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Before I rode my bike downtown to the kickoff march for Occupy Portland I scoured my office for a press pass. Although I’ve worked for several large media conglomerates ( I think they’re separate but may have merged into VerizonDisneyFrance) I’ve never remembered to ask for one. Three years at AOL News and it didn’t occur to me. What about my press badge from Comedy Central? It’s four years old and expired but I thought it might work like Doctor Who’s psychic paper. If only I could locate it.

The only thing I could find was a laminated badge from the 2009 Oregon Country Fair. Inside its swirling psychedelic border is my photo and the name “Hunter.” In light of all the suggestions from my lawyer friends  about this march, like “don’t take weed,” “don’t make eye contact with the cops,” and “don’t take weed,” I nixed that one.

It was important for me to attend the protest march as a journalist, or at least an observer. Not that I really have a problem with being arrested in the general sense, but our lame duck mayor was suggesting people stay home and the Portland Police is notoriously, um, colorful in the “accidentally shooting people” way. OccupyPortland didn’t get the proper demonstration permits beforehand and also: I had a thing later that night that I didn’t want to miss.

Not that I was entirely unprepared for arrest. As a canny protester I had sharpied the phone number of a local attorney named Bear on the back of my hand just in case. Yeah, his name is Bear. Shut up. In college I knew a kid named Stargazer, who was the son of the guy who provided acid to the Grateful Dead. Stargazer became a veterinarian, but sadly, not mine. In my world only the dealers have proper names.

If I appeared as a journalist at Occupy Portland, or at least an embedded protestor I could attempt to witness the  event objectively. Not from a political standpoint, because I’m with most of these folks 1000 percent of the way. Or at least 99% of the way. But philosophically I’m ambivalent about protests.

In a personal sense I like them. Exercising my right of free speech and freedom of assembly are important to me. A march is like voting, but with exercise! The day before the Iraq War started I was part of the Portland protest that shut the city down and cut off freeway access. It was a great democratic cluster fuck! I knew the next day that the bombs would still drop over Baghdad but it was important to put my body on record and say that this was wrong, that no weapons of mass destruction would be found and we would be in this for a very long time.

Protests are part of our democracy and my eyes fill with small-d democratic tears when I see a multiracial, multi-age group of people chanting together, a grandmother with a “Legalize It” poster and a toddler with a sign that reads “Corporate Personhood Subjugates the Constitution.” I’m not kidding. They start chanting, I start weeping. So much for objectivity.

But I’m not sure that there’s a point in Occupy Portland. Even if the cops don’t beat the piss out of the occupiers and make them vacate their camp, if it becomes a wintery Northwest version of Tahrir Square, will it accomplish anything?

Then I become annoyed that I’ve become conditioned to ask that question.Nobody questioned the efficacy of protests when the Tea Party was doing it. But now centrists and the media are asking “what’s the point of these protests?” Don’t you remember that the Tea Party practically had Obama over a barrel over health care a few summers ago? Why is it that only left-of-center  protests deserve scrutiny?

When conservatives say “we should build a wall at the Mexican border,” the media accepts this at face value, even though large sectors of our economy, such as tourism and agriculture, are totally dependent on this work force, or if America could curtail its thirst for Mexican drugs (buy local, people) and we stopped allowing gun show operators to arm Mexican cartels, we wouldn’t have a need for a wall.

And when liberal protestors say, “we want our government to regulate derivatives and tax hedge funds at a higher rate,” the media hears, “after we put LSD in the water supply we will teach mandatory knitting in schools which everyone knows is code for lesbianism and we’ll replace our kids lunch box Thermoses with big black dildoes.”

So I went to see it all for myself. What were these people demanding? Were they just the kids from Reed College on a study break?

There were people from all walks of life. It was not all dirty hippies. Okay, there were some dirty hippies, people in dreads on double decker bicycles in circus costumes, but these are people who own homes and walk their kids to school in my neighborhood. There were the young marching along with the elderly and people of every ethnic background. Guys in hard hats stickered with their local union number.

There was one well-dressed white man with a Ron Paul sticker on his bullhorn but he looked a little uncomfortable. Perhaps his libertarian friends sent him there on a dare.

As we marched around downtown the protest put a gum in afternoon traffic but many of the drivers trapped in their cars got out to cheer, as did some of the strippers working at Mary’s Club (All Nude Revue), showing off their long legs for democracy. Chants included “This is what Democracy looks like,” “We are the 99%,” and “Good Jobs for a Good Wage.” Nobody appeared to plot to overthrow the government. Yes there were the oh so stylish Guy Fawkes masks but they were outnumbered by grandmothers holding toddlers, faces in full view.

Most of the signs were what we’ve been seeing all along from Occupy Wall Street. Things like “Tax the 1%,” “End Corporate Personhood.”

This is Oregon, and under the bongwater gray skies there were plenty of “Legalize it” posters. And there were a few disappointed teenage Blazers fans holding “End the Lockout,” signs. Even basketball players are union men! My personal favorite sign: Krugman’s Army. Unlike certain Tea Party events, everything was spelled in the traditional manner.

A few days ago I was in a coffee shop debating issues around Occupy Portland with the owner and another customer, because apparently I live in eighteenth century France. We talked about the possible impact, and another friend of ours had just left for New York to take part in Occupy Wall Street. Half kidding I said that I’d believe it would only make a difference when the rural poor started to occupy the parking lots of Walmart.

