Chaos to Checkmate

Mayor Adams and Occupy Portland played a game in city parks. Police Chief Reese won.

Occupy Portland had countless moments of beauty, absurdity and anger. In the end, it was downright ugly.

The 39 days of occupation in Lownsdale and Chapman squares began as an idealistic statement of protesters seeking economic equality and social justice. 

Within days the camp became a tent city for the homeless and mentally ill, dominated at times by trouble-seekers and drug dealers. The protest camp turned two city parks into a putrid smear of mud.

But Occupy Portland also accomplished a great deal. In a way that labor unions, academics and writers could not, the organizers raised this city's awareness of an economic system gone devastatingly wrong. 

The campers also accomplished something they surely never intended: They teed up the mayoral hopes of the city's relatively untested police chief, Mike Reese.

Reese led the often-troubled Police Bureau through a carefully orchestrated effort to reclaim the parks without the violence, tear gas or stun grenades police used against Occupy protesters in other cities.

Through sheer stamina and rope-a-dope tactics, Reese's officers exhausted a raucous Sunday morning crowd of 5,000 in the streets—then strolled into the Occupy Portland camp a few hours later to clear out tents, tarps and other debris.

In the end, the bureau's riot squad efficiently shoved about 100 remaining protesters out of the park and made more than 50 arrests. By 2 pm Sunday, the parks were back in city hands.

Running through the story of Occupy Portland are elements of chance and unpredictability, namely that the political movement appeared just as Reese, who has never run for office before, was privately contemplating a mayoral campaign. On Nov. 11, while preparing his troops for the weekend takeover of the two occupied city parks, Reese filed the paperwork forming a campaign committee.

Reese says his political aspirations didn't influence his approach to Occupy Portland or any other police matter. 

"There was never any intersection between our actions and my considering running for mayor," Reese says. "I'm really good at compartmentalizing my life."

But the endgame for Occupy Portland may be a rare case where political considerations actually improved the outcome of a difficult situation.

WW's on-the-ground reporting, and more than 900 pages of correspondence obtained under the state's public records law, show how Reese and the Police Bureau, over the course of five weeks, took command of the Occupy Portland situation and controlled the public message.

They were able to do so because two key players in the drama gave them the opportunity.

One was the Occupy movement itself. Its political message was overwhelmed by organizers' inability to control the camp.

"The atmosphere changed," says Reid Parham with Occupy Portland. "The squatting detracted from the movement, and people made some awful behavioral decisions that made what was a safe space unwelcome to a lot of people."

The approach of another player, Mayor Sam Adams, who oversees the Police Bureau, helped create the opportunity for Reese.

Adams faced a daunting problem: trying to communicate with a leaderless and increasingly chaotic group of protesters who were unable to formulate any specific demands.

WW asked Adams if, once he allowed Occupy Portland to stay in the parks, he had a plan to deal with the group. His answer: "No."

"Mayors all over the country had the same answer," Adams says. "We all agreed we'd just have to see how it played out."

Adams was reluctant to challenge the group, even when it shut down Southwest Main Street for nearly a week. 

"I was trying to channel what I thought were the collective principles of this city," Adams says.{::PAGEBREAK::}

Occupy Portland grew out of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, a New York protest for economic equality and justice for corporate misdeeds. On Oct. 6, about 10,000 people marched through downtown Portland, ostensibly headed to Pioneer Courthouse Square.

By nightfall, a few dozen had pitched camp in Lownsdale and Chapman squares, two park blocks surrounded largely by commercial towers and government buildings. When police told them to leave to make way for the Portland Marathon, they briefly left Lownsdale and returned later that day.

Adams told WW he was OK with that, and says he attempted from day one to balance the protesters' rights with the need to maintain a safe, orderly city.

Sympathetic Portlanders embraced the novelty of the protest, rushing to donate food, reading material, tents and other comforts. Organized labor—which has cheered the Occupy movement—pitched in. The Amalgamated Transit Union, for instance, which represents TriMet employees, paid for the camp's portable toilets. The Oregon AFL-CIO applied for marching permits from the city on Occupy's behalf.

