At the time of this writing, it’s been almost a year (Oct. 6, 2011) since Occupy Portland first made itself known in a huge, peaceful protest. By police estimates, about 10,000 people marched through downtown, calling for social justice. (That’s about 1 in 60 residents of Portland; pretty good turnout for a Thursday afternoon.) Later that day, hundreds set up an encampment in two public squares across from City Hall. Time to reflect on what it was like, the night the tents came crashing down, five weeks later.
Back when I was naive about the ways of America, that is, last November, I believed that Portland police officers were (with some horrible exceptions of trigger-happy men with racial bias) basically kind to citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. I believed that the Portland mayor served to make the city a safer and more livable place. I swallowed these myths for a long time, because there’d been nothing in my own experience to stomp on these beliefs so hard that they exploded like tear gas canisters.
Last November, the myths exploded for me when the City gave Occupy Portland a deadline to leave its downtown public park. When the Occupiers peacefully declined the order, the City beat up the Occupiers.
Almost since the movement’s beginnings in September, my husband and I had occasionally visited Occupy Portland to deliver food and blankets, or to play guitar and sing in the Sacred Space, a large plot of land in the park carved out for prayer. My husband and I had appeared together on local TV and radio to support the Occupy movement. We sided with the 999/1000 who are tired of the usual: homelessness, joblessness, hunger. I was pretty sure that some good change was going to come, with so many dispossessed people petitioning their government together, calling for its government to care about its citizens’ basic, some might say inalienable, rights: a home with food and freedom, a way to live without despair.
Something shook me right after that night in November. My husband and I had decided to go downtown to stand with the crowd. We walked around and took photos. It was easy to take photos that night. New, powerful spotlights had been set up on high poles, so that the whole place looked like a stage where a scene was about to take place. Suspicion, anger and fear boiled just below the surface. For me, those emotions seemed to come from the part of the police, who stood in small clumps, observing, not from those who were being ordered to leave. The Occupiers were holding quick refresher workshops on nonviolent opposition. They seemed upbeat and positively loving. Yes, despite what rumors the media spread, the overarching feeling in that park was one of awe-inspiring love.
The deadline passed at midnight without incident, and it seemed the police had gone to bed. Indeed, my husband and I were by that time back home, asleep, two miles away. A few hours after the deadline passed, the mayor gave a park dispersal order to Portland police. Some of these officers had for the past month been part of a combined effort to keep the park peaceful. Some, including mounted police, had gotten to know the Occupiers by name, some letting them pet their horses. But now the police came back in force, hundreds of them in new riot gear, in the middle of the night, overturning tents and trying to dismantle the peace.
Soon after, I saw on YouTube videos what had happened overnight. It wasn’t pretty, it certainly wasn’t quiet, but it was beautiful. I heard the Occupiers shouting at the police to side with them, to drop their guns and work for peace. I saw the police advance against the Occupiers, who stood in place, moving like an amoeba, shifting slightly but staying connected. At one point, a few mounted police charged their horses into the crowd. A charging police horse at point-blank range, you’d think, would create fear and crowd panic.
Nobody in the amoeba-ranks seemed to move more than a few inches. The horses slipped through the small cracks in the crowd. They entered a few feet, then stopped and shifted around. Not sure what to do, surrounded so closely on all sides by quietly standing humans, the horses seemed deeply uncomfortable about stepping on people. They seemed to say to their riders, “What are you doing! You want me to hurt these people who have been petting my nose for the past month? No. I don’t think so.”
The Portland police famously backed away from a serious confrontation that night. For a few hours it seemed that peace really had won out. But see for yourself on YouTube what happened in the next 24 hours in Occupy Portland. Be sure to watch all the way up through the dragging and beating of the young man in charge of sign language interpretation, the one who had told the police the night before that he loved each of them, the one who was hospitalized and in a wheelchair from his injuries.
I don’t know who ordered the police to stop being nice to the Occupiers and to suddenly hurt them intentionally. I don’t think most of the police wanted to, really. It seems many of the Portland police didn’t have the stomach to beat up young people they had come to know by name, so they were given reinforcements from elsewhere. I don’t say it was entirely the mayor’s fault, either. The order was given from much higher up. You can tell, because Occupy-bashing happened all over the country for the next month, quick-quick, one after the other, as if some head honcho had hurled a bowling ball filled with tear gas and batons, and the cities’ Occupiers went down like pins. It’s American-myth-exploding to watch the story unfold.
But for me, this part with the police horses in Portland was the most painful and beautiful to watch: the horses gliding a few feet into the sea of Occupiers, the mounted officers kicking the horses’ sides, urging the horses to charge further, the horses making their own stand with the people, telling the authorities, “No. I’m not going to fight.”