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.