The following piece was written by the November 13th group in Portland, Oregon, which includes some members of BtR-Portland.
It analyzes and draws conclusions from the events of November 13th, 2011, when crowds faced down riot police in a successful defense of Occupy Portland, with implications for the occupy movement nationally.
The Lessons of Saturday Night
by the November 13th Group
—chanted on the streets of Portland, Oregon on the morning of Sunday, Nov 13th while riot police menaced the crowd
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Saturday night, and the subsequent raids and police actions nationally, have made a number of points clear:
1. This movement is no longer made up of just those staying at the encampments, nor those participating in the Assemblies. In Oakland and Portland, we’ve seen that large numbers of the population who are not camping or are unable to attend nightly meetings are still willing to come out in support of the Occupy movement.
2. The argument that “We can’t afford to disrupt life for the 99%” doesn’t always hold water. When Occupy Portland publicly defied both the Police and the City by insisting it would stay, Portlanders rallied behind it in numbers that matched those of day one of Occupy. Occupy Portland’s willingness to disrupt business as usual for the 1% and portions of the 99% in their employ found massive support—and that support won the night for Occupy Portland. Occupy Oakland’s call for a General Strike in response to state repression found somewhere well beyond 20,000 people marching behind it, shutting down Oakland’s economic foundation, the Port of Oakland. Our strength lies in our willingness to disrupt business as usual for the 1% and their tools.
3. There is a national strategy emerging against the Occupy movement. In Portland (as elsewhere), this has consisted of attempts to demonize the protest encampments with tales of violence, drug use, and even bomb-making. Cities across the country appear to be issuing versions of the same press release, uniformly citing health and safety concerns. These attempts at discrediting the movement have come alongside ‘soft’ police violence. Since the General Strike in Oakland, in response to massive and publicly-viewed police brutality against the Occupy movement, the State has concluded (at least temporarily) that the political costs of deploying overwhelming force against the Occupy movement in view of the public are too high—every time it does so, the movement’s numbers swell.
4. The Police are not our allies. Individual cops may be our friends or neighbors, they may be workers like ourselves, but the role and function of police is as enforcers for the 1%. Relatively soft treatment early on inspired some occupiers to view the police as allies, but now it is evident that the police will beat us and destroy our encampments for the 1%.
Policing and crime enforcement in the United States are structured entirely around race and class. When the poor and marginalized demand power, the 1% will always cry “criminals!” The 1% can gamble away our pensions, take our savings, foreclose our homes, destroy social security and run our economy into the ground—and what happens? The federal government rains dollars over them in the billions. Daily enforcement of drug laws, property crimes, and petty statutes disproportionately target out the poor, people of color and the homeless. These policies are known failures at preventing anti-social behavior. Through incarceration, parole, probation and street-level policing, the 1% maintains a constant and ever-tightening control over the sectors of society most likely to rebel.
If Occupy Portland is truly committed to a diverse movement of the 99%, it cannot afford to simply conclude that “the Police are our friends.” We embrace the position heard in the streets Sunday: “the police can join the rest of the 99% when they put down their batons and take off their riot gear.” To this we would add “and when they cease to kill and incarcerate our brothers and sisters in our neighborhoods and streets.”
5. The Liberal Political Establishment is incapable of upholding its own ideals. Perhaps the most progressive mayor in the United States, Jean Quan, has presided over multiple violent evictions of Occupy Oakland. On Saturday we saw Portland Mayor Sam Adams order police to forcibly remove the encampments, and when thousands came downtown to oppose the eviction on the night of the deadline, he made no effort to address these citizens of Portland.
Sam Adams claims, “I support this movement.” But Adams only supported this movement until it became an actual political threat. Sam Adams moved when the federal strategy of action against the Occupy movement emerged, and when the Portland Business Alliance and Portland Police Association publicly demanded that he do so. He may “support Occupy’s message against economic injustice,” but at the end of the day, he has made clear that he takes orders from those who perpetuate or protect those economic injustices. Sam Adams has presided over further unweaving of our city’s social safety net. The now destroyed Occupy encampment served 1500 meals a day and attempted, imperfectly, to provide mental health care and a sense of community to the city’s most vulnerable.
Our movement is centered on humanitarian ideals—liberty, human rights, expansion of freedoms and democratic participation. The liberal political establishment has acted to quash the greatest manifestation of them in our lifetime, at the behest of money and power. Our strength lies in demonstrating to the world that Occupy comes closer to putting these ideals into practice than any liberal politician ever will.
6. Nonviolence will not protect us from police violence. We respect those who practice true nonviolent resistance. Nonviolence, however, is no guarantee of immunity from repression or violence, especially when we are not willing to simply give up and go home (those of us who have one to go back to). We refused to be provoked, but we also refused to back down. This is what thousands came down to support, and why even some of the “nonparticipants,” who had lined up at the Justice Center to witness the eviction joined the crowd as it pushed riot police off of the street. A movement of thousands managed to push riot police out of our encampments and off the streets. Our simultaneous refusal to riot and refusal to back down in the face of police provocation is a reflection of our strength and discipline.
7. The powers that be fear using violence in the public view. This is a temporary calculation, one based on the assumption that the costs in terms of increased public sympathy for Occupy are higher than the benefits of fear and demoralization created by state violence. In Portland, the Police and the Mayor have made clear their desire that those who wish to be arrested do so peaceably, and have stated that, “we can accommodate them.” The 1% knows from experience that deploying tear gas, concussion grenades and billy clubs risks inspiring sympathy from average people, as it already has across the country and around the world.
The Police and the City establishment will be more than happy to shuttle as many “symbolic arrests” through the justice system as we can offer. This allows them to continue to propagate the lie that they have been nonviolent, obscuring the reality underlying the entirety of their actions—when you threaten someone with weapons, beatings, and arrest, and that person does what you say, violence has been enacted.
Police and the City retreated Sunday morning not because the crowd overwhelmed them militarily, but because the crowd called their bluff. Although unwilling to give the police the provocation they wanted for an attack, those present stood firm, letting police know that to clear the crowd, they would have to show the population of the City and the whole world the real violence which underlies Sam Adams’ and Mike Reese’s threats. The Police backed down because they fear the backlash that would be generated from that show of force. If the demonstration had had clearly demarcated “arrestables,” separated and seated quietly, the police would have had the quiet charade of “nonviolence” they needed to perpetuate their lie. When this failed, they retreated.
Occupy Wall St. in New York was swept with outright violence in the form of tear gas and batons, while media were cordoned off blocks away because the State knew that the costs of such violence being seen by the public would be too high. It is notable that the Police in Portland avoided the use of chemical munitions and forms of more spectacular violence, despite hours of speaker truck announcements promising just that to the crowd if it did not disperse. (Nearing the end of the eviction on Sunday, when smaller numbers refused to be moved, we felt the overhand strikes of police batons: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BtLxuh88ck).
Saturday night succeeded because thousands of people came down in defense of Occupy Portland, and they saw an alternative to the false choices of negotiating with the city, sitting down and being arrested, or rioting.
8. Leading by following: the masses in the movement lead by action. People placed their safety and liberty on the line to defend Chapman and Lownsdale Squares from a raid by Portland Police on Saturday night, and the diverse group assembled chose to hold the line against a phalanx of armed riot police and horses, and ultimately to push forward and back the police down. All too frequently, conservative Occupy leadership tries to reign in bold action by larger groups. At the best of times, common people may be several steps ahead of leadership.
9. Changing the system requires taking risk. The Occupy movement has made headlines around the world for its creative resistance. The Oakland occupy has twice now regrouped forces and reestablished the encampment after being swept by police. In Portland, occupiers showed a willingness to stand up to the announced city eviction. By remaining in the park after the declared curfew, by defying police orders to disperse, by turning back charging horses, by confronting baton jabs—with all of these actions thousands of Occupiers and supporters accepted a certain level of personal risk, and in doing so, were able to achieve a significant political victory. Our strength lies in our ability to creatively resist, and our ability to create situations that inspire people to believe that the risks involved are worthwhile.
10. In solidarity lies strength. Occupy needs a diversity of ideas and opinions to be debated and tested; this is its strength. Our movement must continue to draw masses of people into new and varied forms of activity, and solidarity must underpin this process. The media or other official institutions are not going to give Occupy a fair shake, and we should not bring the expectation that some purity of action or word will change this.
While we should take seriously the issues of strategy and promote accountability, we must avoid playing into a simplistic division between legitimate and illegitimate protesters. We cannot afford this dangerous and false division, which ultimately blames people of conscience for attempting to change the world and draws attention away from the larger problems.
Genuine participation in the Occupy movement may lead to murky situations which may not fit into a larger strategy. These situations will always exert a cost to the movement but without striving for solidarity, this cost will be even higher. Occupy will be undermined by the divisions which will emerge if factions continue to attempt to bolster their own legitimacy by throwing those they disagree with to police or media in denunciations or collaboration.
To share your thoughts and ideas on this piece, email: Nov13thCommittee [at] gmail.com