At around 8:45 PM on Saturday night, I witnessed yet another poorly-planned, unnecessary, and ultimately ineffective use of police resources. About 50-60 police (my rough estimate), dressed in full riot gear, descended upon a few hundred Occupiers who had, hours earlier, declared the occupation of a new park between Main and Salmon in downtown Portland. At 8:30, the police made an announcement (from a P.A. system mounted on the top of what appeared to be an old ice cream truck) that a “state of emergency” had been declared in the park blocks and anyone in the park was subject to arrest. The police then lined up on Main St. and in a forceful sweeping maneuver from the Southeast, accompanied by aggressive pushing and the use of batons, pressed the protestors out of the park and into Salmon St. In the course of the eviction, there were a dozen or so arrests and some people were struck with the batons. One of these people was a 15-year old boy named Walker Prettyman who took a baton to the face.
It’s difficult to communicate through written word just how frightening riot police can be. Even as a person who is larger than most of the police officers and not easily intimidated, their organized presence causes a strong psychological anxiety that I haven’t previously experienced.
Different people react differently to the stress of the situation. Some people yell at the police. Others retreat. But it is undeniable that the entire character of the assembly changes as soon as a threatening police presence arrives. I’ve now witnessed this phenomenon at least four times and confidently assert that riot police are inherently provocative. Their presence alone is an application of force. And utilizing their unique skill-set – dispersing violent crowds – is not a necessary and proportional response to the Occupy protests.
Having witnessed their fellow protestors hit in the face, arms, and backs with batons, the peaceful crowd grew more defiant and it seemed a clash was inevitable. People were yelling obscenities and threats at the police as they were ordered via loudspeaker to disperse. It was a very tense time.
But then something interesting and unexpected happened. In the midst of the chaos, the sound of dance music erupted. Immediately, the crowd began to happily and energetically dance in the street. I’ve never experienced anything like it. A moment of extreme anger and tension became elation in an instant. In a word: surreal.
Noticeably confused, the line of riot police moved backward allowing for a safe distance and after a few minutes a march began to City Hall. What ensued was a two-hour dance party/protest through the streets of downtown Portland with a small bike-cop escort and most of the riot police sent home for the evening. Eventually, the protestors returned to the same park they had been evicted from earlier and celebrated a minor victory.
Such is the character of the Occupy movement. Occupiers and those who protest in solidarity are defiant… but gleefully so. Certainly, there are angry outbursts and moments of intense frustration, but they tend to subside rather quickly. And remarkably, those outbursts very rarely manifest in any sort of violence toward the object of verbal abuse (usually the riot police). Marching (usually accompanied by some music and dancing) appears to be the default method of stress relief.
The media reporting – which, unsurprisingly, tends to be simple and sensationalist – fails to communicate the complexity of the Occupy dynamic for its readers and viewers. Occupy is a social phenomenon that provokes anyone who bothers to pay attention, and often it gives you no choice but to pay attention. But for more than a passing judgment, Occupy must be continually experienced to be truly understood. There are so many possible angles one could analyze it with; no simple explanation or snapshot will do.
Any given occupation – almost 2000 to choose from now – on any given day will have its share of contradictions, imperfections, and failures. Yet, this is how all human beings are each and every day. Like all other groups of people, Occupy will have to continue to grow and find mechanisms for dealing with its failings in order to maintain moral legitimacy. But, despite predictable hang ups, the enduring qualities of the Occupy movement persist in its consistent and tireless attempts to take the desperation and isolation that many of us feel when we consider the state of modern politics and re-direct those emotions into expressions of unity and shared action against the failing sectors of the American experiment.