This is why I was excited to see one skittish Ron Paul fan. Until protests make it to rural and conservative Congressional districts, movements like Occupy Portland won’t create change. Portland’s a relatively small city and the state’s Congressional delegation is 6/7ths Democratic and largely progressive.

What’s at stake here needs to be solved by both legislative and judicial processes. Legislative, because among the demands of the 99% are higher taxes for the 1%. This isn’t going to happen with the current House of Representatives and we can only hope that ongoing protests could trigger a political sea change, like the Tea Party election in 2010, might swing the House back to the left in 2012. Also it would help if any of the elected Democrats had backbones but now I’m just spewing like a schizophrenic gorilla.

The second aspect of the Occupy Wall Street movement is judicial, because there are people at Goldman, AIG and other financial institutions who belong in jail and there’s enough evidence to send them there. If protests around the country go long enough, some young New York DA with the prosecutorial zeal of a pre-hooker Eliot Spitzer will start moving against these financial criminals.

I’m still ambivalent about the larger impact. I’m not too cynical to believe that the movement will bring results. The Portland protest was about solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a fist bump from 3000 miles away. While I was updating Twitter at the protest I noticed a status message from a friend at the Occupy Boston site. I responded, “You’re at Occupy Boston, I’m at Occupy Portland – on the count of 3 turn west and wave!”

We are the ninety-nine percent.

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G. XAVIER ROBILLARD is a comedy writer, performer and novelist. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Comedy Central and on NPR. Robillard is the author of the comic novel Captain Freedom: A Superhero's Quest for Truth, Justice and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves (Harper Collins), and producer/writer/performer of the comedy album G is for Gangsta. You may entertain yourself with more of him at All Day Coffee and on Twitter.

18 responses to “Embedded Protester at Occupy Portland”

  1. Gloria says:

    A sharpied name and number on your hand, huh? Can I assume you read the Open Letter to Occupy Portland from a Public Defender in The Mercury, then? I didn’t go because, while I support the gist of it, I didn’t want to be around the people who tend to populate these rallies who make the rest of us look like asshats. The media ALWAYS gets a hold of the dumbasses. It sounds, though, like everyone has been basically even-keel out there. Go get ’em, Portland! I’ll be eating my soup and not being arrested.

    I was a part of the huge anti-Iraq War protest, too. And some weird dude followed us around video taping us. It was off-putting. Like you, I’m philosophically ambivalent about protests, too. In theory, I love them. In practice, they make me nervous. If I didn’t have kids… But I do.

  2. Quenby Moone says:

    “the prosecutorial zeal of a pre-hooker Eliot Spitzer will start moving against these financial criminals.”

    Seriously, Greg, where is the pre-hooker Spitzer? Surely someone in the ranks is hungry enough to become the populist hero of our decade? SURELY!

    Great piece, though you spewed like a schizo gorilla. (You didn’t really, but I like the words so I wanted to write them again.)

  3. Art Edwards says:

    I leave town and miss everything.

    Thanks for representing.

    Art

  4. Lance says:

    “because apparently I live in eighteenth century France.”

    yes, we do, don’t we.

    visited the camp today. Great bunch of people hanging on. Curiously, ran into three friends I haven’t seen in years.

    Had a charming radical queer poet compliment me on my “uniform”…though all black and combat boots is business as usual for me.

    The Arcadian nature of what protests bring to Stumptown still marvels me… feels a bit like we’re but 1% of the 99.

    But hey, Walmart parking lots are RV friendly.

  5. n says:

    They have no clue what they’re protesting about. Ask ten of them and you’ll get ten different – potentially conflicting – answers. Also, like almost every protest, it’s a meaningless waste of energy that accomplishes nothing. Singing songs and holding clever signs isn’t a revolution and doesn’t strike fear into one damn person. It just makes a bunch of do-nothings feel like they’re rebels putting the gears of the future into motion, when they’re not.

    • Ruth says:

      It isn’t the job of the protesters to be consistent, to come to any conclusions, or to have any plans about solving the problems that they see. It’s their job to draw attention to the problem, and I hope they don’t stop doing it. As a 65 year old veteran of the civil rights movement, I can attest that its beginnings were chaotic too. Margaret Mead was right when she said it, right then, and right today: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

  6. Great article. *Great* writing. I’m jealous. And I’m laughing.

    I did want to make one point, however. I have called the Occupy (fill in the name of your city here) gatherings protests as well. But the Facebook Occupy Wall Street page posted this on Tuesday: “Attend your local occupation. Be bold, Be Creative. This is not a protest movement. This is a movement of Liberation, Occupation, and resistance.” I think the idea is for this to be an ongoing process until change does happen. Protests, I think, connote an uprising against one issue that is to be resolved in one way or another in some near future – with a vote, the end of an event (WTO), or some particular event or situation.

    The Occupy Movement is something more than this. I am hopeful that the difference will keep the momentum going and will eventually cause the legislative and judicial change which you wisely observe must happen. The idea is that we’re in it for the long haul for major changes in our economy, society, and culture. (I have seen some additional articles and postings about the need to broaden the dialogue and bring awareness to the historical occupation and colonization of First Nations into the conversation as well.)

    Though I think you’re onto something about the poor parking at the Walmart.

  7. Should anyone be interested, a friend passed on a guide to citizen reporting for Occupy Wall St.

  8. Sweet, sweet strippers. Now there’s a paean to the founding principles of democracy that’s easy on the eye!

    Is it as true as the internet is saying, that the mainstream media basically invalidated and ignored the protests up until the point that they were just too big to do so?

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