An Occupy Portland Memoir: “No Gods, No Masters: Anarchy In Theory and Practice”

From Modern Mythology – by Rusty Shackleford. August 7:

No Gods, No Masters: Anarchy In Theory and Practice

“Even if the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.” -anon

A timeline of my involvement with OPDX movement.

June 18th: I arrive in PDX.

July 1st: On invitation from a friend, I attend a candle lit vigil for Cameron Whitten’s 30th day on hunger strike. Upon speaking with Cameron, an initial article on the strike, the vigil, and the resurgence of Occupy PDX is written for Modern Mythology. I am told by various participants that, for the first time since eviction night, Occupy Portland seems to be resurfacing in full swing. I am also told by a former roommate via text message that my presence is not working in the apartment and that I need to begin to find a new place to live. In my entry on the vigil for housing rights at city hall, I inform my readers that I may be conspicuously absent for some time, due to increased personal stress and my lack of stability in terms of a long term living situation.

July 2nd- July 13th: I stay intermittently at the vigil, sleeping here and there at my old roommates’ and looking for new places to live.

July 13th- July 18th: Friday the 13th. Pending personal superstition, legal concerns and an increased need for privacy, I leave for an undisclosed campground in Washington for several days. News of a possible eviction for the vigil circulates around this time. I return to Portland on the 18th, and meet some mutual friends that offer a room for rent. I settle this business and begin to frequent the vigil again.

July 25th: Having publicly announced his hunger strike to be at least partially successful, Cameron Whitten breaks fast after 55 full days on day 56. A front page article detailing Whitten’s trials and tribulations follows in the Portland Tribune.

July 27th: In solidarity with protesters who are shot with rubber bullets, teargassed, and attacked by vicious dogs after an unarmed man is shot in Anaheim, the first in a series of marches on Portland police stations begins in St. John’s district. After only two days of planning, a group of roughly 45-60 activists, many of whom are garbed in black with bandannas covering their faces, march upon the police station at MLK and Killingsworth for an improptu rally against police brutality.

July 28th: One day after the march, an alleged drive by shooter is shot and killed by police in St. John’s district, several blocks away from my new place of residence. The driver is fatally wounded, and his car rolls into an empty apartment next to a mother with a two month old baby and a 6 year old daughter. I am very concerned upon approaching the crime scene that something has happened to our house, as in the days preceding this around three Occupy friendly houses have been raided on speculations ranging from possession of black clothes to subversive literature considered by federal law enforcement agents to be dissident. The police department is, at this point, still under investigation from the U.S. Justice Department in order to determine whether the Portland Police Bureau engages in a “pattern or practice” of excessive force. Race relations between citizens of North Portland and its police departments intensify as a rash of police brutality across the country continues, including the tasing of 12 year old girl in a Victoria’s Secret store and the shooting death of a double locked handcuffed man in the back of a police cruiser.

July 31st: I serve food that I helped to cook with Food Not Bombs for the vigil at city hall. Notices are now placed around the area of the protest informing us that the city will be confiscating all personal property from the perimeter of city hall on the following morning.

August 1st: Protesters are evicted from camping outside of city hall. Personal property is confiscated by the city. One man is jailed for attempting to lay claim to the personal property confiscated by the city and refusing to turn it over to the collectors. News teams swarm upon the site like vultures, heralding the end of the camp. People begin to reform and hold the area, a matter of days later. Over the next few days, the internet begins to crackle with rumors that Anaheim is now more or less unofficially under a state of martial law, after protesters moved too close in proximity to Disneyland. Paramilitary forces are now evidently present in Anaheim as a corporate media blackout on the issue continues.

August 3rd: A second march on yet another police station in Portland, this time, in the southeast. Several small children beat open a paper mache pig pinata dressed in a police uniform with large sticks in front of the police station. Cops on bicycles ride behind the activists intimidating them, when several suddenly whirl around with cameras pointed at the officers and donuts on makeshift fishing poles, dangling them in front of their faces. They videotape the scene to capture any telltale signs of police brutality. The cops, finding themselves visibly outnumbered, eventually turn around and leave.

August 5th: Block party for Alicia Jackson’s newly liberated houses. A new property built by a private developer on Alicia’s old property is commandeered by the community and it is announced that it will serve as a community center. Come 12:00 AM of the 6th, the internet is circulating news of an arrest at the newly founded community center property, and an urgent response network is nearly activated. Many wait on pins and needles for further development into the early hours of the morning…

It was high noon, Sunday, August 5th. I sat with a friend in the street outside of 523 Bryant, where a block party celebrating the liberation of a property reclaimed from the banks was taking place. A hip hop artist was finishing up a live set. A barbecue was in full swing, and around a hundred community members were in attendance for the celebration. The ceremony was moving, and yet I still found it difficult to feel any sense of personal comfort for the time being. We sat in silence for some time, before I finally spoke.

