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October 26th, 2011 12:01 am AARON MESH | Cover Story

Notes From the Occupation

48 hours inside Occupy Portland.

lede_notes_3751UNPLUGGED - IMAGE: Lana MacNaughton
See video footage of Aaron's visit to Occupy Portland at the end of pages two and three of this story.

DJ Nick is back. He needs to get out of here, because DJ Nick is trouble.

He’s just one of the problem people the Safety/Peacekeeping Committee worries about in the Occupy Portland camps. 

There’s Pinkie, with his pink Cherry 7UP jacket and pink Mardi Gras hat, who gets frantic dancing to his radio and has to be calmed down. And there’s Justin, who smears lavender oil across his expansive bare chest and yells at strangers and by morning will have a black left eye and a fresh red scab on his nose. 

But DJ Nick is real trouble. They banned him last night, but he keeps returning to pick fights. He tells anyone who will listen that he’s been attacked. He falls to the ground and begs for help, his eyes puffy from crying. “I have HIV,” DJ Nick says. “I will spit blood on you.”

Mike, who supervises the night shift of the Safety/Peacekeeping detail, stands on the designated smoking corner at the edge of Alpha Camp. A two-way radio dangles from the collar of his green T-shirt. He’s tired of DJ Nick.

Just after midnight Friday, Mike decides to go to the cops. Two Portland police officers stand on the corner, known outside Occupy Portland as Southwest 4th Avenue and Main Street. He tells one cop he wants DJ Nick arrested if he returns.

The cop says they’ve already tried to deal with DJ Nick. They sent him up to Oregon Health and Science University hospital. He refused treatment. 

“We can cite him,” the patrolman says. “We couldn’t hold him.”

“What you need to do,” Mike tells him, “is drive him past OHSU and drop him off. It’ll take him a couple of days to get back.”

Photos: Lana MacNaughton

I can’t find a place to pitch my tent. Every inch of what used to be the north lawn of Chapman Square is covered with tents and tarps and pallets. The same goes for Lownsdale Square to the north. I’m moving into the Occupy Portland camps for two days so I can find out what happens when a protest turns semi-permanent in America’s most dissent-happy city. 

Two weeks earlier, more than 10,000 Occupy Portland marchers wound through the city—a spinoff of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began Oct. 6. Some ended up at Chapman and Lownsdale squares, now renamed Alpha and Beta camps. Occupiers say about 500 people live here now. They say they aren’t leaving.

The Occupiers have established a democratic government, based not on majority rule but on volunteerism and consensus. They have honed their activism, holding a march a day and making their message more specific—like going into Wells Fargo last week to protest what they see as predatory banking practices.

The camp’s leaders—mostly students and recent college grads who work as much as 20 hours a day—have built social services for everyone who lives here. They provide three meals a day, clothing, trash collection, medical care, religious services and acupuncture. And they offer seminars on personal economics, mental health and crocheting.

But two weeks in the parks has also created growing stress on Occupy Portland. The bevy of services has made the camps a magnet for the homeless, who now outnumber the original protesters. The Occupy leaders find themselves dealing with some of the same social ills they have been protesting against.

For help in finding a place to camp, I go to Engineering—one of many departments set up here. It’s in a shelter made of white plastic tarps and PVC pipes. Outside, there’s a table with cups of chicken soup and part of a chocolate cake. 

Anthony Dryer, with long brown hair and a yellow rain jacket, is standing nearby. He’s a server at Sushi Ichiban who returns to camp each evening after work. And he knows where there’s empty tent space. He finds me a straw-covered mud patch 4 feet by 6, right next to Main Street with a view of the elk fountain.

My neighbor is Mario, who sits on a flattened Sierra Designs tent and plays with a beach ball marked “ > $.” Mario has no idea how to put his tent up, so Anthony and I help him. In broken, rapid English he thanks us, thanks God, tells us he’s Cuban and then sings and dances. God has given him a new heart, he says. Castro tried to conscript him into the army. 

“King Obama killed the king of the terrorists,” he says. “I’m a little crazy, but I don’t drink.”

I drop off my things—a sleeping bag, a duffel with toothpaste, deodorant and clothes—and cross Main Street into Beta Camp. Dozens of Occupiers stand at the corner; everyone waits for the lights to change. 

The Library is in a blue tent filled with wooden and plastic shelves. The volunteer librarian, Mark Nerys, a freelance illustrator, sorts donated books according to the Dewey Decimal System. The books include Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Mario Puzo’s The Last Don and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight.

“We make them all available,” Nerys says. “No censorship here.”

Nerys has helped run the Occupy Portland Library since the beginning, except the two days he went home with strep throat. It has more than 200 books, and Multnomah County librarians are helping catalog them. The pride of the Library was a collection of law books, including an especially prized volume on white-collar crime, until someone stole the entire set last week.

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