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Reports from Occupations, Part 1: Portland

Peter Little | 13.10.2011 13:04 | Occupy Everywhere | Policing | Public sector cuts | World

It remains to be seen whether the internal contradictions within the Occupy movement-the limits of the 99% as a framework understanding for race, class, and police in America will be overcome by its significant contributions to the renewal of revolutionary potentials-its defiance of authority, its willingness to operate outside of dead-ended political channels, and its ability to arouse a sense of possiblity in thousands previously hopeless.


The following is a reportback from the first four days of Occupy Portland, from a member of BtR-Portland. It was written in the hopes of beginning a discussion regarding the relationship of revolutionaries to the occupation, its limitations, and where to go from here.

Reports from Occupations, Part 1: Portland

This past Thursday, October 6th, a noontime march of somewhere between 5 and 10 thousand people shifted by evening to a static gathering in downtown Portland. After weeks of planning and "General Assemblies," Occupy Portland settled on a small stretch of 3 grassy city blocks in a quiet, isolated pocket of Portland's downtown, among government buildings. Slowly the realization dawned of the limitations posed by the location—chosen through an unclear, pseudo-democratic process by a body of "unofficial" leadership containing both the opportunistic and inexperienced.

The bad news (the isolation from the public eye, excepting the prisoners in the County Jail across the street, Deputies and DAs in the Multnomah County Courthouse on the other side, with the encirclement completed by the IRS building and City Hall) failed to be outweighed by the good news (it would be a very short ride from the "occupation" to our jail cells and court hearings.)

As the night's first General Assembly was called to order, around half of the remaining 500 people gathered around a fountain to debate the question of "where to go from here." At that point the march's leadership posed a crisis to the membership of the assembly: "We have been in constant communication with the police. They have told us that we can only remain here until nine o'clock tomorrow morning, at which point we will need to leave, as they have a permitted event beginning tomorrow at that time." It was learned that the same space was scheduled to host the beloved Portland Marathon some 24 hours later. Rumor soon spread that the ad hoc leadership had occupied this park at the urging of Mayor Sam Adams. Perhaps he simply forgot?

A small group of comrades around our political tendency quickly convened. We put forth multiple proposals for an immediate relocation and permanent occupation of a new site in the center of Portland's transit system, where tens of thousands of workers pass through daily on trains and buses. These proposals were summarily ignored and shut down by facilitators, despite vocal popular support in the assembly, including repeated pleas by strangers for our positions to be voted on.

Even with the undemocratic stage management of the meeting, however, we did end up winning an agreement from the crowd that this was, in fact, an occupation, and that we would tell the police and the City that we were staying. Given the unskilled facilitation and lack of democratic process, this was as much as could be accomplished at the time. The assembly broke, with the plan of figuring out how to deal with the threatened police sweep at the next morning's assembly at 7am.

Around 400 people stayed that first night, facing the prospect of police violence during the night or morning.

The small grouping then retreated to our tents for the night, debating the implications of the Marathon's need to use the same space in the coming days. We had eventually supported the proposal to stay on the grounds. We believed that, absent actually occupying a better place that same night and refusing to move from it (and thus preventing us from being publicly portrayed as having spoiled the marathon, or allowing the police to spin-doctor an attack on the camp as a defense of the Marathon), it was better to consolidate our gains in order for the occupation to successfully hold its ground during the first days. If we could set the precedent that Occupy Portland would not be bullied or led around by the City or the police, it was more likely to succeed and to draw the thousands it needs to it to survive.

Our tendency believed that the most important precedent to establish now, while the public was still weighing whether or not to rally behind it, was that the City and Police would not be dictating terms to the occupation—where it went, or whether or not it continued. This position placed us in direct conflict with the standing leadership of the occupation and the Assemblies, who were clear in their intent to "work with" the Police and the City to "ensure" the occupation's survival.

As we returned to our campsites, we realized that many in the Assembly were frightened of the Marathon being the best justification for the threatened police sweep the following morning, and that this was influencing the crowd's willingness to stay and risk confrontation. We spent the rest of the night drafting and distributing a leaflet and proposal for the following morning:

That the assembly strike a media team, call a press conference for 8:45 AM (fifteen minutes before the police deadline for leaving the parks)
That at this press conference, we announce our willingness to accommodate the Portland Marathon however necessary—but that we would not negotiate with the police or the City, as we believed the sharing of the space could be worked out between the Marathon organizers and ourselves
That we also designate a negotiation team to initiate contact and negotiate an agreement with the Marathon giving it the space needed while not ceding the occupation to police threats or the City—and that this team would negotiate with the Marathon directly

The next morning, the camp was awakened at 6 a.m. by two young men walking through the camp, shouting "Mic[crophone] check! Time to wake up! Mic check, time to wake up!" Demonstrators nervously popped their heads out of tents, on alert for police attack, but no police could be seen. People began congregating at the Assembly meeting space, anxious to hear why they had been awakened and why a meeting was being called an hour before the planned meeting.