“I’ve fallen under some attack from certain organizations and people,” I confessed to her, “for my lack of ‘objectivity.’ More than a few people on this side don’t trust me because I am a writer, and the authorities display equal distrust for my motives. It’s not easy. Many of the reporters for the AP there on my first night at the vigil spoke to the regulars for 20 minutes and left. When they were invited to stay, eat, to drink or to spend time with the people there in order to get more than a precursory, surface level idea of the vigil, they refused. ‘We can’t spend time with the people we are writing about. It would be unprofessional conduct,’ they had said. ‘It would be a conflict of interests.’ ”

Her eyes widened.

“Do you know what the real conflict of interest is?” she asked. “It isn’t you. You spent time with us and gave us a chance. The real conflict of interests is that many of those members of the Associated Press have an agenda. And that is dictated by their ad revenue.”

I smiled.

“Being freelance has it’s perks, when you aren’t starving to death or being run out of town by police with big clubs and paramilitary gear.”

We sat together in the dog day heat, in the middle of the blistering hot asphalt. The sun beat down directly over my head. I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in days, and I had been running myself ragged scrambling to compile old writings and to begin work on a full length feature documentary with my friend Antonio Zamora. The girl had invited me, and I felt obligated to attend for personal and professional reasons.

{right: Antonio works to dig the separating barrier from between the new community house and Alicia’s home.}

From the beginnings of my brief stint living as a homeless person in Portland, the support the city hall vigil had given me was indispensable. From the first coincidental meeting with Cameron Whitten, through to my brief spell as a drifting nomad in Oregon and Washington, I had found a group of people who would stick with me and provide the support I needed to survive on the streets.

Unlike many of the AP, I do not subscribe to the notion that a reporter is capable of being unbiased or completely objective. I do not think that it is possible to report on complex sociopolitical issues without spending time and energy working with the issues on a personal level. Until you yourself have been affected by foreclosure, homelessness, or the immanent threat of starvation, you cannot begin to accurately report on those conditions.

Since my first night speaking with Cameron on his hunger strike, I had spent a significant amount of time with the group. I came to live with several of them in various situations, and learned more about the peaceful and self-assertive ways in which the group had taken actions to liberate various properties foreclosed upon. I have been attacked personally several times by various nonparticipants and detractors at the site of the protest at City Hall, one of which claimed to be a personal friend of mayor Sam Adams. (She flicked a lit cigarette butt at my neck.)

{right: Cameron Whitten. Upon shaking my hand, I told him that he looked a hell of a lot better. “Yeah, I’m on this new diet,” he said as he laughed.}

I have also had to goosestep my way out of several nasty interactions with isolated members of the vigil, who were in no way representative of the whole to me. At one point, I was called upon to defend a friend who was swung on by a random drunken street person. This was my first experience with needing to resort to violence while working peace and safety there, and it was greatly unnerving to me. We defended my friend and sent the man on his way. Through it all, I came to understand, as I had initially hoped to understand, the plight of the activists I set out to explore in writing.

Many of them had been beaten and savagely brutalized for assembling and peacefully protesting from day one. Cameron Whitten, the activist who rode out a 55 day hunger strike, had himself been attacked and crushed against a police horse, leaving his laptop smashed in the streets. He arose to the sight of an officer in riot gear, pressing a rubber bullet gun up against his chest waiting for an excuse to pull the trigger. Such is the tense & anxiety ridden lifestyle of a political activist in a Western society hellbent on civil war.

But for the time being, today was a day of celebration. It seemed to us that a tangible goal had been accomplished: A property liberation that began on May Day of 2012 had finally become relatively secure. Alicia Jackon’s house had been taken from her illegally, through a series of predatory loans. On a press release and information flier, Alicia said

“The mortgage companies involved in my loan engaged in criminal predatory lending practices. When the economy took a downturn and I struggled to find enough work, they made their move to foreclose. I have seen this happening all over the neighborhood.

I feel that I long ago paid off the value of my home and property, but predatory banks expect me, and millions of other people they are robbing, to continue to pay and pay so they can profit off our hard times.”

The community had made a collective autonomous decision on May Day to reclaim the property that Alicia had lost. According to organizer Ahjamu Umi, there were roughly 200 persons there reclaiming and holding the house. Alicia had told me she had heard the figure to be upwards of 500. Regardless, several hundred people showed up all day to support this action. Since then, an urgent response network of concerned citizens had been implemented to respond to police presence all day and night. The idea had been to create a blockade around the house and refuse to let them pass. It was a risky tactic, to be sure, but so far it had proven relatively successful.

The block party was to celebrate the reclaiming of Alicia’s property from the developers who had purchased it from the banks. Alicia told me the basic policies of the bank had been illegal, and that she had felt her property had been illegally foreclosed upon, regardless of any draconion legal jargon or paperwork that had been used to make it look otherwise.

