At about 6:25 Sunday morning, dozens of Portland police officers clad in riot gear quietly folded their tents and went home. It was supposed to be the campers and protesters of the Occupy Portland movement who have inhabited Chapman and Lownsdale Squares since Oct. 6 who surrendered to the police bureau's show of force but things did not turn out the way many in the gathered throng expected.
Last Thursday, Mayor Sam Adams issued an ultimatum to the Occupiers, telling them to clear the parks by one minute after midnight Sunday morning. That order did produce results—thousands of Portlanders gathered at the appointed hour on Southwest Third Ave. between Salmon and Madison Streets.
There was juggling, cow-bells and lots of drumming. Police arrested one man after he threw an object that injured a mounted officer but other than a couple of minor skirmishes, the crowd chanted peaceful slogans and stared down the line of riot-gear clad officers who stood at Southwest Third and Madison.
Expectations mounted as the night wore on and at about 6 am, dozens more officers joined the scrum and one of them used a megaphone to order the streets cleared so traffic could get through. That order had the effect of sending people spilling into Chapman Square, which seemed at odds with the city's desire to clear the camps. Protesters told a reporter they doubted they could hold onto their turf if police moved in.
But just as it seemed the police would cross Third Avenue and enter Chapman Square, a group of about 40 bicyclists who'd been circling the squares all night to help keep the peace headed east on Madison, putting them face-to-face with the officers.
"Who's blocking traffic now?" the cyclists and many of the crowd chanted.After a few moments of tension, the police began to give way and they quickly cleared out of the cyclists' path, retreating to the adjacent Justice Center, which holds the Central Precinct. The protesters roared their approval, banged their drums and rang their cowbells.
Police Chief Mike Reese, clad in a yellow police bicycle jacket rather than riot gear, spoke to reporters minutes after his officers dispersed.
Although it appeared the protesters had won and had made a mockery of the city's ultimatum, Reese denied the night was a debacle.
"I'm not disappointed," Reese says. "We are working toward a peaceful resolution and we are going to be patient until we get one." He noted many Occupiers had moved out of the squares prior to the deadline and expressed confidence more would do so. He said he has "no timetable" to return the parks to normal.
Reid Parham, a spokesman for Occupy Portland, said the night was a clear victory for the Occupy movement, which he emphasized is focused on income inequality and social justice, not causing trouble.
"There was a lot of huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf," Parham says. "But in the end, the police were nothing but words."
In remarks to reporters afterwards, Adams echoed Reese's calm. "Everyone is going to have to be patient," Adams said. "I'm prioritizing peaceful over everything else." In the meantime, the mayor said, "the parks are open until we close them and it will be very obvious when we close them to the public."
So there are two possibilities: either the mayor's eviction notice generated so many more rubber-neckers than expected that the huge crowd caused the police to back off; or, Adams and Reese see a path to reclaiming the parks without the bad publicity a pitched battle would bring.
Reese would not comment on what that plan might be. "We won't discuss our tactics," he told WW.