The two men who made the rounds announced, "We have new information! The police have plans to fence off the entire park area for the marathon, and will sweep the park at 9:00!" Astounded, many people in the crowd asked what was new about this information, and what need there was to circumvent the democratically-decided process for a 7 a.m. meeting to deal with this. The individuals failed to convince enough people with their plea to change the plan and prepare to leave the park. The 100 or so who remained began a 30-minute debate as to whether or not they could convene an assembly, while the rest of the camp returned to bed or went to seek out coffee and prepare for the scheduled Assembly. Reports surfaced that small groups of uniformed police had been walking through the camp all morning, making a show of counting heads and tents, had stationed empty buses at the corner of the camp, and had been threatening those who would listen that they were sweeping the camp at nine. They had also notified the media and posted on their website that there was a 9 a.m. deadline to clear the camp.

When the scheduled 7 a.m. assembly did convene 30 minutes later, the two individuals from earlier brought the same proposal to move camp, restating the "new" information and arguing that if the occupation attempted to remain here we would lose. In another struggle within the assembly, our caucus pushed to stay, and quickly the proposal we had circulated the night before was passed resoundingly. The message: We're staying. We will be happy to work with the Marathon, but will not negotiate with the police or the City regarding whether or not the occupation remains.

Afterword a press conference was held, with strong presence of local television and print media. Talking points were given based on the proposal passed, and people anxiously began to await the 9 a.m. deadline. Before the press conference was through, the City Commissioner responsible for the Parks bureau went on local news to announce, "We believe that a negotiation can be achieved with the protesters." He was asked, "What if they refuse to go? Will you call in the police?" Nick Fish replied, "I'm not willing to engage in 'what-if's about the police. We believe this can be settled through negotiation with the Marathon."

Nine o'clock came and passed, with no police attack. By 10 a.m., Occupy Portland's negotiation team—which included at least one person actually running in the Portland Marathon—had crossed the street and passed through security at the Police Precinct for a meeting with Marathon organizers. By 12:30, some occupiers had trickled out to attend to work or other responsibilities, our numbers shrinking to around 250, and our negotiating team returned. They announced that Marathon representatives believed that the space could be shared, and had outlined some of their needs for space. They requested that the occupation leave, but were clear that they would respect and work with the occupation if it remained.

At the meeting it was also revealed that after the morning assembly determined we would not negotiate with City or Police officials regarding the occupation remaining, at least two members of the occupation's informal leadership (one from the International Socialist Organization) had made contact and arranged private meetings with City Hall and with the police.

By eight that evening, thousands had returned to the park, and the numbers who remained for the night more than doubled from the night before. The occupation had set an important precedent, and provided an important lesson for the demonstrators, most of whom had never done such a thing. We confronted a deadline from the police, said No, faced down threats and arrests, and in the end, both the Police and the City backed down—and did so in front of the public eye. When the police posted their 9 a.m. deadline on their PR website, the media had published it as a standoff.

The New Society Born in the Old?

Occupy Portland, although unlikely to become such a situation in the near term, has many of the components of a dual power situation . A sanitation committee, medical tent, safety committee, and food distribution committee are a few of the functional "state-within-a-state," alternatives mandated by an occupied space. As of today, the only problem for the food committee has been that they've been receiving more food donations than they can actually feed to the thousands of people coming through daily.

The City establishment is now caught in a delicate balancing act. After openly defying the police order, will protesters be happy just to sit in a park as their numbers swell and their sense of power increases? It's clear that, at this point, the political costs of an assault would be high—and would be likely to draw greater numbers and militance to its ranks. On the other hand, the chant heard in Seattle in '99, "Whose streets? Our streets!" was popular on the corners of the park today, and occasionally evolved into unpermitted marches out through open streets and back into the park. What potential will this kind of activity pose, particularly as the protestors develop demands that they do not see won through sleeping together in parks?

Today was Day 4. It began with an assembly, and ended with the completion of the Portland Marathon. The occupation had ceded most of the space (excepting a skeleton crew) to the Marathon, and planned a march through downtown and eventually back to the encampment. Early in the assembly, divisions emerged over the possibility of a march following the marathon through downtown that was proposed by the City and Police. ("Keep Portland Weird").

Again concerned about cooperation with authorities, the Radical Caucus, and numerous supporters, argued that the overwhelming white demographic of the occupation would not be changed as long as the occupation failed to make a break with the City and the Police. Following the Radical Caucus' lead, chants shifted from, "We Are the 99%" to "We Are the Working Class!"

The question of the relationship to the Mayor and the Police eventually led to a split of marches, with the non-police supporters numbering around 150-200, and the primary march at around 500. Both marches, against the wishes of self-designated leadership, broke from the sidewalks and occupied the city streets as they marched. The anti-police marchers eventually split again due to the betrayal of "march officials" midway through. Although marchers had agreed to keep the streets and not to join the Mayor and Police parade, leadership pulled off midway. The remaining 40 or so Radical Caucus supporters continued through downtown, again chanting "We Are the Working Class" and singing IWW songs while shutting down 3 lanes of downtown traffic, with flummoxed, overwhelmed police (the department now dealing with multiple, unplanned marches) following close behind.