Adams didn't act right away to reopen Southwest Main Street, which protesters had closed for nearly a week. The closure backed up traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge while the Morrison Bridge remained closed for repairs.

Adams says he wanted to allow the campers plenty of leeway. 

“I felt they needed some time to get settled,” he says. 

Records show the mayor's office received a flood of complaints—along with some supportive comments—about his failure to end the blockade. 

"Get the losers out of our downtown and anywhere else," a citizen named Dick Filbert emailed to Adams on Oct. 10. "Please get off your dead butt and do your job."

Adams says he always intended to reopen the street, which in addition to tens of thousands of cars, serves eight bus lines and 5,000 bikes per day. Just as with the final order to vacate the parks, Adams says, he gave the campers notice he wanted to re-open Main Street. Initially, the Occupiers voted against that idea.

Adams took action, records show, after pressure began to build from one of the city's most powerful constituencies, the Portland Business Alliance. Downtown interests were fed up. That message came from Dave Williams, a NW Natural executive who chairs Downtown Clean and Safe, a PBA affiliate.

"Closing Main Street is not only frustrating for those who work downtown," Williams wrote Adams on Oct. 12, "but it also creates an impediment to those who wish to patronize our downtown businesses and enjoy our downtown entertainment and recreational amenities."

The next day, the police reopened Main Street and arrested eight Occupiers. Adams continued to support the protesters.

"We're not moving against the camps," Adams told reporters the next day. "The focus of this occupation is pointing to some very legitimate concerns about growing inequality in this nation."

The mayor's office struggled, records show, to strike a balance in his political message. Consider this email exchange between Adams' office and The Oregonian.

Anne Saker, a reporter assigned to the Occupy Portland beat, wrote in an Oct. 25 story that the camp existed only by the graces of the city's decision not to enforce the law.

"While camping in city parks is illegal," Saker wrote, "Portland's government, which is in sympathy with the protest, has permitted Occupy Portland to stay put."

Saker's statement was accurate. But in an email to Saker dated the next day, Adams spokeswoman Amy Ruiz asked that the newspaper clarify what the mayor believed was a mistake in her story.{::PAGEBREAK::}

"It is inaccurate to say that Portland's government has 'permitted' Occupy Portland to stay put," Ruiz wrote. "Rather, as the mayor has said, the city is currently not enforcing some of the park rules at Lownsdale and Chapman squares."

Adams says city lawyers worried that the word "permitted" implied the city was giving an official stamp of approval to the camp, and thus assuming liability for them.

On Oct. 20, Adams took off on a nine-day trip to Asia without a plan in place, even as his office took reports about increasingly serious problems in the camp.

Adams says he considered canceling the trip but eight local companies expected his help introducing them to potential Asian customers. He says his physical absence was irrelevant.

"Thanks to modern technology I was able to be very much in communication with my team and everyone involved," he says.

Meanwhile, Occupy leaders were pleading for help.

"The bevy of services has made the camps a magnet for the homeless, who now outnumber the original protesters," WW reporter Aaron Mesh wrote Oct. 26 about his experiences living at the Occupation. "The Occupy leaders find themselves dealing with some of the same social ills they have been protesting against."

On Oct. 30, a splinter group of Occupiers made a critical miscalculation. They tried to expand their footprint by taking the Pearl District's Jamison Square. City Commissioner Randy Leonard, like Adams, had expressed  solidarity with Occupy Portland. But the movement's threat to move into the city's toniest urban neighborhood was too much.

"I am now left wondering if the planned march to and occupation of Jamison Square in Northwest Portland is an attempt to provoke a confrontation with the entire City Council," Leonard wrote in an email to an Occupy supporter. "I also have some advice for you: Know who your friends are."

Police arrested 27 people in Jamison Square. Two nights later, federal officials arrested 10 protesters who had chained themselves to a barrier at Terry Schrunk Plaza, a federally owned park next to Chapman Square. 

By that time, news reports had shifted their focus to crime in the camp. {::PAGEBREAK::}

As the Occupation devolved, Mike Reese had something else on his mind: a potential campaign for mayor in 2012. He had discussed the idea with allies long before Occupy Portland surfaced.

