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.
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.
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.
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.
Occupy movements around the country seemed to be flailing, even as the overall message started to stick, and the nation's political debate absorbed Occupiers' broader messages.
A Google search for the phrase "income inequality" during 2010 yields 307 hits. Since last September, the search returns 2,810 hits. Pundits handicap the presidential race based on which candidate will best appeal to the 99 percenters championed by the Occupiers.
The lexicon of the protests has entered everyday language. The Atlantic magazine on Feb. 11 ran a story titled "Occupy Kindergarten: The Rich-Poor Divide Starts With Education." The corpulent NBC TV executive Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock, complained in a Feb. 16 episode about being mugged by a white man wearing a button-down shirt and Dockers.
"There's a war going on out there," he says to Tina Fey's Liz Lemon character, "and you're going to have to pick a side."
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) says he sees reverberations of the Occupy movement throughout rural Oregon, from Medford to Manzanita. "They come up after the meetings and say, 'I'm part of Occupy,' or 'I'm part of the 99 percent,'" he says. "It seems like the conversation has changed."
But Occupy Portland was uncertain about what would happen next. Over the holidays, Koch took a train home and stopped along the way to meet with Occupiers in Chicago, Wichita, Kansas City and Tulsa. She saw other groups were also bickering and disorganized and lacked support in their communities.
"I realized why Portland maybe is able to have a vibrant and strong Occupy because we have a history of activism here," she says. "In Oklahoma City, for example, there's not the same culture of social-justice activism."
On Jan. 4, Koch announced Occupy Portland's plans for the F29 protest on her Twitter account. The announcement went unnoticed in the media, as did Occupy Portland's efforts to rebuild.
The local group had several things going for it. The city already had a strong network of full-time organizers and activist groups that had been working with and around each other for years. They brought expertise and acumen into the vacuum left by the closing of the camps.
Occupy Portland started to attract others who had been turned off the by the mess at Lownsdale and Chapman squares but saw something lasting and worthwhile.
For example, Nick Caleb, a geography professor at Concordia University, says Occupy shook him out of what he called "an ivory tower kind of liberalism—do I actually want to hang out with the people on the ground?â
Caleb is among Occupy's new activists, helping with F29 and pushing for reforms from City Hall and the Oregon Legislature. "Maybe I like [Occupy] because it's not so easily pigeonholed," he says.
Occupy Portland also benefited from the media attention that came out of the clash with police at Chapman and Lownsdale squares, and other confrontations with police that followed the eviction. The fact that the N17 protests against the banks had already been planned—another national idea Occupy Portland is credited with—gave the local movement a sense of strength that was lacking elsewhere.
"The antagonisms with police in Oregon, Denver and, of course, Oakland helped unify the movement and reinforce its narrative," Fordham's Gautney tells WW in an email.
Occupy Portland is run loosely by dozens of committees, called "spokes," that propose ideas and later vote on them. But Koch and others, building on the success of the N17 protests, formed a group called the Portland Action Lab, a collection of about 50 activists. It was out of meetings of this group that the idea for F29 emerged.
Occupy movements in more than 60 cities are each planning their own approach to protesting corporations. The minutes from a series of conference calls conducted between various Occupy groups are posted online and show there are plans for the typical marches, speeches and sit-ins—plus street theater, including at least one mock funeral march.
Past Occupy actions have been vague, generic assaults on corporations and wealth.
Perhaps the most strategic move Occupy Portland leaders made was the decision to focus F29 at a very specific target: companies that support the American Legislative Exchange Council.
According to its website, ALEC is ostensibly an association of state legislators to promote "limited government, free markets, federalism, and individual liberty." ALEC, for example, is credited with being a major force behind anti-union legislation in Wisconsin last year and Arizona's controversial anti-immigration laws passed in 2010.
In April, the Center for Media and Democracy and The Nation magazine teamed up to report on 800 leaked "model bills" that they said exposed ALEC's agenda to privatize public schools, roll back environmental rules, protect tax breaks for the wealthy, and enact a host of other corporate priorities.
The primary targets of the F29 protests appear to be corporations that have a seat on ALEC's "private enterprise" board. Those board members include Kraft Foods, Pfizer, UPS, Altria, State Farm and ExxonMobil.
Occupy leaders won't say which companies they will target locally, but the minutes from conference calls to discuss plans elsewhere show that each Occupy movement will target companies in its own backyard.
According to the minutes from conference calls, protesters in Charlottesville, Va., have been considering an action toward Verizon. Tampa, Fla., was considering targeting Outback Steakhouse or Chili's restaurants over minimum-wage issues. A number of cities, including Harrisburg, Pa., are looking at Wal-Mart. In Madison, Wis., Occupiers were debating whether to go after Alliant Energy or Oscar Mayer.
Koch expects at least 1,000 people to take part in Portland's F29 protest. She says Occupy Portland can judge its success if the protest draws media attention to ALEC. She also hopes F29 will create momentum for more protests at ALEC conferences later this year.
"We're going to try actively to shut them down," she says.
Portland police officials say they are gearing up for F29 protests, which they say could include sit-ins, strikes, blockades, boycotts and banner drops.
"We'll have lots of resources ready to respond to calls of blocked streets, vandalism, trespassing, etc.," Sgt. Pete Simpson, a Portland police spokesman, tells WW in an email. "What we hope for is lawful, peaceful demonstrations that don't require a police response, but history shows that unpermitted events usually don't play out that way."
The question for Occupy Portland isn't so much whether it will continue here but whether it can make any lasting difference in the movement nationwide.
"Of course they're leaders—we're all leaders," Shake Anderson, a spokesman for Occupy Oakland, says of the Portland group. "This is a worldwide movement—I think any city should be a part of it. It's not about who is getting the most media attention."
To date, Occupiers have avoided the path of another upstart group that also rose out of middle-class angst and anger over economic disparity—the Tea Party movement. Its leaders have targeted conservative voters and worked within the existing political system.
But unlike the Tea Party, Occupy has steered clear of backing candidates. "Don't become a part of conventional party politics," says Robert Liebman, a professor of sociology at PSU. "I worry that if Occupy becomes an ally, it will get co-opted."
Koch says her own family members—who usually see things very differently than her— are also engaged by the Occupy movement. They're working class—worried about retirements, mortgages and losing their factory jobs. Oklahoma is a right-to-work state, so Koch says her family members have no union protection.
"Politically, they're conservative, but viscerally they really identify with what Occupy is about," she says. "We have really different ideas about solutions, but on an emotional level, they identify."
Koch says Occupy needs people like her family to do more than cheer it on. Without broader support, and a willingness for people to act on their anger and frustration, Occupy will fail.
"We just have to figure out how to light that fire under regular working-class folks," Koch says. "Our future lies in an ability to create a mass movement instead of becoming a subculture.â