When speaking with organizer Ahjamu Umi on the legality of the bank’s foreclosure upon Alicia’s home, he told me

“It doesn’t matter. We don’t know and we don’t care. This country was built on stolen land. We have since been conditioned to think in terms of legality, but we aren’t the ones making the laws. As far as we are concerned, if what the banks did is not illegal, it should be… Alicia fell victim to a predatory loan scheme. With a 700+ credit rating, she should have been eligible for a better loan. They took advantage of her and entrapped her. Deliberately. They knew they were going to take her house from her, eventually.”

{right: Speaking with Alicia inside of newly dedicated community house}

I talked briefly with Alicia, although I sensed she may have been overstimulated and I didn’t want to bother her. When I first began to ask her questions, she seemed hesitant. “Don’t worry,” I said gently. “I’m not corporate news.” She began to relax.

“When my property was foreclosed on by the banks,” she said, “it switched hands so many times. First, to Fast Cash House Buyers, then to Fox Capital. It was then sold to Chris Baird Consulting. This is when the new house was built on what was my property, so when we took it back, it stood to reason that we would take the annexed property as well.”

This was the special surprise announcement of the block party. A newly annexed house built on Alicia’s property had been seized by the community and was now to be used as a community center. They had been working to keep the houses open for sometime, and now it seemed the tables were turning in the favor of the activists. A matter of hours later, however, news had been firing back and forth through social networks of an alleged arrest that took place at the newly liberated community center throughout the early morning hours of the 6th. An urgent network put into place by Alicia’s supporters sprang to life and people were called to the scene.

Police involvement in the lives of activists in Portland is nothing new. Since the beginning of October 2011, many have been arrested, beaten, or savagely brutalized by the men our society expects to protect us. (A friend of mine was arrested for holding a line and detained for 2 days time, some of which he had spent in solitary. “When they locked me up, I had been with Nameless who went to county with me that night and a few others,” he had told me. “They detained me while I recited the first amendment from memory. That pissed them off, because I wouldn’t stop. Finally they told me they were going to throw me in the hole if I didn’t quit it. By the time I had spoken the words ‘Congress shall make no law’ the guards were in the cell pulling me out to solitary.”) But in the days after the Anaheim shootings, the vibe had become heavier and somehow even more polarized. It seemed the lines were now drawn between the citizens and their supposed guardians, and that civil war could break out at any moment, given only a minimal spark to set off the powder keg.

Rumors and written documents were already circulating around certain social circles of a supposed “black flag” and “red flag” federal watch list. The documents in question referred to any scenario in which martial law would be declared nation wide, and the standard operating procedures for dealing with dissidents or “unlawful enemy combatants” in such a scenario. The documents claimed that “red flagged” persons were deemed to be salvagable or eligible for “re-education,” whereas “black flagged” citizens were to be detained and quickly dispatched. In some instances, with extreme prejudice and in front of other malcontents, so as to send a message. Shit had gotten very real and very weird since the Anaheim “riots” and the subsequent media blackout. We were all feeling more than a bit unnerved, and the cops had become as paranoid of us as we were of them. A participant in the August 3rd march named Sean had spoken publicly, saying “If you still think that cops are your friends, the chances are that you are white and middle class. They are not your friends.” The whole of the situation seemed SNAFU: Situation Normal, All Fucked Up. It was now very clearly “us” vs. “them.”

Added to this tension was a police shooting blocks from my house in St. John’s. Elsewhere in the country, there were incidents of a 12 year old girl being tased and an unarmed, double locked and handcuffed man who “shot himself” in the back of a police cruiser. All of this had the effect, at the time, of leading into a more or less open dialogue on the principles of anarchism within the community. Did we really need to outsource the well being and security of our neighborhood’s to private mercenaries? If not, how could we begin to protect ourselves and our loved ones autonomously? Was the illusion of security worth sacrificing the realities of basic human equality and liberty?

Many of the men and women I had met through actions had differed across the spectrum in terms of political opinions, omitting the one commonality: Most were anarchists in theory or in practice, or at least had some anarchistic tendencies. Some supported notions of passive resistance, others were more active. Some were anarcho-communists, or anarcho-collectivists. Others were traditional old school proponents of a republic, one with representative to advocate for an essentially self-governing community. Most were basically adherents to the doctrine that the individual was a sovereign state unto themselves, and were thus anarchists. The popular sentiment was overwhelmingly distrustful of centralized power structures and promoted the notion of a horizontal society. But what was to take the old system’s place? Could it ever be more than “Lord of the Flies”?

All of the actions I had witnessed firsthand were autonomous decisions made by individuals. These individuals worked together towards a common goal, as in any other system. The piece that seemed to make all the difference was consent. They were there because they chose to be. They were still allowed to choose, and they did so through their own informed consent and free-will. This is why it worked.

Alicia Jackson’s house was reclaimed thanks to the autonomous actions of several hundreds of men and women, many of whom will continue to fight to protect Alicia and her home. They were all incredibly different from one another in terms of age, gender identification, color, religion and political affiliation. They still functioned as a cohesive whole, albeit temporarily. This is evidence of true anarchism in practice, and the beginnings of an egalitarian world.

Govern yourself accordingly.

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