spot – a fountain stands in the middle and it is a large, well-lit, highly visible place for General Assemblies. On Tuesday night, a proposal was put forward by Gina R. to open the streets unconditionally and it did not achieve consensus.

On Wednesday morning, I awoke to find that someone had taken down the barricades. No one would take ownership – I heard only vague references to autonomous individuals. We began to receive word that the city was going to take the street back, with or without our cooperation. In the afternoon, Sam Adams, Portland’s mayor, approached a remaining hay bale that was serving as a barricade, where a young woman sat. He addressed the larger crowd and group of reporters following him, stating that as mayor he had the power to open Main St. and that he was now doing so.

I chimed in and asked if that meant he was going to bring the police in to forcefully remove us, he said no – he didn’t need to bring in the police because he was the mayor and could open the street himself. He asked the young woman sitting down to get up. She refused. I sat down behind her. She gave an impassioned plea for him to respect our humanity and what we were trying to do. He asked her again to get up. She began to cry and I put my hand on her knee. I told him we weren’t going anywhere and that per the previous GA decision we would continue to hold the street and negotiate with interested parties on finding ways that all of our needs could be addressed. He smugly dismissed it as “process”, and walked away.

From that point onward, things took a bizarre turn. Four of us remained in the street after the peacekeepers announced that anyone who didn’t want to be arrested should move on to the sidewalk. At this point the cops were nowhere to be seen, but apparently some people were being advised that the police would be moving in to make arrests and open up the street. As the four of us sat there, people began shouting for us to get out of the street. I can’t remember everything that was said; I stopped paying attention after awhile. I do remember one man yelling that we were committing passive aggressive violence by sitting in the street. Another said that we weren’t really members of the occupation – implying that we were plants or provocateurs. Another shouted that those on the sidewalk should turn their backs to those of us in the street – and some did. The person who donated the hay came to tell us they wanted the bale back because they didn’t support us being in the streets. One of the armband people came by to tell us that we weren’t allowed to use the megaphones because the people who donated them didn’t support us being in the street.

It was the most appalling lack of solidarity I had ever seen – and our reason for being there was to uphold the decisions made by the GA. Eventually more people began milling in the street after hours passed and the cops never showed. Hundreds of riot and mounted police were spotted at the ready, however. The order was just never given. During the day the barricades were rebuilt, and finally it was clear that the street was ours for at least a little longer.

That night, two proposals were brought before the GA: one to open the street immediately and unconditionally and attempt to negotiate with the city for limited use, another to keep the street closed except to emergency vehicles, bicycles, and an antiwar march, and to continue to negotiate with the Trimet Union and any other concerned parties about ways that their needs could be addressed. Support for each proposal at this point was so equal that the decision on which to discuss first was decided by a coin toss: the “open the street” proposal went first. About two to three hours of discussion and evolution of the proposal ensued. After a first round of evolution, the vote was perhaps 50-50 and after another round of evolution it achieved perhaps 60% in favor, not the 90% agreement required.

The first proposal was dropped and we moved to the second proposal, to keep the street mostly closed, which went through a similar process of concerns, amendments, and evolution. It came for a vote and clearly achieved the 90% agreement required for a time-sensitive proposal, with about 13 stand-asides and about 7 against (those in favor were not counted because they were visually clearly more than 90%). The person who presented this proposal asked that those who voted in favor commit to remaining in the street to hold it, as she intended to do.

Immediately after the GA, we received word that one of the ghost committee members, Julio G., had plans to take down the barricades unilaterally at 1:30am. He was confronted by a group and defensively denied knowledge of the plan, refusing to engage us. Later conversations have affirmed that there was in fact a plan to take the barricades down. By then, only a handful of folks remained in the street, committed to holding it. The barricades stayed up, though police had driven a motorcycle past them in the middle of the night, probably a probing to see if the camp would come out to defend the street. They didn’t. At 6am perhaps a hundred or so cops descended and arrested eight of us, with no legal observers or cameras present except for one man with an I-phone. The media, however, were there in full force, likely tipped off that arrests would happen that morning. Before getting arrested, one of the arrestees ran through camp yelling, “The cops are here! Into the street!”, to which a peacekeeper responded, “Shhhh. People are trying to sleep!”

