The Downside of Spontaneity When the Police Plan to Act Up

photo by Paul

by Adam Rothstein

On the night of Saturday, April 21, a group of Occupy Portland activists briefly “re-occupied” Chapman Square, spurred by a Facebook post sent that very evening. The media, the city, and the Police have, as usual, engaged in their own misguided interpretation of events, attempting to spin it as a trash-talking, beer-drinking public safety problem. And while the spontaneity of this event is a hallmark of the same joyful optimism that brought all of us to that very same park six months ago on October 6, 2011, I have learned a thing or two since then–both as an Occupier and a journalist–that gives me pause.

I have seen pepper sprayings, and I have seen beatings. I have seen perhaps the most peaceful member of this occupation put in a wheelchair at the hands of the Portland Police Bureau. I have seen the city, the Police, and the media pile lie on top of lie, in an effort to excuse their own violence and malfeasance. I have seen citizens thrown in jail for having the audacity to exercise their civil rights. I have seen the force of a nepotistic justice system pointed at the heads of school teachers, union workers, students, and houseless people, in order to guarantee Christmas shopping. And I have seen this continue, protest after protest, march after march, week after week, and month after month, as this powerful antagonism reinforces itself, unabated.

Six months ago, I heard a great majority of Occupiers reaching out to the Portland Police. “They are the 99% too!” was the common refrain. We were clear that we were fighting for all workers and all city employees, just as we were fighting for those working for private companies and for those without jobs. There was courtesy and civility between the Police and Occupiers, and between the city and Occupiers. But this brief utopia was not to last.

It is difficult to say where the majority of Occupiers’ distrust of the Police and city truly began. Was it when the Police Union sniped at us in the media? Or was it when the commanding officers refused to allow their subordinates to arrest dangerous lawbreakers in the park, when Occupiers repeatedly asked them to? Was it when Mayor Adams refused to discuss the closure of the parks with the Occupy liaison team? Or was it when Chief Reese falsely accused Occupy Portland of delaying the investigation of a rape? For different people, there were no doubt different events that tipped the scale. At one point or another, we remembered that the Police might be workers, but first and foremost they are a squad of armed bouncers, acting upon the orders of the ruling elite. And the orders of this elite are to reinforce that power against any threat, by any means.

For myself, I was skeptical from the beginning. I have seen what armed forces do to nonviolent activists, once it becomes clear that those activists might just have an effect. Time and again I have seen intimidation, beatings, false prosecutions, and media smears used to discredit and break the spirit of activists. Those who wield weapons to defend the systems of control use these persecutory tools well. But in October, I was willing to wait. Perhaps this would be the sea change that everyone said it would be. Perhaps we would have a “Velvet Revolution”, when the powers would order their armed forces to stand down, and the better aims of society would win the day.

photo by Bennlat

Those powers did not order their armed bouncers to stand down. They gave them free reign to release their clubs, to discharge their chemical weapons. They sent lawyers against us. They sent the media against us. They lied, hit, sprayed, and they imprisoned. And even as Occupy Portland maintained its radical non-violence, the city and the police portrayed us as dangerous criminals, deserving of far worse than we received.

If only being ethically correct was enough to win the day. If only the purity of our non-violent conviction was enough to repair nerve damage. If only our popular appeal to the morality of the populace was enough to counter the perpetual inertia that corporations and their police forces have instilled in America. If only, with the correctness of our actions in our hearts, their sticks and stones would break no bones.

These are things that I have seen with my own eyes, as I attempt to document this movement, and to tell its unique stories. I try to be a conduit, to let the voices from the streets speak through me. There is joy in the streets, and pain as well. There is happiness, and there is ever-present, crushing sadness. These are tropes, but the voices are unique. There are people out there who are trying to tell their own stories, in the only way they know how.

I don’t want to hear those voices speak in vain. A large number of people with Occupy Portland continue to march almost every week, because “we have to do something.” I agree, we have to do something. But when “something” becomes the “same thing”, and when that same thing ends in brutality from forces who are all too willing to dish it out, something isn’t working.

We must do a better job, and we must do so immediately. Too many nights we have waited on the steps of the Justice Center for our friends and colleagues to be released from jail. Too many times we have stood immobilized in the dark, as our fellow activists are tackled to the curb and brutalized. Too many times we have reviewed our video footage to find that there is no visual record, and once again, with our freedom at stake, it will be the words of the Police against ours. Our activism must advance past the beauty of spontaneity and achieve the intelligence of defensiveness. We must not only be stubborn–we must also be smart.

In the past several months, we’ve seen the benefit of a non-violent, defensive posture on our own streets. We’ve seen how refusing to be the victims of an unrestrained army can win the day. We stand strong, with defensive equipment, in the bright light of day, with cameras rolling. By doing so, we are not at the mercy of their weapons and their lies, and we show the world who we truly are.

I love all Occupiers, and support them in everything that they do. I believe a diversity of tactics spreads both ways, toward both radicalized protest and more mainstream efforts. But as a media activist, I am tired of telling the sad stories. I don’t want to see more Occupiers on trial for standing on a sidewalk. I don’t want to see more Occupiers injured because the Police cannot be held accountable. We are not easily going to change the way that the Police and the City operate. We can only change our own actions. Because of what the Police and the City have done–and continue to do–it is time for us to protest smarter.

