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The Battles of Occupy Portland

For those who were there, November 13th will be a day long remembered in Portland, Oregon. Occupy Portland again proved why it remains the 2nd strongest Occupy movement in the U.S. when it mobilized against police eviction. Instead of the Occupiers being evicted it was the police who were sent home demoralized.

The following morning, however, the police again moved in to evict the mostly-emptied camp, and again thousands of protesters arrived to protest. As this article is being written there remain thousands of protesters in downtown Portland trying to decide their next occupation spot with hundreds of riot police nearby. Although the original occupied park is now surrounded by a fence and hundreds of riot police, the movement has been strengthened exponentially after the stunning victory the previous night and energetic re-mobilization the following morning which grew throughout the day.
The Mayor, police, and the local 1% had set the stage to justify police violence while scaring the public away from the downtown occupation spot before the eviction; radio stations warned listeners to “stay away from downtown,” businesses closed their doors early for “fear of violence,” the media shamefully reported stories without sources about people from “out of town” coming to Portland with violent intent. The ultra-peaceful protest that ensued made a mockery of these lies from Portland’s 1%.

The eviction order was to begin at midnight, but there were 7,000 plus people already assembled to prevent it. The police tried to wait the protesters out. Hours later the Mayor got impatient and made mistake number two. The riot police were sent in to provoke a riot; mounted police and foot soldiers slammed themselves into the very peaceful crowd, to no avail. They were swarmed by thousands of people unafraid, and the police retreated. The crowd roared with ecstasy.

There were other scare tactics employed; loud speakers announced the use of “chemical agents” to clear the streets, but the police had already lost their nerve. The jubilant protesters stayed in the streets until the sun rose, just to make sure the police didn’t try any more tricks (though the tricks came hours later).

The now-humiliated Portland Mayor had given the occupy camp a 48-hour eviction notice on November 11th, having been pressured by the Portland Business Association and now-humbled Police Chief into action.

The reason the Mayor hadn’t acted before is that he is much more politically astute than the police chief and understood the power of the Occupy Movement. In Portland there have been three very large demonstrations that had immense popular support. But the usually savvy Mayor miscalculated and attempted to strike prematurely. Now he has provoked a strong reaction, pumping new energy into the movement.

Why did the Mayor finally decide to act? Aside from pressure from his corporate and police buddies, he watched the development of the Occupy Movement closely and waited for public support to wane. The Mayor saw the Occupy demonstrations dwindle in size, due in large part to the fracturing of the Occupy demonstrations into the pre-Occupy dynamic of issue-based activism that has long infected the left.

For example, several marches were held every week, each organized around a different issue: there was an anti-coal march; anti-police brutality march; diversity march; anti-pipeline march, etc. There were also several cases of small groups or individuals practicing civil disobedience.

The Mayor’s confidence bloomed in direct proportion to the shrinking sizes of the marches and actions.

The Mayor’s confidence was warranted, and so were the fears of the Occupiers, many of whom had already packed their tents and left. The kitchen, library, media center, and everything else of value were plucked from the camp in anticipation of the eviction, (this aided the police the following morning when the camp was finally evicted). The Occupy leaders seemed aware that they had lost touch with Portland’s working class.

In fact, the Occupiers did not even issue a strong “call to action” in defense of the camp, nor was the pre-eviction day of events organized in a way that would mobilize massive numbers. There was a noon rally, 2pm march, 5pm rally, 7pm festival — none of which were well attended.

After the community festival drew only a couple hundred people, most activists — including myself — thought the camp was lost. At the last hour, seemingly out of nowhere, thousands of people came streaming into the streets. They came not because the organizers of Occupy Portland had reached out to them effectively in the preceding weeks, but because they understood the basic issues that the movement represented, that of working people versus the wealthy and corporations.

Occupy Portland has been given a reprieve by working people, but it must learn from the above mistakes. “We are the 99%” is a powerful uniting slogan, but the various issue-based activism of years past directly contradict the uniting principles of the larger Occupy Movement. Most of the issue-based activists have not yet realized their ideas are not those that the 99% view as most important. The attempt at trying to re-assert their organizing around a hundred separate left issues, most of which working people know very little about, has fallen flat.

The Occupy Movement will be crushed if the demands being fought for do not connect with working people. A key characteristic of any powerful social movement is the appearance of successive, large demonstrations that draw in new layers of working people, students, and the elderly. The average working person feels impelled to join such a movement because they see their own interests reflected in the movement, and once they join they learn that their interests are the same as those of the others involved.

Massive demonstrations also inspire people because they instinctively know that in huge numbers their power is multiplied, making the demands winnable. Consistently large demonstrations are only possible when they are organized around a few demands that are of most concern to all working people.

There remain only a few issues that have the potential to galvanize the larger working class into the streets and to keep them there. They are the issues that Democrats and Republicans refuse to embrace, but are issues that nevertheless represent a major social crisis affecting hundreds of millions of the 99%. The Occupy Movement must make these issues their cause: a massive jobs program and no cuts to social programs — including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, all to be paid for by massively taxing the rich and corporations. In fact, the only visible signs at the recent Portland demonstration called for Jobs and Taxing the Rich.

The Occupy Movement will not withstand another period of demonstrations based on a laundry list of issues that do not, at this time, resonate with the vast majority of the 99%. This will only result in the pre-Occupy, leftist based politics of splintered interests, with each group pursuing its own predetermined agenda without a vision of a mass movement of the great majority. Occupy Portland was saved by a massive outpouring of people and needs to keep the majority of working people in mind at every step of the movement from now on.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org)

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Shamus Cooke is a member of the Portland branch of Democratic Socialists of America. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

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