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February 29th, 2012 HANNAH HOFFMAN | Cover Story
 

Occupy Central

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

BANKING ON PROTEST: Kari Koch was arrested during the N17 protests during a sit-in at Wells Fargo Bank in the Standard Insurance Center at Southwest 5th Avenue and Salmon Street. Koch later pleaded guilty to trespassing—a violation—and performed eight hours of community service.
IMAGE: vivianjohnson.com

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?” 

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.

TALK IT OUT: Nick Caleb, a Concordia University professor, says he got involved with Occupy Portland after the camps closed. “There’s a strong community-rights angle to it,” he says.
IMAGE: Mike Grippi

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.” 

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