Reese's talks, however, leaked just as the drumbeat of negative news about the Occupiers was intensifying. On Nov. 1, WW reported that Reese was considering a mayoral run.

Reese at the time declined to talk about his political plans, saying only that he would decide "in a couple of weeks" whether to run. He now says he remained laser-focused on Occupy Portland.

"I don't weigh the political consequences of any situation when I'm doing my job," he says.

Speculation in the media about his personal ambitions faded, however, as his bureau took control of the Occupy Portland narrative.

That transition had started two weeks earlier, when Adams first winged off to Asia. The day after Adams left town, the Police Bureau released statistics showing crime had spiked around the Occupy camp. The information that police released provided no context about whether crime shifted from elsewhere in the city. 

The press release started a steady flow of bad-news announcements from the bureau about the camp, including the growing cost of police overtime and the litany of crimes, large and small, committed in and around Lownsdale and Chapman squares. 

"There was no larger strategy behind those communications—just transparency and efficiency," Adams spokeswoman Ruiz wrote in an email to WW. "At a certain point, [the police press relations] team was deluged with media requests for those details [about crime], and a daily roundup became the most efficient way to communicate it."

After the revelation of Reese's personal political ambitions Nov. 1, police officials continued to portray the Occupy camp as a growing threat to officers' safety.

"The bad behavior was escalating and eventually reached a critical mass," Reese says.

On Nov. 2, police spokesman Sgt. Peter Simpson sent every Portland Police Bureau employee a nerve-wracking document: a six-day-old unclassified "officer safety" memo from the Arizona Counterterrorism Information Center. The memo said that a letter titled "When Should You Shoot a Cop?" had been found at an Occupy Phoenix event.

Nobody claimed such literature had surfaced at Occupy Portland, or been found on anyone in Lownsdale or Chapman squares. 

Some Occupiers, however, fueled such concerns. During a Nov. 2 evening march, a man police identified as David Anthony Burgess allegedly shoved a police sergeant into the path of a TriMet bus. 

Emails regarding the Nov. 2 march show tension between the mayor's office and Reese's team about how to characterize the city's relationship with the Occupiers.

Police spokesman Simpson told KPTV: "We are concerned with the tone at [last night's] march…. It's not about the original Occupy movement anymore." Simpson added that he "did not know if the mayor's office had any input on yesterday’s protest.” 

Adams spokeswoman Ruiz emailed Simpson that the remark seemed to imply Adams was at best not paying attention. Simpson in an email stood by the accuracy of the quote. Ruiz went on to request a clarification from KPTV, which updated its story by removing Simpson's quote about Adams' office and inserting a statement supplied by Ruiz.

Adams says although he did not attend the march, he was in touch electronically throughout the evening. Reese says he and Adams never disagreed on the approach to the protesters.

"The mayor and I were on the same page throughout," he says.

The day after the officer was shoved in front of a bus, Reese ordered all sworn officers carry crowd-control gear and quickly released the memo to the news media. Adams, reacting to the injured officer, put distance between himself and the protesters for the first time. "Violence like this will not be tolerated," he said in a Nov. 3 news release.

Other commissioners exerted pressure on the Occupiers. Commissioner Nick Fish told the Parks Bureau to turn off water to the parks' restrooms and cease trash removal. The Bureau of Development Services, run by Commissioner Dan Saltzman, cited code violations in the Occupiers' camp.

Then, on Nov. 8, someone tossed a Molotov cocktail at the World Trade Center downtown. Police quickly linked the thrower to the Occupy camp. That was too much.

"Time's up, Occupy Portland," The Oregonian said in an editorial the next day. The paper criticized Adams, who "has styled himself as a sympathizer and B.F.F. of the Occupy Portland protest, which is not just regrettable. It's wrong."

A day later, Adams—flanked by Reese and Fish—issued the deadline to clear the camp by midnight Saturday.

Ruiz, Adams spokeswoman, says city officials expected the final face-off could have dragged into Monday or Tuesday evening.

In the end, Reese's troops moved in much earlier, making the would-be candidate the hero of the day for many Portlanders whose sympathy for the Occupiers had waned.

"It could have gone the other way," Reese says. "It might have required tear gas and been really negative. But that's my job and I didn't consider the political consequences."

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