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February 29th, 2012 12:01 am HANNAH HOFFMAN | Cover Story

Occupy Central

The Portland movement is instigating the next global protest against corporate power.

lede_occupy_3817ILLUSTRATION: Kevin Mercer
Occupy Las Vegas is on the line. 

On Feb. 29, its members will join a national day of protest against corporations, and Occupy Las Vegas leaders are reporting in: They’re going to target the offices of NV Energy, one of that city’s biggest companies. 

Occupy Louisville is on the conference call, too. It’s going after KFC. Occupy leaders from other cities—Dayton, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Erie—chime in with their plans.

In a friend’s Northeast Portland house, Kari Koch of Occupy Portland listens in. She monitors a computer screen and can see how many Occupy groups have joined the discussion.

And she can see the protest that’s been named F29—hatched, publicized and coordinated by Occupy Portland—is going to be big (you can follow our liveblog of the protests here).

“People are looking to us,” Koch says. “It definitely seems like Occupy Portland is playing a leading role in figuring out what the movement will look like.”

She should know. Koch, 31, has helped Occupy Portland, routed from its downtown park camps more than three months ago, emerge as a leader in the national Occupy movement.

F29 Shut Down the Corporations, scheduled for the day this issue of WW hits the street, has spread to more than 60 Occupy movements around the country, as well as Mexico City, Sydney and London. 

Shane Patrick, a spokesman for Occupy Wall Street, the movement’s original faction, says it’s often difficult to tell where ideas within the disparate Occupy movement come from—but that’s not the case with F29. 

“It was a pretty clear-cut thing,” Patrick says. “Portland put out the call.”

Plans for F29—plus the local response after being evicted from Lownsdale and Chapman squares Nov. 13—has turned national attention to Occupy Portland.

“Obviously the Occupy in New York City was a clear protagonist in the beginning, but the resilience of the Occupy in Portland played a big role,” says Heather Gautney, a sociology professor at Fordham University in New York who has been watching the movement.

How Occupy Portland has moved further into national leadership—and how the F29 turns out—could determine whether the growing rage over income inequality, corporate power and the corruption of the political system will evolve from a string of protests into a true political movement.

MOVED INDOORS: Churches have become the primary gathering place for Occupy Portland. This Feb. 24 meeting at the First Unitarian Church of Portland was held to discuss social-media strategies.
IMAGE: Mike Grippi

The Occupy Portland activists gathered in the chilly basement of the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Southeast Portland have momentarily forgotten how to vote.

The question before them during this Feb. 16 meeting is whether they should support a local protest called “Clown the Police”: Occupiers would dress as clowns and play pranks on police officers, such as squirting them with trick flowers.

Koch, who’s leading the weekly meeting of Occupy Portland’s “spokescouncil,” goes over voting rules for the fourth time that night. 

The group is required to discuss anything that people at the meeting believe violates their personal values. Occupiers still vote using “up twinkles”—wiggling their fingers in the air—if they are in favor, and “down twinkles” if they are not. The motion whether to take part in “Clown the Police” needs 90 percent approval to pass. 

“I swear to God, it could take 30 seconds if we all try hard,” Koch says.

FULL-TIME ACTIVIST: Kari Koch emerged as a public face for Occupy Portland during the Occupy the Ports protests in December.
IMAGE: Mike Grippi

But the debate drags on for a half hour, with some people concerned the protest might actually create sympathy for the cops.

The spokescouncil eventually votes down the idea. 

During the Lownsdale and Chapman encampments, Occupy’s obsession with granular democracy often left the protesters mired in debate and open for ridicule.

Already during this meeting, the food committee chair has earnestly announced the need to find Tupperware lost during a recent Salem event. And Occupiers debate the meaning of “modified consensus” in a form for so long you could almost hear the document itself sigh.

“The process is critical to the functions of Occupy Portland,” Koch says. “It tends to be chaotic at times and the process grounds us.”

Occupiers eschew the idea there is any one group of true leaders, but in fact there is a tight-knit group behind the scenes of Occupy Portland that has started to transform its operations. 

And Koch—who has become something of a public face for Occupy Portland—is an example of how skilled political organizers and activists have stepped in to bring focus out of the chaos that followed the shuttering of the camps.

Koch began as an unlikely radical. “I’m apparently an extremist,” she says. “I was a right-wing nut job, and now I’m a leftist.”

She was born and raised in Ponca City, Okla., where a ConocoPhillips oil refinery sits on the horizon. Beyond it, oil derricks dot the countryside. Her father did manual labor. Her mother was a nurse. 

She grew up conservative, even libertarian, believing government had little role in people’s lives. But at Baker University, a United Methodist school near Lawrence, Kan., she was influenced by a political science professor who challenged her conservative views by forcing her to see racial inequality in America.

When his message finally broke through, she says, “It crushed me.”

She threw herself into progressive groups on campus. In 2002, after graduation, she moved to Portland to work for the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group at Portland State University. 

Now, Koch says, she’s unemployed after working in town for union-backed groups opposed to free-trade agreements, most recently with the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, a mostly volunteer nonprofit that works on social and climate issues in Central America.

THIS IS TWITTER: Ciara Doyle explains how to use social media to further Occupy’s cause. Social media has played a key role in organizing major protests such as F29.
IMAGE: Mike Grippi

Koch says she was thrilled by news of Occupy Wall Street. The New York movement started Sept. 17 with more than 100 people camping out in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan to protest federal bailouts for banks. A few days later, she joined 400 people under the west end of the Burnside Bridge to talk about forming Occupy Portland.

She knew quite a few of the people there, many as fellow activists from around the city. “I walked away having some faith that Occupy might have some meaning here,” she says.

During the Occupy Portland encampment at Chapman and Lownsdale squares, Koch ran meetings of various committees—from safety to food—that tried to keep the camps running, and she helped lead the nightly meetings, called general assembly.

Like many Occupy leaders, Koch spent few nights sleeping in the camps, which became overrun with street kids and often turned violent. 

“There were definitely times I was really frustrated,” she says, referencing the violence that happened in the squares. “What I ended up doing was to check myself. Camp was simply a microcosm of all the hard things people face every day.”

Koch was there at midnight Nov. 13, Mayor Sam Adams’ deadline to evacuate the camps. She was inspired by the sight of thousands of people filling the streets to protect the camps from police and defy Adams’ order—a sign, she says, the Occupy message truly reached people.

“Eviction night was one of the greatest nights of my life,” she says.

But the party died down and, like thousands of others, she went home to sleep. Police rolled in the next morning and cleared the camps.

At first, Occupy Portland seemed to have momentum after the closing of the camps. 

Koch and others had already planned N17, when several hundred protesters tried to shut down Chase and Wells Fargo banks Nov. 17—followed by several more days of protests and clashes with Portland police riot squads. (The Oregonian’s now-famous photo of a cop nailing an Occupy protestor in the face with pepper spray came during the N17 protest.)

In December, Occupy Portland again took center stage in the national news during the Occupy the Ports protests. The idea had started in Oakland, Calif., but got more attention in the Pacific Northwest, where the International Longshore and Warehouse Union had been at odds with port officials in Longview, Wash. Occupy Portland succeeded in shutting down two Port of Portland terminals. Koch was interviewed on Fox and Keith Olbermann’s Countdown.

Then things got quiet, and Occupy Portland seemed to disappear.

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