Consensus and "Democracy"

After only 4 meetings of 300-600 people, the limitations of the consensus model inherited from other Occupy movements, and the ways in which an informal, unrecognized leadership can damage a movement, have already become painfully clear. Intervention of radicals has not only pushed for the development of the skill sets necessary for facilitation and structure, but it has also, at least initially, checked the controlling and opportunist maneuverings of a politically inexperienced and very reformist informal leadership grouping. It remains to be seen how well the movement can develop accountable leadership structures, but if things progress it will be essential for this obstacle to be overcome quickly.

Class, Race, and the Police

"We are the 99%" has become the motto of the Occupy movement, and there are dual tendencies coexisting within this notion. The railing against banks and financiers, as well as the government for catering to them, has a clear class basis, and holds revolutionary potential. The historical weakness of U.S. populism, however, has reared its head again. Already, the John Birch Society-descended conspiracies about Bankers, Illuminati, and the Federal Reserve hold a much greater space within the public debate than any assessment of Capitalism as a system, as a relationship of rules, agreements, consent, and activity to be overthrown. Alongside the right-wing conspiracy theories exists the social democratic notion, now promoted by an entire segment of the global ruling class, that this is merely "an orgy of greed and excess," a betrayal of the true nature of Capitalist economics.

Most significantly, the constant struggle around the relationship of police to the occupiers reveals the historic blind spot and Achilles heel of this movement—race. The occupiers in Portland are predominantly white (although the Radical Caucus has attracted a small grouping of young people of color, and there are certainly individuals within the broader crowd who are not white). No tendency exists within the struggle that possesses an identity conscious of race, or conscious of itself as a racial minority, with a different set of experiences and needs than the rest of the "99%." For this reason, in Portland, from the onset, the relationship to the police has been murky. Informal leaders have repeatedly met with police, and allowed them—almost invited them—to dictate the terms of the "occupation." Some protesters have argued that the "Police are a part of the 99%," or that "the police are one lay-off away from joining us!" This points to a broader limitation of the notion of the 99%. The Mayor and the Police are a part of the 99% of the population who do not own the majority of the wealth of this society-this is true. They play central roles, however-from destroying workplace organization, to incarceration under the guise of safety and the,"drug war," in enforcing the policies and power relations which maintain the wealth of the 1%.

The lack of consciousness of the role of police in society represents a blind spot around race. Decision-making and actions have at times been specifically in defiance of police and in opposition to their orders, but the absence of a pole yet capable of raising consciousness among participants has meant that large portion of the crowd welcomes police in uniform into the encampment and into the fringes of the assemblies themselves (many even posing for photos with the police Chief).

Time will likely clarify this, as the demonstration has already displayed hints of desires to go beyond sleeping in a park, but until this clarification occurs, the lack of a clear opposition to cooperation with police stands as the greatest obstacle to the recruitment and participation of oppressed communities of color, and an obstacle to the movement as a whole.

A number of questions remain: Will the liberal establishment be capable of pacifying the thousands flocking to this park, who have already had a taste of power? Will these people be appeased with being allowed to sleep in a park together? And what will happen to their soft relationship to the police at the moment (or moments) in which their activity begins to move beyond "demonstration," as has occurred in New York? Does the liberal establishment have the ability to offer meaningful concessions to the predominantly white crowd? Will such concessions be enough to curtail the emergence of sympathy and solidarity among privileged demonstrators with racially diverse working class communities that contend with police violence in this city on daily basis?

The "Radical" Caucus

A radical caucus, predominately composed of anarchists and various Trotskyists and Marxists, has now emerged. This loose collective has begun to address questions of facilitating better democratic processes, and has also successfully moved things in Assemblies as a block. It is now discussing questions of race, class, and pushing political development within the demonstrations and the encampment, amongst other questions regarding the progression of tactics and our relation to police and the City government.

Most importantly, this caucus (which, as noted above, has a much higher percentage of people of color participating), has centered its criticism and questions around the role of policing and race. It is currently grappling with how to continue to engage the encampment: how to push the question of race and the police, how to push a greater militance, and how not to cede to the reformist leadership without alienating ourselves (as was risked when our march splintered today).

Many of us intend to continue to prioritize our work organizing around police in the broader community while continuing to support the Radical Caucus and the encampment. We are stretching our brains to try to envision how to do two things:

Capitalize on the momentarily-expanded sphere of possibility to create new openings in our organizing around police in the community (away from Occupy Portland)
To use our ongoing organizing against daily police violence in our communitiesas an intervention itself—to use our demands, our organizing, and hopefully, our supporters, to intervene in the encampment prior to when (as yet unseen but likely) confrontations with police emerge...

It remains to be seen whether the internal contradictions within the Occupy movement-the limits of the 99% as a framework understanding for race, class, and police in America will be overcome by its significant contributions to the renewal of revolutionary potentials-its defiance of authority, its willingness to operate outside of dead-ended political channels, and its ability to arouse a sense of possibility in thousands previously hopeless.


Peter Little
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