Occupiers have articulated legitimate concerns about the state of the government. They know full well the way the revolving door works: if you work with the lobbyists as a regulator, legislator, or aide, you will be rewarded with a great paying private sector job. They know that the government and the financial industry colluded to game the system in the largest get-rich-quick scheme ever devised. They know that in addition to the bipartisan bailout, the Federal Reserve lent 7.7 trillion dollars to the banks with little or no interest. They are aware that then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulsen gave advanced notice of the bailouts to select hedge funds while telling the public that failing financial institutions were fine. This week they read about the Congress, which is unwilling to do anything about the ailing economy, propose the ability to indefinitely detain American citizens and hand the power to censor the internet over to media conglomerates for the sake of intellectual property protection. They see the widespread corruption and then look at their lack of housing and healthcare, their student loans, their joblessness, their lack of a future and say: “no thanks, we’d like something better.” They protest in the spirit of the First Amendment; they petition for redress of their grievances, which are legion. The First Amendment doesn’t require that you back a specific piece of legislation in order to be protected, only that your assembly is peaceable.
I’ve now been a legal observer to and supporter of the Occupy movement for about a month. This movement really is not about the police. When there are normal, non-riot police present, protestors hardly take notice. Most of the time, the police hang at the periphery and are accessible for polite conversations. Occupiers largely recognize that police officers are under the same threats of austerity as the rest of us (though departments like the NYPD accepting multi-million dollar donations from major banks raises some questions). The police have only become an issue because of their own exaggerated response to the protests. And despite the fact that they blame the costs of overtime on Occupy, choosing to use force is a clear political choice by the City’s higher ups. There’s no law or principle requiring the use of riot police when people gather (if there were, parades and marathons would be much scarier). Anyone who has actually attended an Occupy protest can attest to the absurdity of preparing for extreme violence. I wish I had a picture of the confused look on my face when the police declared a “state of emergency” and cleared everyone off of the sidewalk before entering the park. Having a police presence is certainly justifiable; no one argues that it isn’t. But no one should view the costly and exaggerated use of force chosen by the City as anywhere near necessary.
I believe that the flailing, incoherent, and embarrassing response of the City stems from its inability and unwillingness to empathize with Occupiers. The Portland Police Department, in (sadly) predictable American fashion, is using force to deal with that which it cannot comprehend. This authoritarian mentality cannot understand that the mindless application of force generally tends to cause unintended consequences; in this case, the movement only grows more determined and gathers more support. “Maybe if we scare it, it will go away” is not going to work.
At some point, the City of Portland is going to have to recognize that there is a formidable international political movement developing and alter its police response accordingly. Even the United Nations is taking notice of the failure of our country’s municipalities to protect the human rights of peaceful protestors. Such action is usually reserved for third world dictatorships and banana republics. Representative governments allow and protect political speech even when it is inconvenient.
While we expend resources picking on the politically disenfranchised, there are real criminals in the world. Some of the worst are wearing nice suits, are very presentable, and are the objects of respect and admiration because they’ve accumulated vast wealth. But, it’s harder to pursue these people because they have lobbyists, private police, lawyers, and by default, members of the government. Even so, it is clear that the Occupy effort has produced some action on this front.
The good people in government now know they have some public support to take action against the complex financial crimes that crippled our economy. Massachusetts has sued five major financial institutions for deceptive loan practices and one federal judge has seriously rebuked the SEC’s secret settlement deals with financial criminals as being against the public interest. Some in the mainstream media have even returned to asking questions about the financial collapse. Last night I saw 60 Minutes presenting evidence of mass fraud at Countrywide and grilling the Justice Department on why banks haven’t been prosecuted. Occupy has inspired courage in the members of existing institutions who are just as aware of our institutional problems. Those who think that this would have happened without Occupy are deluding themselves. Before the first occupation in Zuccotti, everyone had basically accepted that the banks were going to get away with it. At least now there are some indications, small but not insignificant, that the institutions that we trust with overseeing our political process will make some efforts to inform and protect us. We should continue to demand more.
Dealing with the failings that Occupy has articulated will require more than the quick-fix mentality that Americans are used to. This means we have to check our own resolve and decide individually if we are in it for the long run. Not only do we have to communicate with one another about existing problems, we have to change the way we think. We have to rediscover community, loyalty, and solidarity because these are the only tools individual people have against the predatory institutions that plague us. We have to press the boundaries of what is acceptable for a while in order to give ourselves some space to reform and rebuild a working system. It’s not easy to challenge authority, but we have good reason to do it, and it’s about time we took some chances.
The whole world is watching.