We were each released that afternoon, after 8 to 12 hours in custody, with misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and interfering with a police officer, both of which were later reduced to violations. The radical caucus greeted us outside with chants of Solidarity Forever. The ghost committee were nowhere to be seen. The next day at our arraignment it was a media circus and there was a large rally outside. Our supporters were prevented from entering the courtroom by a line of cops at the courthouse door. Inside, our lawyers were determined. They suggested we enter not guilty pleas and seek trial dates.

Media coverage of our arrests proclaimed that everyone was happy that Main St. was finally open, even members of the occupation. One person was quoted as calling those of us who were arrested “extremists.” On, it was initially reported that one of us was resisting arrest, which was a total fabrication as evidenced by the fact that none of us were charged with resisting. It was also stated there that the police gave us an opportunity to leave and that we chose to be arrested, again, total fabrication. That night, Occupy Portland facebook admins restricted the ability for people to post. Then an admin went on to comment: “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m glad Main St. is open….”

The following day, Saturday, was the anti-war march. A feeder march began at Occupy Portland, unfortunately led by a huge American flag, and joined the permitted anti-war march. Again, peacekeepers led people onto the sidewalks, but I helped to encourage people into the streets after seeing that the police were not acting aggressively. The entire march later occupied Main St. where a rally was held for about ten minutes, before continuing on. Eventually the march went to the waterfront, still hundreds strong marching through the streets. There I heard one of the ghost committee members confer with police and then announce that we would march on the sidewalk back to Pioneer Courthouse Square. It was never brought forward for discussion.

Sunday night, the two main proposals put forth before the GA were to empower the peacekeepers to call the police and to endorse instant run-off elections, a proposal brought forth by the same Green Party opportunist who tried to obtain a permit for the original march. I saw no allies there that night – both proposals passed – and I decided it was time to suspend my participation in Occupy Portland.

There are very serious issues of transparency and accountability in Occupy Portland right now. I had been working to address those, with very limited support, but that effort was derailed during the fight over the street and the subsequent arrests. I know that there are some people still dedicated to achieving those goals who still see OP as having potential for a real movement of resistance. Other commitments have brought me home for the time being, and so I wish them the best of luck. I still believe that this moment in time has so much potential. I don’t know if Occupy Portland is capable of acting on it. They either fear or don’t recognize their own power.

Due to the appalling lack of solidarity and the co-opting of this movement by forces who want to tame and pacify it, I’m beginning to feel that it would be in anarchists’ best interest to organize openly and independently. Through the strength of our analysis, people will be drawn to our position. What seems like extremism now will look more reasonable once the city and police begin to increase the pressure. We cannot allow our voices to be silenced out of a fear of being labeled divisive. Our goals aren’t the same as liberals and the authoritarian Left. That much should be clear. Given that members of Occupy Portland are openly collaborating with the city and police with impunity, I also feel it isn’t a safe environment for anarchists to operate in. Suggestions for a registration list have been floated. Until it’s made clear that collaboration won’t be tolerated, security is compromised.

It has been suggested that our efforts might be better directed by following DeColonize LA’s example and calling for dispersed popular assemblies throughout neighborhoods in Portland. I would also suggest that anarchists in Portland begin meeting regularly so that we can discuss how to best achieve our goals in this charged environment. Our time is now: we don’t need to ride on the coat tails of back stabbing liberals in order to gain legitimacy. They discredit themselves as they go along; let them take ownership of their failures and let us organize on our own, while still looking for ways to engage the Occupy movement and help it reach its revolutionary potential.

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2 Responses to An Anarchist Account of Occupy Portland – “Whose Sidewalks?”

  1. Andrew Yoder says:

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and eye-opening account of the challenges being experienced within the Occupy movement. One of the biggest threats to the success and meaning of this movement will actually come from within – not from without (police or state interference.)

    Americans are utterly ingrained with subservience to authority, and so many are duped into believing the “good german” lie – that collaborating with your direct adversary will somehow lead to positive change.

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