Fear and Joy in the Streets of Portland

An account of my participation in the events of early Sunday in downtown Portland.
Short capsule: Riding my bike with a group of fellow cyclists in a loop around the Occupy site for 7 hours straight, in an act of deliberate witness and protection. Hard to convey everything that happened but there were some almost tearfully tense moments of direct confrontation with riot cops that, in a magic and an alchemy that I have never quite experienced the like of, transmuted the energy of confrontation into retreat (by the armed batallions) and victory (however momentary) for the unarmed and joyful people.
So, as you may know, Mayor Adams of Portland gave the Occupy Portland encampment at Chapman and Lownsdale Squares (2 square blocks at 3rd and SW Main/Madison) a 48 hour notice to be gone by 12:01 AM Sunday Nov. 13, 2011. The reasoning (long and short) is that the encampment had become a haven for homeless and variously wounded and addicted people. A place to camp relatively unmolested, free food from a cooperative kitchen, etc. In the previous days there had been two drug overdoses and a supposed rise in petty crime in the immediate neighborhood. Granted not a good situation. But also obvious to me and many others that Occupy did not create these problems, only brought them into an immediate (and apparently unwelcome) focus, even while providing services at the level of inspired volunteerism that the city has abjectly failed at over the years. But that is an editorial digression.
Truth is, while definitely a supporter of Occupy and its aims/aspirations, I was not a 100% fan of the encampment and the idea that the Occupy movement should be about holding stubbornly to crappy little pieces of downtown park space.
Some moments are moments of truth. So when I saw on Bikeportland.org that there was a notion to have a “swarm” of bicyclists continuously encircling the encampment blocks during the time (minutes? hours??) during which the police would attempt to roust it, I basically knew that, whatever internal skepticism I might feel about the effectiveness of such a gesture, I had to go down there and participate.
So I did. When there is a massive show of intimidating armed force against unarmed citizens who are doing nothing worse than congregating in a large number for peaceable purposes, you have to be on the side of the unarmed people. You just do.
I showed up right at midnight (after a lovely and energizing earlier evening of interaction with good friends) to find that THOUSANDS of people were at the parks and lining the streets on all sides to witness the unfolding events. The streets themselves were still open to traffic, and i quickly joined what at first was a fairly small contingent of about a dozen cyclists (soon growing to many dozens), riding around and around the parks. South on 3rd to Jefferson, west on Jeff to 4th, north on 4th to Taylor, right again to third, and so on… and so on… and so on. Stopping on every round at 3rd and Jefferson (away from the main crowd) to regroup and do a “people’s mic” self-check and on-the-fly reconnoiter of the situation. Again and again past an ever growing and cheering throng, and also an ever growing phalanx of police encircling the parks.
One hour passes. Two. 3rd Avenue becomes more crowded with every pass, several cars are now trapped by people, but the crowd parts just enough every time for the “swarm”, cheering and giving us high-fives.
1:50 AM. We are now walking our bikes through the 3rd and Main part of the route because the crowd is too thick.
At the very moment… the very MOMENT, that the bikers are crossing Main at 3rd, and I am exactly at the edge of Main on 3rd, two phalanxes of riot cops in full robo-cop armor march in and block off 3rd Avenue right in the middle of us, and  EXACTLY in front of me. I knew the general possibility of such a moment arising, but the reality was alarming. Moreso: a squadron of Police horses now suddenly charges up Main behind the phalanx and toward the crowd occupying Main and the parks. A huge hail of boos, jeers, goes up from the crowd. Suddenly something flying through the air, onto the ground among the cops in front of me, a quick loud bang, smoke, the sulpherous smell of rotten eggs. I am quite sure (in this moment) it is teargas. (It may in fact have been a homemade smoke/stink bomb. This is never ultimately made clear.)
Two of the riot police are DIRECTLY in front of me. I mean inches. Another just behind them, tall, a riot-control rifle raised to his shoulder, sighting, aiming directly at us… at me. Another, perhaps the most sinister of all, holds a digital camera on a long pole, aims it directly at the faces of me, of everyone around me. I look around. I am completely packed in by other protesters, both with and without bikes. There is no possibility of retreat. I am afraid, no lying on that. The realization: I am about to be arrested, and possibly injured. The way they are using the horses makes me sad and angry. The way they themselves are being used, dressed for a riot with armor and deadly weaponry, arrayed like cyborgs against unarmed people whose only crime at this point is to be congregating in the street in defense of an encampment of society’s most vulnerable people, this all makes me sad and angry. I shake, tears well… I look directly at the two full-armored cops in front of me. I see their faces behind the plexiglass masks. I am not chanting or yelling. I am, literally, speechless. Somehow, even in my fear, I am grounded. Chaotic noise, yelling, off-the-scale intensity… I am unot calm feeling. But I am simply there. And neither do flashing anger-words make sense to me as a response, the way they would have when I was younger (at Critical Mass, at Iraq War protests, in Seattle long ago). Maybe I’ve learned something over all these years. I just stand. Then I say to them, loudly, directly,  the only words that come to me. “I *LOVE* you. JESUS loves you.” I swear, I swear and yes I know it was my heated imagination, that they registered something. Something real. A human reaction. A connection. Maybe even a slight discomfort, but a good kind. They are PEOPLE after all, encased in that terrible black armor. They have homes, lives, dreams, families, just like me. (Thank you Lisa Naas for recalling that to me.)
The crowd keeps yelling.  But suddenly the police horses back up, wheel around, trot back down Main the way they came. A huge cheer goes up. The cops in front of me, the ones I just felt some glimmer of connection with, they and the rest of them step backward, coalesce together into one huge mass, and back their way off of Main to the adjacent Justice Center (jail building). Massive cheer goes up. The crowd spills back into 3rd and Main, “in it to win it” now.
The bicyclists reconnoiter. A general consensus to keep riding, to ride until 5:00, until 7:00, until daylight at least. Keep the energy up, the circling and circling and circling. Every pass some new nuance. This time a song as we ride, then a chant, then silence, then just giddy yelling. Three AM. Four. Five. Angels with water and snacks appear, fortifying us. The crowd is thinning, thinning, but still holding fast at 3rd and Madison, banging on buckets, chanting, singing. The riot police nowhere in evidence for nearly 3 hours. Then they appear again, marching up Madison to 3rd, and the police loudspeaker demands the crowd vacate the street. A quick consensus, the remaining crowd (still several hundred) removes swiftly from the street to the park.
The riot-phalanx remains in array across Madison, billy-clubs and zip-tie cuffs at the ready. We take one, two, three passes past them on our circuit. Our route had bypassed Madison (one-way eastbound) because of the crowds but now we note that Madison is completely clear… except for the cops themselves. Our choice is so obvious it needs little discussion, though we do discuss briefly at 4th and Madison, for the sake of unity and coherency of action. We will ride peacefully down Madison to the line of riot cops, face to face with the force that is blocking the street to save it from us. An amazing woman named Katherine who was a vocal leader of the bike group all evening does one last “mic check”. “Does anyone have? (DOES ANYONE HAVE?) Any ideas for chants? (ANY IDEAS FOR CHANTS?) Someone yells out “Who’s Blocking Traffic NOW?” So we launch, slowly, measuredly, down the block, chanting this. The crowd immediately joins in with obvious delight. We are at the intersection now, face to face with the phalanx in their riot gear. There is a moment… in which it is obvious that the police are almost comically in the wrong to be still lined up BLOCKING a now-clear (clear for 10 minutes actually) street that they are demanding to be clear. It makes no sense, unless they are planning on simply swooping in and arresting everyone regardless. (Which in truth they probably were.)
And so they stand aside. And we roll past them. And they leave.
It is hard to describe the sheer joy of this moment, in which a kind of in-the-moment tactical genius and courage arose in the crowd and our bicycle swarm, and the forces of armed response simply stood aside.
Of course I knew, we all knew, that eventually the Mayor and the Police Bureau would have their way and the encampment would be cleared. People can’t stay up forever without sleep. We become vulnerable. But we rode for two more hours (until after 7:00), until I at least was almost falling over and had to head home (yet with a full day of improv workshop still ahead of me), and the police eventually rousted the remaining campers at around 10:00 AM.

