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October 26th, 2011 12:01 am AARON MESH | Cover Story

Notes From the Occupation

48 hours inside Occupy Portland.

FIRST THE DISHES, THEN THE REVOLUTION: Occupy Portland’s Kitchen volunteers say they need fresh vegetables, especially onions. PHOTO: Lana MacNaughton

From the outside, the Occupy Portland encampment is a confusion of tarps strung with crisscrossing yellow cords tied to Chapman and Lownsdale’s giant elms. Passersby also see signs—a nearly unbroken wall of signs—condemning Wall Street, “Banksters” and the 1 percent, the tiny sliver of Americans who control 40 percent of the nation’s wealth.

“We are the 99%,” says one. “Veterans are the 99%,” says another. “Hip hop is the 99%.” On the back of a Hollywood Video closeout-sale placard someone has written, “Smile! The entire world is watching.” (The “o” in world is a peace sign.) Another has a drawing of an extended middle finger: “Put a bird on it.”

Inside, the camps have a thicket of tents and a remarkable array of services. In Beta Camp, families with children have pitched their tents around Kids’ Camp, a tarped enclave that smells like talcum powder and is filled with boxes of crayons, stacks of DUPLO blocks, piles of dolls and a flag featuring Che Guevara.

At least six kids live full time in the tents surrounding Kids’ Camp. PHOTO: Lana MacNaughton

“Honestly, I’ve never had a moment when I’ve doubted bringing my son here,” says Kate Sherman, who’s dressing her 16-month-old son, Tupac, in a fuzzy green onesie.

Alpha Camp has a 24-hour cafe with a plastic canteen of coffee. “Sorry! We are out of mugs,” says a sign. KBOO community radio broadcasts from a makeshift studio under a blue tarp, complete with an ON THE AIR light. They’re giving away sweaters and socks in the next booth. Other tents are named Relax, Octopi Portland, Beer Mecha. Across the sidewalk is Information, with tables covered with handbills. Next door is Safety/Peacekeeping.

Nearby, there’s a noteboard marked “Missed (Romantic) Connections” where people have left yellow Post-its: “I love when you tickle me until I can’t breathe.” “I was the sexy guy with the ‘Free Therapy’ sign.” “Damon I am here! Love Mom.”

Another board urges responsibility. “No Means No,” says a poster. “I’m Not Sure Means No,” “You’re Not My Type Means No,” and “Let’s Just Go to Sleep Means No.”

It’s 10 paces from the part of Alpha Camp that feels like a utopian commune to the south side, known as “A” Camp, which has become a hangout for street kids. 

Anarchists and crusty punks control “A” Camp. A kid stores a white Bic lighter in his stretched left ear-piercing hole. One man in a frayed sweater steps in front of strangers and says, “You want to see my testicles?”—and then holds a rubber scrotum in their faces. 

Pit bulls are on leashes; two white huskies drink out of a Benson bubbler. A black-and-white pet rat scurries down the overalls of a woman in braids until only his tail shows. “I’m sorry,” she says, “he’s very antisocial.” 

A kitten named Marley Killface perches on the shoulder of a man with a studded leather jacket. The kitten is wearing his own tiny leather jacket decorated with metal clothespins. 

The Safety/Peacekeeping Committee has enlisted many of the street kids to help keep an eye out for trouble. “The homeless people are guarding the homeless people,” says Michael Withey, a clean-cut man in his 40s who volunteers on the Finance Committee. “And it’s just not working.”

While Occupy Portland is a grassroots democracy, a clear authority structure has emerged within the camp. Its operations are run by more than a dozen committees: Finance, Legal, Outreach, Chaplains, Sanitation. A new one forms whenever someone can amass support and volunteers for it.

Members of some of the more influential committees wear armbands to identify their roles. Information has black lettering, and Safety/Peacekeeping has blue.

Not everyone is getting along. Withey has organized a meeting between Occupy Portland leaders and city parks officials. Another committee leader tells him he doesn’t recognize Withey’s authority to schedule the meeting. 

“Whatever,” Withey says. “If nobody wants to show up, don’t show up.”

NO KITTEN, NO CRY:  Anarchists, like the owner of Marley Killface, have joined the camps’ safety team. PHOTO: Lana MacNaughton
After two weeks in camp, Withey’s grievances have reached a point where he declares aloud what other committee members will confirm during my stay.

“More than half of the Occupiers here are homeless people,” he says. “Quite honestly, a lot of them don’t know what the movement is.”

An “A” Camp resident named Tyler, with blond hair neatly combed and breath that smells of alcohol, complains that the city shut off an electric-car-charging station along Southwest 4th Avenue. Occupiers had run extension cords from it to charge cell phones. 

“You know why they’re not shutting us down?” Tyler says of City Hall. “Because they like us to live like this. ‘Y’all are peasants.’ They’re doing free hugs in here, because there’s a lot of people who haven’t even had a hug for a long goddamn time.”

About an hour later, Tyler is in the group of “A” Camp residents helping Safety/Peacekeeping when DJ Nick shows up. DJ Nick threatens to spit blood on Tyler.

“You’re lucky I don’t get a hammer and cave your head in,” Tyler shouts.

It’s 6 pm, and the most impressive operation of Occupy Portland is now under way: dinner.

The 20 Kitchen Committee volunteers serve at least 1,500 people every day. They’ve transformed the centerpiece of Lownsdale Park—a 1993 bronze statue of a pioneer family called The Promised Land—into a mess hall covered by massive blue and white tarps.

The statue’s marble base supports racks of ginger, oregano, Parmesan cheese, sea salt, barbecue sauce, mustard and maple syrup. A sign nearby says, “First the Dishes, then the Revolution.”

During my stay, I will eat bowls of red beans and rice, and cream of mushroom soup, a tangy tomato and cucumber salad, and a plate of flavorless, sticky glop made of potatoes. There’s also a pony keg of kombucha.

The kitchen crew has limited electricity and no refrigerator. They cook with whatever is donated each day—much of it from factory farms. Many Occupiers worry they’re not being sustainable.

“Prepackaged meat pasta in cans?” says Chris Klitch, an unemployed 27-year-old chef and Kitchen volunteer. “That’s not helpful. That’s not food, even.”

Klitch looks resignedly over at the serving line, which has run out of forks.

“You better not be putting out plasticware,” he mutters.

Video by Ruth Brown

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