First things first: I did not attend the Occupy Portland protest on purpose; I was in Old Town for my own reasons. Like many who stayed away, I have always been leery of large masses of people shouting for one side or another, whether at stadiums or in street marches, even if the side they’re on is my own.
The reason is less the suffocating claustrophobia of such crowds—though this is also true—but rather something akin to a scene described in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being: When a Czechoslovakian political refugee declines to participate in a political march against the Russian occupation of her country, it is out of a feeling that “behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.” Which is to say I have always found myself more in tune with the dogged, often lonely, unsung work of community organizers, advocates and longtime volunteers, however rare such dedication may be. It is not that symbolic manifestations have no power, but that such symbols often spin out of the control of even the best intentioned.
Still, it was hard to see any “basic, pervasive evil” in the peaceable, affable crowds that marched yesterday into and out of downtown’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, from their 2:30 pm starting point at Waterfront Park. Though a long array of shopworn protest slogans were chanted, it was hardly a group in militarized lockstep but rather a broad cross-section of the disenchanted and the disenfranchised, young and old and in between: paired mothers and daughters were a not-uncommon sight, alongside elderly couples, wide-eyed college kids and the inevitable raft of the deeply radicalized. For the most part it just looked like “the people,” in the old optimistic sense of the phrase. A protester attending told me, “I know it’s mostly liberals here, but I can’t help but think that a lot of conservatives see the same problems we do.”
By simple back of envelope calculation (an average of 8-10 people passing by per second, for a total of 24 minutes), I arrived at a figure of between 11,000 and 14,500 people in attendance, which for a town the size of Portland is a figure that is very difficult to ignore. At times it seemed there would be no end to the marchers, that the streets would be forever filled in Seussian lemniscate.
Upon arrival at the square, people did just what the protest’s title implied: they occupied the square. Except at the square’s very center, whatever was said on the inadequate P.A. was hopelessly garbled and diffused by the mass of bodies. The solidarity was thus less about specific message (who could hear?) than in simple shared presence, the optimism in discovering that so large a group cares about what one cares about. Those at the edges of the square milled around somewhat confused about their purpose, while in the middle of Broadway Avenue, someone who’d brought a much more effective sound system had started an impromptu street dance party by the Nordstrom store.
Police presence was benign, though ever increasing: officers smiled and waved at the occasional (very uncommon) heckle, mostly serving to block streets from cars and to support Tri-Met employees trying desperately to keep everyone off the MAX tracks as trains rolled in. “Please be careful,” said a man in a yellow vest. “Please be careful. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”Of course, there was also something of the carnivalesque in the air: A young man sitting on a brick wall somewhat treacherously held a sign reading “Tear Down the Wall,” above a woman in bunny ears with a sign (the day’s winner, in my books) that read “Screw Us and We Multiply.” A number of protesters wore Guy Fawkes/“V” saboteur masks popularized in the political sphere by Anonymous, though I couldn’t help but think that every time they bought one they were giving money to Time Warner. People with cameras trained their lenses on other people with cameras. A man with vocal cords ravaged by cigarettes into gravel told a friend, “I’m pissed off because we have no voice.”
Some responses of the assembled when asked why, in fact, they were there:
• From a slightly shy young woman at the edge of the square, dressed in scarf and beanie: “I was thinking about that in the shower this morning, and honestly I think it’s kind of vague, what this movement is. It’s just a kind of roiling dissatisfaction. I’d be interested to hear what other people’s responses would be.”
• From a gregarious older man with close-cropped hair: “I’m an old guy who’s genuinely ashamed of what’s happened to my society on my adult watch since 1980. The project of improving democracy and putting us on a sustainable course has failed. Oligarchy, a few people of wealth and power controlling society even more so than in 1980, has us totally on the wrong course. It’s awful."
• From an older woman taking a break on the square’s bricks: “I’m just fed up with the way that things are being portrayed in the media. Corporate media, which includes NPR, has us all thinking that austerity is the only solution and it’s just not true. Social security and Medicare should not be privatized. I think when things get privatized that’s when there’s fraud and corruption."
• From a conservative-looking young man in a North Face vest: “Because the top 1 percent owns close to a third of the wealth, and I don’t think that’s right.”
• From a young man with stretched ears: “I don’t want to talk to you.”
• From a young man with sharpied slogans on every part of his shirt, much like a signed cast: “No. Thank you, but no.”
I left just as the march reached the square where many would remain overnight, in harmless occupation; city officials had already decided to overturn the park’s camping ban, promising a relatively friction-free stay. Still, a team of six horse police moved toward the square, and behind them, a pack of eight police motorcycles filled the next road to the north of the marchers. The looming clouds had already buffed most of the day’s patina into dull glaze, the wind was lazily shifting directions, and just as I turned away from the march, it began gently to rain.
Read more about Occupy Portland here.