One year ago this week, the energy and outrage simmering in New York’s Zuccotti Park bubbled over in cities throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Thousands of people gathered in Portland alone for a rally and march that gave way to Occupy Portland, the largest Occupy encampment on the West Coast.
Many look back on Occupy Portland as a defining moment, but they’re still trading views on the founding principles of the movement.
Cameron Whitten’s trying to tell me a story.
“My fondest memory from Occupy would be October 29th. That was the first time I had ever organized a civil disobedience demonstration,” Whitten says.
But he can’t get far into the story without someone interrupting.
“We didn’t bring sleeping bags, we didn’t bring tarps, anything like that we knew … “
Two rumpled guys and a girl, in their late teens or early twenties, want to shake Whitten’s hand.
It’s hard to hear on the tape, but they’re asking if Whitten was the man who staged a 55-day hunger strike, stationed mostly in front of City Hall.
“Were you that guy who did the hunger strike thing?” they ask.
“Yes, I was,” Whitten replies
Their faces light up as they trade hugs with Whitten.
“Aw, thank you. Can’t complain,” he said laughing.
One year ago, Cameron Whitten was just another student couch surfing in Portland. Now, he’s something of a street celebrity. After camping in Chapman and Lownsdale Squares, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Mayor during the primary in May, staged the hunger strike in June to bring attention to housing issues, and kept attending classes at Portland Community College sporadically throughout the summer.
Now he’s on the ballot again, as the Oregon Progressive Party’s nominee for state Treasurer.
Whitten is just 21, and says he learned more from Occupy than from any class he ever attended.
“I feel like Occupy really incorporated all the ingenuity and the desire for freedom and rebellion that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson - all these great people had. Being polite and always saying the nice things, hasn’t really been the way that America actually changes. I feel like Occupy Portland really brought America back to its roots,” he said.
At the same time, his Occupy experience left him wanting a deeper engagement with the political process. That was something he had to leave the movement to do.
Revolutionary history was also an inspiration for Jordan LeDoux. A Portland native and self-described political nerd as a child, he got involved in Ron Paul’s candidacy in 2008. Then he found himself drawn in by the Occupy movement’s energy. He says there was more diversity of thought in the camp than mainstream reports let on.
“We had people who were apolitical but they were very dissatisfied with aspects of how our society is working, financially,” LeDoux says.
Ledoux says he feels Occupy totally changed the national conversation about politics and the economy. But he says he picked up on something even bigger at the camp.
“People have been so disenfranchised, so destroyed by the lack of opportunity and involvement in our civic structures and in our social structures that the more important thing to them right now than solving problems is to be heard. That is more important than solving things. They want to know that they still matter.”
When I met LeDoux at Occupy, he was gaunt from sleeplessness, with hair grown to his shoulders. He lost his job a few days after the camp was disbanded, and subsequently, his apartment.
He walked away from Occupy after becoming frustrated with the movement’s focus on politics at the expense of results.
Now, his hair’s cut short. He’s got a pair of cool eyeglasses and a button down shirt. And the day we spoke, he’d just landed a programming job in Santa Monica with a salary he describes as being in the low six figures.
“You that’s the thing, from my perspective, it isn’t a different world. I don’t feel like I ever was or ever will be more important than any of those other people there. I sat down and I would talk with a person who’s been homeless for 20 years, who’s high on meth and drinking vodka. That’s the same reality that I go to my job and I don’t really feel like those are different things.”
Watching over so many Occupiers of such different backgrounds also proved to be a test for the city police.
Dozens of people were arrested over the life of the encampment, everything from possession to disorderly conduct. Some of those cases are still working their way through the court system. But many gave the police force high marks for keeping a relatively low profile.
Commander Bob Day of the Portland Police Bureau says he is very comfortable with the way officers met the situation.
“We had to recognize we were not able to manage in a typical police fashion.”
That’s partly because of politics, Day explains.
Mayor Sam Adams made it known early the city would not interrupt the protests as long as they remained peaceful. But the scale of the ensuing crowd was beyond anything the Police Bureau had dealt with in modern history.
Day says the weeks of round-the-clock activity forced police into new thinking about keeping officers fresh for potentially provocative situations — ranging from philosophical discussions with peaceful camp dwellers to streets filled with hundreds of loud, keyed-up marchers.
“We tried to be mindful of the standard amount of time someone could stand there and give direction without getting upset. I think sometimes we’d notice sometimes we did have a heavy enforcement presence, sometimes we didn’t. We varied our assignments in an attempt to help officers be successful, be respectful.”
Over the weeks, Day says he appreciated the historic nature of what was happening. But he says he became deeply frustrated with the lack of structure.
He’d meet with a liaison committee, and find the next day members had no standing to negotiate or make changes. That was part of how Occupy did business and still does.
The Occupy movement’s consensus model, with no formal leadership structure, forbade any action on behalf of the group without building consensus in lengthy General Assembly and Spokes Council meetings. It was part of what drove some people, like Cameron Whitten and Jordan LeDoux, away.
But those who stayed defend the approach as totally appropriate for a movement fighting for economic justice.
Carrie Medina is an active Occupy volunteer. “In my experience with Occupy, the more people involved, the better. If every person isn’t allowed to be part of that process and be heard, what’s the point?”
Medina says she thinks one of Occupy’s biggest achievements was bringing the consensus decision-making process into a large-scale movement. Beyond that, she points to the many ways economic and social justice are cropping up in the national dialog — from foreclosure reforms to presidential posturing on key percentages of the American population.
Whatever the enduring political legacy of Occupy, Cameron Whitten says the experience was an unforgettable expression of righteous energy. Let’s get back to the story he started to tell me about the his favorite Occupy
“That was Occupy the Pearl District. We decided there was a really strong point for us to make, to address wealth disparities. It was around midnight. We were all just sitting there, about 27 of us. It was raining on us, a little bit - not too bad.”
The police said they’d had complaints from neighbors in the condos surrounding Jamison Square. They showed up after midnight to break up the protest.
With their cars, and horses and riot gear. We actually had around 150 people who started marching around us chanting. I remember we were holding hands, we had candles lit. The passion and protection I felt. It was so interesting. Knowing that the police were going to do some sort of resistance against us. I felt so protected by all these people. It was everything I wanted the movement to be about.”