The 39 days of occupation in Lownsdale and Chapman squares began as an idealistic statement of protesters seeking economic equality and social justice.
Within days the camp became a tent city for the homeless and mentally ill, dominated at times by trouble-seekers and drug dealers. The protest camp turned two city parks into a putrid smear of mud.
But Occupy Portland also accomplished a great deal. In a way that labor unions, academics and writers could not, the organizers raised this city’s awareness of an economic system gone devastatingly wrong.
The campers also accomplished something they surely never intended: They teed up the mayoral hopes of the city’s relatively untested police chief, Mike Reese.
Reese led the often-troubled Police Bureau through a carefully orchestrated effort to reclaim the parks without the violence, tear gas or stun grenades police used against Occupy protesters in other cities.
Through sheer stamina and rope-a-dope tactics, Reese’s officers exhausted a raucous Sunday morning crowd of 5,000 in the streets—then strolled into the Occupy Portland camp a few hours later to clear out tents, tarps and other debris.
In the end, the bureau’s riot squad efficiently shoved about 100 remaining protesters out of the park and made more than 50 arrests. By 2 pm Sunday, the parks were back in city hands.
Running through the story of Occupy Portland are elements of chance and unpredictability, namely that the political movement appeared just as Reese, who has never run for office before, was privately contemplating a mayoral campaign. On Nov. 11, while preparing his troops for the weekend takeover of the two occupied city parks, Reese filed the paperwork forming a campaign committee.
Reese says his political aspirations didn’t influence his approach to Occupy Portland or any other police matter.
“There was never any intersection between our actions and my considering running for mayor,” Reese says. “I’m really good at compartmentalizing my life.”
But the endgame for Occupy Portland may be a rare case where political considerations actually improved the outcome of a difficult situation.
WW’s on-the-ground reporting, and more than 900 pages of correspondence obtained under the state’s public records law, show how Reese and the Police Bureau, over the course of five weeks, took command of the Occupy Portland situation and controlled the public message.
They were able to do so because two key players in the drama gave them the opportunity.
One was the Occupy movement itself. Its political message was overwhelmed by organizers’ inability to control the camp.
“The atmosphere changed,” says Reid Parham with Occupy Portland. “The squatting detracted from the movement, and people made some awful behavioral decisions that made what was a safe space unwelcome to a lot of people.”
The approach of another player, Mayor Sam Adams, who oversees the Police Bureau, helped create the opportunity for Reese.
Adams faced a daunting problem: trying to communicate with a leaderless and increasingly chaotic group of protesters who were unable to formulate any specific demands.
WW asked Adams if, once he allowed Occupy Portland to stay in the parks, he had a plan to deal with the group. His answer: “No.”
“Mayors all over the country had the same answer,” Adams says. “We all agreed we’d just have to see how it played out.”
Adams was reluctant to challenge the group, even when it shut down Southwest Main Street for nearly a week.
“I was trying to channel what I thought were the collective principles of this city,” Adams says.