For 39 days, Occupy Portland turned two downtown parks into a revolutionary campout. In one helter-skelter night, the protesters took over the streets. Then came the dawn, the cops, and the eviction of a movement.
The takeover began Oct. 6, 2011, when 10,000 people marched through downtown Portland in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. Occupy Portland expressed sympathy with the East Coast organizers' aims to shed light on economic inequality and corporate greed.
The march stopped in front of City Hall, and a couple of dozen die-hards—mostly students and recent college grads—refused to leave. Mayor Sam Adams allowed the Occupiers to pitch their tents in Chapman Square.
Within days the camp had spread to adjacent Lownsdale Square. Occupiers had blocked Southwest Main Street, at the landmark elk fountain. "We are the 99%," read a sign lining Southwest 3rd Avenue. "The entire world is watching." Another poster showed an extended middle finger and read, "Put a bird on it."
Tension spiraled between the growing presence of the Occupiers and a city running out of patience. An Oct. 13 editorial in The Oregonian prayed for rain that might drive protesters away, intoned about the illegality of the camp, and called on Adams to evict the Occupiers.
Adams at first refused. The city reopened Main Street, but the camp grew until 500 people made the parks their home. Occupiers established a kitchen that fed 1,500 people a day. The camp had its own medical clinic, trash collection, security force, day care center and a library, all nestled under a canopy of plastic tarps hung from the parks' huge elms.
The social services proved the Occupation's undoing. They made the camps a magnet for the homeless and mentally ill. Street kids took over part of the camp.
The Occupy leaders who had begun protesting the top 1 percent of the economy now found themselves caretakers of the bottom 1 percent. Organizers—many of whom went home at night to sleep—argued over how to handle troublemakers. "The homeless are guarding the homeless," one organizer told WW at the time. "It's just not working."
Occupy leaders never articulated a clear protest message, and they expended their energy trying to control the camps as the parks became mud pits that stank of rotting food and sewage.
Adams, who resisted evicting the campers, fought to keep control. Police Chief Mike Reese was mulling a run for mayor (Adams was not seeking re-election), and his Police Bureau media office released constant alerts about how crime was rising in downtown. When someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the World Trade Center on Nov. 8, Adams had little choice but to order the camps cleared by 12:01 am Sunday, Nov. 13.
Occupiers declared they would hold the parks. Protesters wore gas masks and bandannas soaked in vinegar to resist tear gas, and built wooden forts around their tents.
The streets around Chapman and Lownsdale squares transformed into a massive block party Saturday night, Nov. 12. As many as 5,000 people flooded downtown—some out of support, others out of mere curiosity. Occupiers banged drums and scrambled atop the Main Street elk statue to kiss, pose for pictures and play a French horn. "Whose streets?" they chanted. "Our streets!"
The midnight deadline passed. Police in riot gear showed themselves at about 1:30 am and then retreated just before dawn. Occupiers cried and hugged. The crowds went home. And the cops returned two hours later to clear out the parks, now largely abandoned. A few dozen anarchists battled for their tents. WW said at the time the conflict represented "the movement's incoherent defiance." Riot cops arrested more than 50 people, and had fences up around the emptied parks by midafternoon.
The police won praise for their strategy of wearing down the Occupiers, but Reese, who should have seen a political boost, saw his mayoral ambitions implode. Four days after the eviction, the police chief claimed Occupy's demand on police resources had kept officers from responding to a rape in a timely way—a claim the bureau later admitted wasn't true.