  4 comments for “The Downside of Spontaneity When the Police Plan to Act Up

  1. Grovesan
    April 24, 2012 at 9:38 AM

    I started up Livestream on Saturday the moment that I saw OP was going to Chapman Park, read the Notice of Intent and watched from start to finish (being the seemingly final disbanding shortly before 1am). Your article is well-written but in regards to Saturday’s events, it seems to be lopsided, inasfar as what was streamed.

    First, let me say that I am a supporter of the Occupy movement, 100%. Spontaneity will be a key element to keeping the protests and occupation alive. However.. there must be some back-end training on the part of Occupy Portland. Tactical training will be a crucial piece in success and continuance of the movement. Not only training on how to interact with LE (which Remi did superbly, by the way) but training on how to rein in ‘participants’ (and I use that word very loosely) who see it as an opportunity to be aggressive with the police without provocation and without the general consensus of the group that is the path that should be taken. I’ll hazard a guess that these individuals were under the influence, at least it seemed that way.

    There were a handful of individuals on Saturday who seemed to be under the influence and irrationally aggressive without goal other than to be argumentative and verbally confrontational – as if to dare the LE to react to the profanity with violence. LE did resist any reaction – they were, aside from one rude officer who had some sort of strange passive-aggressive exchange with the camera guy, silent but for the spokes-police guy.

    My point is this – stay strong and continue the battle. There are many of us ready to join up again, as we did in the fall/winter. But let there be some training and unbiased reporting on the events. In a nutshell, on Saturday, the LE was not menacing or aggressive and neither were the real Occupiers.

    Solidarity! !

  2. Anne
    April 24, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    Very timely post. I hope it brings about more unified, planned, intelligent direct action as opportunities arise to occupy peoples minds with so many important messages. And minds are the most important places we need to reach, I believe. Including the minds of the police who get sent to Occupy events. One can not engage and empower folks for change unless you engage their minds and hearts.

    I have supported OPDX from the beginning. Although unable to camp, I brought food, marched all but the first march(I was out of town) and mostly bore witness so that I could spend hours on-line in my sphere of influence, counteracting the mainstream media coverage with all my family & friends.

    I was half way out the door the night of the 21st. I’m sad to say that your opening paragraph about spin by media, law enforcement and the city about trash talking and public intoxicationis what exactly what was being broadcast by opdx’s own livestream. As well as , numerous incidents of a few trying to incite the police all being recorded and broadcast by opdx own media. Not very intelligent management of resources for sure.

    When there is an organized event and a few engage in that behaviour, it is much easier for me to dialogue with occupy detractors and skeptics that that is only a fringe that does not represent the goals and spirit of occupy.
    When per opdx own media, that is most of what is caught during hours of filming, an opportunity to reach the hearts and minds of watchers from all walks of life (including law enforcement, city policy makers) has been missed and instead an overly generous amount of fodder for discrediting occupy has been provided.

    The second night was a bit of an improvement. But as with the first night, even veteran occupiers, make comments, hold conversations on film that are not the most intelligent use of resources such as live stream. We are all on a learning curve. We are fortunate to have the legacies and many examples of activists who have gone before us in how to act with intentionality, integrity as well as passion and purpose. I am hopeful that as May Day and other important opportunities for action come up this spring & summer, that the messages will be be heard above whatever frailties and human errors we each bring to the movement.

    • Chris
      April 24, 2012 at 3:35 PM

      Anne, you and many others characterize Occupy’s as having an image problem – saying that Occupy shows the public the wrong things, or that it gives its enemies the means to discredit Occupy.

      But how can that be, when what Occupy shows the public is the unedited truth? How can Occupy be aiding its enemies by providing them with the means to discredit Occupy, when those enemies have shown that they are perfectly willing to simply lie about Occupy to accomplish their propaganda goals?

      When dozens or even hundreds of sober, peaceful political protesters can show up to an event and you worry that some jackass or provocateur makes Occupy look bad by getting drunk and yelling at police or breaking something, that’s a perception problem – not an image problem. When people hang out in a park for an evening to talk about Occupy and out of all the people there you decide that the most obnoxious ones represent the group, that’s a perception problem. When the MSM can safely report that protesters “clashed with” police when the truth is that protesters were “attacked by” police, that’s a perception problem.

      The way you fix that problem isn’t by censoring or manipulating Occupy media so as to make Occupy appear unimpeachable, nor is it handpicking the most sympathetic and charismatic Occupiers to act as visible Occupy representatives while the other riff-raff are safely hidden from cameras and interviewers.

  3. April 24, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    This tome sounds the correct alarm bells. Please let me be specific.

    Portland Police: Everybody within Occupy knows that Portland Police are out of hand. The author lists the sad litany. Parents and relative suffer the pain of their lost ones. The Solution — A complete change in the system is needed. Reform is not enough. Occupy has a very sophisticated line-up of intelligent people with the appropriate message recently delivered by Kristian Williams (See Portland Occupier story Portland Police Under Scrutiny}

    Present a Solution: With Kristian as our consultant, we should develop a written alternative to the Mayor, City Council and others on what a responsible police force would look like. So we are not just complaining, but that we are willing to help those in power with a blue print for change.

    This article painfully points out what is wrong. And it is obvious, yet I did not see it until recently. These blue- suited ninja turtles with all their gear on ARE merely bouncers for the rich and those in power. Pictures by Paul portray how silly these police look with their gladiator uniforms, multiple motorcycles and horses to ride over us unless we organize, focus and present an alternative. Comments by ‘Pug’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *