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

Notes From the Occupation

48 hours inside Occupy Portland.

DR. FEELGOOD: The Occupy Portland medical tent treats mostly foot fungus, blisters and colds. PHOTO: Lana MacNaughton

In Terry Shrunk Plaza, just south of Alpha Camp, it’s time for General Assembly. Occupiers call it GA and convene every evening at 7 pm. The meetings are supposed to be finished by 10 pm, when the plaza closes to the public, but they’ve lasted as long as seven hours.

GA Committee members want to limit clapping, which they deem disruptive. They’ve created seven silent hand gestures to express opinions. “Twinkles,” or fingers waved in the air, signals support. “Down twinkles,” fingers wagged at the ground, signals disagreement. They look silly at first but actually do keep the meetings flowing.

Tonight one man comes forward with a proposal urging camp residents to rid themselves of all belongings “that come from somewhere immoral, like child labor.” He suggests they display trash bags filled with their discarded things. “That’s what Gandhi did,” he says.

The acoustics aren’t great. So GA has developed what it calls the “mic check.” When people can’t speak into a microphone, they make a statement, and the crowd repeats it en masse. 

A woman objects to the idea of people throwing their clothes away. Many of the homeless people in the camp don’t have clothes to spare.

“If we burn all our clothes…” she says.

If we burn all our clothes…” the group echoes.

“We won’t have anything.”

We won’t have anything.

During the night there’s a rock concert in Beta Camp and a movie about auto workers in Alpha Camp. People are passed out on the ground. A man in thick glasses reads Psalms aloud from a leather Bible in Hebrew. One man barges into the tent of another guy he says is mistreating his girlfriend; a bystander calls it “drunk drama.” 

WAVY GRAVY: Occupy Portland requires its kitchen servers to have Oregon food handler’s licenses. PHOTO: Lana MacNaughton

Jimmy Tardy, a committee leader who helps run GA, is standing by the Medical tent around 11 pm. Tardy, a conflict-resolution specialist in his 20s with glasses and a long ponytail, shows me the tent next door, Wellness. The tent has neatly organized rows of Lipton and Trader Joe’s tea, along with a box of free condoms. The Sanitation Committee will keep working all night to bag trash and set it at the southeast edge of Alpha Camp for city parks crews to pick up at 8 am.

“What the hell’s going on here?” Tardy says. “But it’s working.”

“There’s a massive amount of tweakers,” says a young man standing nearby. “There was one guy with his shirt off that I thought was covered in body paint, but he was just sweating that much.”

“Hopefully we’ll find a way to deal with that,” Tardy says. “And if we don’t here, we’ll understand that it’s happening elsewhere.”

“If nothing else,” says the other man, “it’s a great social experiment. It’s a great thing for the people who are using it the right way.”

“I take the stance,” Tardy says, “that everybody is using it the right way.”

I wake up at 9 am Friday to the sounds of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and screams.

I brush my teeth outside my tent, since the men’s room—the old brick facility on the north edge of Beta Camp—hasn’t had running water since before the occupation. Campers have duct-taped a bottle of hand sanitizer to the front door rails, and made stall curtains from discarded Portland Marathon banners.

Over in the Information tent, more improvements are being discussed. Ethan Edwards, who wears a name tag reading “Mister Info,” is seated on a white couch with Raya Cooper—“Miss Info”—and Zach Parsons. 

YOU SAY TOMATO: Occupiers have planted a community garden in Alpha Camp. PHOTO: Lana MacNaughton
The three are putting together a plan to redesign the camp, bringing it up to fire and parks codes. They hope Mayor Sam Adams will be impressed enough that he’ll resist pressure to kick them out. They’ll present their plan to the city parks security manager this afternoon.

Edwards says Occupy Portland is creating change because it isn’t burdened by governmental rules.

“We are here illegally, so everything we’re doing—”

“We are here legally,” interrupts Parsons. 

“We have permission to be here,” Cooper says.

“From the people of Portland,” says Edwards. “They give us permission.”

“I’d say the Constitution gives us permission to be here,” Parsons says, “and the people are supporting our right to be here.”

“For sure,” Edwards says.

The meeting with the city parks security manager, Art Hendricks, doesn’t go as hoped. He’s not reassuring about the legality of Occupy Portland’s stay. He says the city won’t provide help to reorganize the camp, even though Occupiers say their revised plan will do less damage to the trees. 

“If you guys have plans to mitigate that [damage] as you go forward,” Hendricks says, “then God bless you.”

That night, a group of Native Americans arrive in Beta Camp to perform a drum circle. Kate Sherman brings Tupac, still in his green onesie. “If we had the weekend crowd here all week,” she says, “this would be the most peaceful, loving place.”

The vibe at the drum circle is, in fact, as genuinely happy as any I’ve experienced at Occupy Portland. Everyone is smiling. My neighbor Mario is dancing. Two men bump fists: “What’s up, Occupy?” “What’s up, 99 percent?”

Then paramedics and police part the crowd to wheel in a gurney. A teenager I’ll call Nicole sits limply on a bench in front of the Soldiers’ Monument. She’s been a presence in camp all week, wearing a pair of baggy gray sweatpants and holding a black kitten.

She says she’s been assaulted. Paramedics lift Nicole onto the stretcher and wheel her out.

The next day, Saturday, she will return to camp. She won’t want to talk about what happened. She will ask for her kitten back. Three of her friends will corner a guy in the lunch line who has a black kitten. They’ll threaten to take it by force until Nicole says it’s not hers.

But on Friday night, rumors fly through the Occupy Portland camps about what happened to Nicole. She was assaulted. She’s five months pregnant. Maybe she isn’t. She was attacked at the far corner of Beta Camp. No, she was attacked on the MAX, and came back here. 

But everyone seems to agree she came back to the center of Beta Camp because it was where she knew people, and because she felt safe.

A Tour Through Occupy Portland

Video by Ruth Brown
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