The air is hot and humid in the Portland Building's dimly lit second-floor auditorium. A mix of flannel-clad twentysomethings, long-haired retirees and fussy neighborhood-watch types have filled the space, spilling into the aisles where some sit cross-legged on the floor with messenger bags in their laps.
They're here to learn more about Occupy Portland: How it started, what it means and, perhaps most important, where it's going. It has been about 48 hours since the last vestiges of the encampments in the parks across the street were torn down, with cops and city workers carting off wet nylon by the truckload and encircling the dead leaves with barbed-wire-topped fencing.
Tonight's program is a 90-minute "teach-in" presented by the Dill Pickle Club—a city club for the iPhone generation—and it features teachers, Occupiers and press. Veronica Dujon, a fortysomething Portland State University sociology professor with a tight brown turtleneck and lilting Caribbean accent, is the most engaging of the group.
Veronica Dujon speaks at the 99% teach-in
"People are responding in the way they know how to," she tells an enraptured crowd. "It happens in Argentina, it happens in Bolivia, it happens in Brazil...and every time it happens, those who would prefer the status quo or those who do not understand the movement are quick to try and contain it."
After the presenters wrap up, a handful of audience members dart to a lonely microphone for the obligatory Q&A session. What happens, mostly, is bloviating—some of it passionate, some of it painfully disjointed.
"I go to a health club where I had a screaming argument with [City Commissioner] Nick Fish once," says Jeremy, a stocky middle-aged agitator in stiff brown Carhartts pants who rambles on without asking a question. "Well, he didn't yell back, he just walked away."
Suddenly, a well-curated teach-in becomes a microcosm for the same criticisms Occupy detractors love to point out: The movement's tent is too big, its fringe is too readily embraced. And now it has been evicted. In cities where Occupy is now less a physical presence than a collection of big ideas, some wonder where to look for the seeds of revolution that seemed to be sprouting two months ago. In Portland, it's not hard to find stories about regular people working to solve some of the problems that Occupy Portland spotlighted. Here are four of them.
Burgerville's one-story headquarters in downtown Vancouver, Wash., looks like any other office building, save for the comically large knife and fork that serve as its front-door handles. Just through those doors, across from the desk of a bubbly receptionist, is an open office door belonging to Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey.
Harvey's close-cut hair, rosy cheeks and wide frame make him as unassuming and folksy as one of Burgerville's restaurants. But like Burgerville itself, Harvey's looks are deceiving. His admission that he's basically vegetarian—you've got to eat the odd hamburger to be the boss—is a bit more surprising.
For 50 years, the family-run company has been inextricably linked to local farms and ranches. After all, its parent company, the Holland, started as a dairy. It wasn't until the '80s that then-boss Tom Mears gave the company an official mission: Serve With Love.
The phrase can seem trite to those outside the company, but when Harvey came to Burgerville eight years ago, he realized how seriously the business took its mantra, which he's helped expand on. To that end, Burgerville—which has 38 locations in Oregon and Washington—offers its employees $15-a-month healthcare plans and plays local music in its restaurants.
But perhaps most impressive is Burgerville's commitment to staying both green and local. The company has invested heavily in sustainability over the past decade, buying 100 percent of its energy from wind power, converting its cooking oil to biodiesel for its fleet of trucks, and investing in an elaborate in-restaurant composting program. (Burgerville's packaging is almost all compostable, though Harvey looks pained while addressing straws and salad-dressing packets.) The company's ingredients come almost exclusively from the Northwest, from hormone-free beef to cage-free hens: Even the dried cranberries it uses on its salads are from the Willamette Valley.
Burgerville CEO Jeff Harvey talks sustainability in this company-produced 2010 video
While there are financial benefits to being green—composting efforts, for example, save around $200,000 a year by reducing packaging and garbage-hauling fees—mostly it doesn't pencil out well. Burgerville is different because the yardsticks by which it measures success are different. The key to getting businesses to look beyond the basics has been "getting a business case that looked at all the potentials for benefit, as opposed to 'did it sell more burgers today?'" Harvey says. "That narrow look will never justify these sustainable approaches."
Burgerville, which is privately held but has reported annual revenues of more than $60 million, has looked at the idea of offering shares to the public, but ultimately backed out because it wanted to retain control of the direction of the brand.
Harvey uses the same sort of business vernacular to explain that he sympathizes with Occupy protesters. "The level of dissatisfaction is high across the board," he says. "That means wholesale change of social structures. I don't think we've got a model for that. I've long believed that business probably has a whole lot more to contribute to social solutions than government ever could. [But] how do you get businesses to talk about that with a conscience to the community and not the almighty dollar? I think the time is just about here."
Two things generally happen when musicians throw house parties: Someone plays the piano and at least one new group is drunkenly born. When Sam Coomes got to talking with Neal Morgan, Lisa Schonberg and Rachel Blumberg at a party at a local music producer's house shortly after the initial Occupy Portland march, a supergroup was hatched. "We were all standing around being like, 'Marching is cool, but it's a symbolic thing and not a substantive thing,'" says Coomes, 47, a local music veteran with three-day stubble and wild streaks of white hair. "We just started talking about ideas and it snowballed."
The assembly of notable Portland indie rockers—Coomes fronts Quasi, Morgan plays drums for Joanna Newsom and Bill Callahan, Blumberg has drummed for the Decemberists and M. Ward, and Schonberg plays with STLS and Kickball—will probably never take the stage together, but they did manage to build a website. That site, moveyourmoneyportland.com, has thus far gathered more than 150 digital pledges from bands, venues and individual members of the music community who have pledged to put their money in local banks or credit unions. The site doesn't give advice on which local banks or credit unions people should consider—but group members agree that removing funds from national banks is a good place to start.
The widely circulated 2009 video made by Move Your Money advocates
Inspired by the international Move Your Money movement—launched by the Huffington Post in 2009 and based in part by lessons from the film It's a Wonderful Life—these local musicians-turned-activists say it's not just about the pledges. By attaching their names and faces to money moving, the group hopes to develop a grassroots model that can spread.
"Obviously there are people doing this exact same thing all around the world," says Morgan. "This is not a new idea, but we thought maybe this is a replicable model. The musicians do it in Portland, cool. Maybe the visual artists do it in Portland. Maybe the poets do it in Portland...I'm going to put some of the larger businesses in Portland on notice. We'll come knocking after this. Businesses that brand and advertise themselves as being community-focused and local, I'm going to ask them where they bank."
Morgan may not have to do much persuading. Portland's Mississippi Studios, which put its name on the Move Your Money website, switched from Bank of America in 2008.
"I would never go back in a million years," says Mississippi Studios founder Jim Brunberg. "Albina Bank doesn't have any of the hidden fees, and they call me if I'm stupid and about to bounce a check. As a small-business protector, they have made it possible for Mississippi Studios to weather the recession."
The Thermals' Hutch Harris switched from Chase to Advantis Credit Union after Morgan contacted him, and his band is in the process of evaluating its local options. "It was something I just didn't know very much about," Harris says. "For the band, you want to make sure you can deposit money on the road, and that's where Chase was good. But I guess a lot of credit unions are linked together."
Bands aren't the only entities evaluating where their money is kept. Taking a cue from the Occupy movement and similar legislation in Seattle, the City of Portland is considering a reassessment of its banking strategies. Occupy protesters should take credit (no pun intended) for the increased focus on banking politics, as well.
"You need the demonstration to bring the attention and build the energy," Morgan says. "But you need things like this that are concrete. That's what [Occupy] did for me: It made me do the research."
The first thing you notice about Right 2 Dream Too—especially if you spent any time at Occupy Portland's encampment—is just how tidy the place is. About 80 people stay here each night, in a half-block camp on the northeast corner of Northwest 4th Avenue and Burnside Street that spent its summer as an empty gravel parking lot. Now it's basically a high-functioning commune run by those without housing. Tents of all shapes and sizes sit in neat rows on wooden pallets. Perhaps unexpectedly, a camp that is self-monitored by Portland's homeless is far safer and cleaner than the political protest that famously attracted homeless campers.
When Ibrahim Mubarak, who described himself over the phone as "the Muslim," appears on the street in front of Dream Too—where security plays pop songs from a cheap FM radio—his vague description makes more sense. The 55-year-old's eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, and his face is partially covered by a white headscarf that falls over a knit kufi skull cap. Over his shirt he wears a flowing, hand-stitched gray shawl. He offers a handshake and a warm smile that reveals a chipped silver front tooth.
Mubarak and the other volunteers who keep this place running don't refer to the lot as a camp—Portland has strict, controversial anti-camping laws—but rather a "rest area" available for overnight stays. Right 2 Dream Too's guests adhere to a strict anti-drug and -alcohol policy while also contributing to the upkeep of the camp. Quiet time starts at 10 pm. These are decisions made to keep the space operating smoothly and to minimize criticism from local businesses and the City of Portland. Nevertheless, it would be hard to argue that Dream Too is legal under city law.
It's also hard to argue that Dream Too isn't sorely needed. The Portland Housing Bureau counted 2,727 homeless living on the streets or in emergency shelters in January, with another 1,928 in transitional housing. Most were individual adults, but couples and families are a significant share.
This place started with a joke. When embattled Old Town property owner Michael Wright told The Portland Tribune in June that he'd donate this lot to local nonprofit Dignity Village (a permanent Northeast Portland campsite that Mubarak co-founded), it came across as an empty threat; a middle finger to city officials who had fined him for hosting food carts on his property. But Mubarak saw the quote as an opportunity. So he called Wright.
There are a number of important differences between Dream Too and the area's church-sponsored shelters. For one, campers can stay with their significant others or spouses. They are also allowed to bring pets. "Tenants," as Mubarak prefers to call them, say it's also more stringent. Fernando, 44, an ex-construction worker with leg injuries who stays at Dream Too with his girlfriend, says it was perfect for him.
"It's very strict; it's stricter than shelters," he says. "But by the same token, you're a lot safer in the sense of your belongings and yourself. I think this is the best thing they could have done with this space."
When the camp started coming together in early October, the community was quick to help: Tents and blankets came by way of donation. The ReBuilding Center on Mississippi Avenue donated dozens of doors, which provide privacy from busy Burnside Street. As they set up for the camp's Oct. 10 opening, the project's founders knew they ran the risk of being shut down quickly. Then, on Oct. 6, Occupy Portland happened. "We kinda went under the radar,â Mubarak says.
Though some surrounding businesses complained to the city about Dream Too, the Occupy double standard paralyzed the city from taking action: If Portland was going to allow Occupy Portland protesters to camp in Lownsdale and Chapman squares-—public property—how could it throw out a quieter, more organized encampment on private property? Dream Too's founders say they've never had to call the police for help. When they found a single beer can in the portable toilet in October, organizers kicked everyone out of the camp temporarily.
None of Dream Too's organizers see the camp as a long-term solution to homelessness in Portland. Rather, it's a visible reminder that the needs of the homeless are not being met. And for Mubarak, it's proving another point: "This shows that we can govern ourselves, we can be self-sufficient," he says. "Not only that we can do it, but we want to."
We're on a light-blue bus named "Cool," which is being driven by an old hippie named Joe, who wears a sailor's cap like the one favored by Oregon's most famous revolutionary, Ken Kesey. Cool is taking 30 adults—among them a British graduate student, an ex-Evergreen State College professor, a twentysomething graphic designer and an adorable Japanese grandmother who speaks very little English—to look at trash. Yes, everyone here has paid $25 to take a school-style field trip to see giant heaps of stinking trash.
The bus makes its way down a muddy gravel road to a composting center, Nature's Needs, which is in the midst of a makeover so it can house its piles of yard debris and zoo shit alongside rotting food from Portland's new residential composting program. The tour guide explains the subtle differences in pH levels between food waste and leafy waste when a white-haired woman from the tour raises her hand.
"This has got to be the dumbest question ever, but...what's so unique about dog poop that it can't go near the food scraps?" she asks.
Thomas chuckles at the question, but he can't seem to answer it. Will Elder, a smartly dressed business waste reduction planner at Metro, saves our guide from discomfort. "If you think about our human waste, it goes through a whole treatment process," Elder says.
A handful of side conversations about feces ("keep in mind that herbivore poop is very different from omnivore poop and carnivore poop," one person insists) break out among the crowd, but the white-haired woman's curiosity hasn't been sated.
"So what do I do with my dog poop?" she asks again.
Believe it or not, this is civic engagement, brought to you by the Dill Pickle Club.
The Dill Pickle Club's 2011 introductory video
Marc Moscato, 35, might not have pictured elaborate conversations about poop when the then-unemployed University of Oregon graduate co-founded the organization ("with zero capital," he notes) in 2009. Still, Moscato—a slim, shy Portlander with Elvis Costello-style glasses—insists that asking dumb questions has always been part of the plan. "We're just as interested in these things as our members are," Moscato says. "I think, as humans, we should never stop learning."
The Dill Pickle Club's stated mission is "broadening knowledge of Portland's past, present and future," and it tackles that mission by hosting lectures, organizing workshops and printing educational magazines and comic books. The Club hosts two or three events a month—recent tours included "How Does the River Work?â and âHow is Justice Served?â
"People desire to connect with the place that we call home," says club organizer Amanda Miller. "And they desire to connect with people who have that same passion. We put that all together. And when you connect people, you build a stronger city."
Nick Blackbourn, a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate from the U.K. living in Portland, is one of those people. "I think it's important to understand how we're able to live where we live," he says. "Especially in today's world, where we forget what government does. It seems like a good time to see what's happening behind the scenes."
The Dill Pickle Club's long-term plans include a storefront, more involvement in the public schools, and a smart-phone app that provides users with virtual tour guides for various Portland locales. All of the projects aim to give Portlanders a better sense of place. "The city doesn't have one history," Moscato says. "That's what makes any community great, is that there are many different stories and many different ways in which to see something."
For Moscato, the Occupy protests represent living, breathing history in the making.
"It has been amazing to watch the last few months unfold," he says. "It has made me think critically about the work we do here. Honestly, it has been very inspiring to see so many people talking about these issues of inequality. I know there are big questions about direction and focus, but I am really curious to see what direction it takes."
So, too, were the people gathering at the Club's Occupy teach-in. No one knows yet, of course, but groups like the Dill Pickle Club and Move Your Money Portland, along with people like Jeff Harvey and Ibrahim Mubarak, are quietly helping chart the course.