But people: it was a victory, make no mistake. It was an evolutionary moment for Occupy, and for people’s (including my own) experiential understanding of how there can be a sheer power to joyful non-violent action by a large and energized group. It was joyous, nearly every moment of it, including the most tense and frightening. Most of the crowd was intensely, almost passionately, positive. Many hundreds of people knew they were risking arrest, but were okay with that. There are worse things in life. Yes, Occupy needed to evolve past the encampment, but it was wrong for the Mayor and the Powers to scapegoat it when all it was doing was shining a spotlight on the deep inequities and woundings that are manifest in our society. The business-bureau types don’t want to see that shit. But that is the world we live in today, more and more every day. It is a serious time. The impetus for this movement is deep, widespread, something that cannot and will not be wished away or swept under the rug. The more the “Law” tries to push it down, the more it grows and strengthens. Tomorrow, next week, even next month may or may not look like objective “progress”. But these times are a radical disjuncture. The question is not whether there will be historic change. The only question is, for each of us, do we stand with the most vulnerable? Do we stand for and act within a new-old  conceptualization of power as mutual empowerment, gift, communion? If so, then we’re already there.

Published in: on November 14, 2011 at 3:21 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. When I said “Seattle long ago” I meant not actually the WTO protests in 1999 (when I lived in Reno) but thinking in particular of a small non-violent protest in 1994 on Pine Street outside my apartment (at Pine and Belmont) that was met with a huge force of Riot Police who did far more to antagonize the situation and stop traffic than the protesters themselves. I was so mad at the spectacle and at the insistence of one cop in particular who insisted I get off the adjacent sidewalk (to where? The street? Or back into my apartment which was literally right there at street level) that I got into a heated yelling match with him and probably only was not arrested because in the next moments the whole huge gang of police swooped onto the main body of protesters in the street and arrested them all. This was the first time I saw a large group of police acting in a way that to me seemed like a clear violation of both decency and common sense, and my first time seeing a large squadron of black-clad and armored riot cops, and to boot not being used to quell a riot but to squelch a relatively small “unpermitted” demonstration. The way WTO went down did not surprise me one tiny bit. I saw it coming a mile away, based on this and other experiences.

    And the way police forces are responding now, this also does not surprise me, only annoys me. It is a culture of police-state mentality and reactionism that has been building for a long time. but it will take a lot more than annoyance to keep me and a legion of others off the streets during these times. People have put up with bullshit for way too long. OWS is only the tip of the iceberg.

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