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September 12th, 2001 PHILIP DAWDY | News Stories
 

Splintered Dignity

Last week's showdown reveals that there's a good reason they didn't call it Unity Village.

     
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Dignity Village co-founder John Paul Cupp has refused to pitch his tent at the new city-sanctioned site.

Anyone looking for a cohesive community under the Fremont Bridge on Sept. 5 would have found nothing but tatters and resignation among the befuddled homeless residents of Dignity Village. And, a week later, it appears that the experiment-cum-political statement is still trying to recover.

The stage for last Wednesday's drama was set in late August, when city officials ordered the remaining 25 campers off of the state-owned parcel of land they had called home since the spring.

The week before the city vs. villagers showdown, three-fourths of the dignitarians voted to accept the city's offer and move to a site known as Sunderland Yard on city-owned land in Northeast Portland. Then on Sept. 3, after heavy lobbying by the village's self-styled revolutionaries, the camp reversed its vote. It told the city that Sunderland--a fenced site on blacktop abutting a prison--just wouldn't do.

That's what created all the made-for-television-news drama. Would the villagers leave peacefully or would cops in riot gear need to show them the exit? With more than 100 observers watching and the cameras rolling, it was clear that cooler heads had won the day.

Largely lost in the "no violence" story lines, however, was how close matters came to taking an ugly turn--and how difficult it will be to get things back on track.

Just hours before the cameras showed up on Sept. 5, village leaders such as Ibrahim Mubarak and John Paul Cupp were urging colleagues to protest by lying down in their tents and forcing the police to drag them out.

When it became obvious that many villagers would opt for Sunderland, the usually ebullient Mubarak withdrew to the fringes of the camp in sullen solitude. Cupp, meanwhile, snatched the bullhorn. A fixture on the Portland protest scene, he had a message for those breaking ranks. "If they try to lock you in that concentration camp, I'll come with a machine gun and get you out of that place," Cupp said. "Keep the struggle alive."

Soon after, the village broke into three factions: those moving to Sunderland; those relocating to an undisclosed ranch near Forest Grove; and those, Cupp among them, who continue to challenge the city's camping ban by freelance camping at a site off the Naito Parkway next to The International School in Southwest Portland.

As a result, it's hard to tell who's carrying the torch lit last December by the group of homeless campers who wanted to prove that there could be an alternative to the city's crowded, rule-bound shelters.

Mubarak, who's been the camp spokesman for several months, has emerged as its de facto leader and is trying to stitch the village together again at its new site.

But another key figure has departed, at least temporarily.

The day before Dignity's D-Day, a longtime villager, Frank O'Neill, moved out to Sunderland. O'Neill had been spending most of his time out at a plot of donated farmland near Vancouver, Wash., where food for the village is grown. But a few weeks ago he came into the city and initially camped at the Fremont Bridge site; then, as events heated up there, he headed to the city's proposed site and pitched a tent with "A deal's a deal" scrawled on its side, a clear message to his brothers and sisters.

Everyone at City Hall, from Mayor Vera Katz on down, credits O'Neill with turning the tide from a showdown with the cops to a begrudging Diaspora. Indeed, some are propping O'Neill as a hero.

But that didn't sit well with at least one of the Dignity crowd. On Thursday, Sept. 6, O'Neill got into a confrontation with an unidentified man and, for reasons that are unclear, ended up punching him before heading back to Vancouver. (O'Neill did not return calls left by WW.)

Whether O'Neill was protecting himself or making a point, he violated camp policy. Violence, along with drugs and drink, are major no-no's at the village and can result in expulsion, though Mubarak says a "probation" over the incident is also possible.

Mubarak is also trying to negotiate with the 11 people still at Rancho Dignity in Forest Grove. He's given them until Saturday to move to the Sunderland site or forfeit their spots in the 60-person-capacity village.

All of that would be challenging enough for an experienced organization, let alone a loose affiliation of people with a host of needs. But now the dignitarians have an added burden: They have to live up to the city's expectation that their village will help the homeless out of homelessness. And they must do it while engaging in a bit of goodwill hunting if they are to get the city's cooperation in finding another site and convince city officials that they will stick to their deals.

The clock is now ticking on the Sunderland site; villagers must vacate by Nov. 1. It's clear that no one on the city's side--the side with all the power--plans to repeat the chaos of the last two weeks if the group proves unable to pull itself together.


Over the weekend, supporters and campers gathered at the new Dignity Village site at Sunderland Yard to set up decking and a dome with materials donated by Mark Lakeman's City Repair Project.




You can follow the latest Dignity Village updates on the website www.outofthedoorways.org .
 
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