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Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Moment When the Police Lost the Occupy Portland Narrative

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Thu, Nov 17, 2011 at 8:01 PM

Well, it turned. The police bureau is starting to crack after six weeks of Occupy Portland. And one picture, right here, crystallizes the precise moment when it happened.

During a choreographed effort to pull a few dozen protesters out of the Chase bank branch outside Pioneer Square, part of today's hundreds-strong N17 day of action, Portland police officers resorted to a decidedly more muscular show of force in a clash watched by TV cameras and rush-hour commuters. Suddenly all the fun—the dance parties, the union songs, the peaceful arrests earlier on the Steel Bridge and at Wells Fargo—was for naught.

Tromping in with mounted officers, they pushed marchers who had gathered on the sidewalks along SW Yamhill into the street—forcing them to block MAX trains, something no one was doing until the heavily armored riot squad showed up—and then poked and, for the first time, pepper-sprayed the marchers. Significantly, some of the spraying came after protesters had clearly retreated to the opposite sidewalk. (In another odd shift, there also was no federal-court-required verbal PA warning that chemical munitions would be deployed—a hallmark of every other mass police action to date.)

Meanwhile, at almost the very same moment, Police Chief Mike Reese was on TV blaming Occupy Portland for his officers' inability to respond to a rape victim for three hours today. Consider that tantamount to a declaration of war. Reese's point? Officers are tired and have been too distracted to do their main jobs: responding to actual crimes. It was an attempt to spin sentiment against the movement, which seems to be attracting adherents. Even the O today said the movement is "building momentum" and said the average age of some 34 arrestees earlier today was 50—not a bunch of young, anarchists/punks/hoodlums/hippies/road warriors etc.

But that might come back to haunt him, judging by a wave of outrage on Twitter and elsewhere among those who noted that it was the police bureau's and Mayor Sam Adams' decision to respond to and escalate peaceful protests—protests without even major, if any, property damage—with an overwhelming display of multi-jurisdictional force.

The goal was really to keep the roads clear, as the mayor tweeted? That doesn't explain why protesters were doing just fine on the sidewalks before cops showed up. Or why protesters were still on the sidewalks when the riot squad abruptly pulled back—conveniently after the Chase arrest operation was finished.

Portland, days after Reese and Adams were rightly heralded for not gassing or pepper-spraying occupiers in what easily could have a massive conflagration this weekend, now joins other cities whose occupiers are swapping war stories about chemical assaults and accusations of police brutality.

Marchers say the riot and mounted police who stormed the front of the Chase branch to clear it out and go in for arrests were particularly rough. An Oregonian photographer showed me frame-by-frame photos of a man with his back to the cops, flashing peace signs, pulled suddenly and violently backward onto the ground.

One woman, Elmira, said she was also flashing peace signs and telling cops "I'm a peaceful protester," when officers started poking her with the butt of their very large batons. Twice she fell down, and twice she got up to flash the signs again, until a mounted cop (in an account I heard from two other witnesses who didn't know her, but saw it happen) tugged her to the ground by her hair. She got up again, and "that's when they pepper-sprayed me." She was pulled in by the crowd before she could be arrested and handed off to medics who were on hand for the protest.

"It's feeling better now. They were beautiful," she said, after the medics reminded her to use a hard soap to fully wash the oily spray out of her hair. "I'm determined. I'm not going anywhere until shit changes."

A protester who gave his name as Josh said he was pinned against a utility box on Yamhill and couldn't go anywhere, but that an officer hit him with his baton three times until he could wriggle free. He said there wasn't any direction from the cops—the cops were forcing protesters off sidewalks, but the PA van was telling people to get off the street. Once he got free, an officer pointed a red shotgun at him.

"It was aimed against my face," Josh said. "I thought he was going to fucking shoot me. I've never had a problem with police until right now."

The scene was decidedly tense outside the bank—and not all protesters calmly complied. Once officers and horses started in on the protesters, some attempted to push back, some say to keep people who had fallen from getting stepped on by the big, frightened horses, and one threw what appeared to be water at the riot cops. Another threw a leaflet.

Bobby Klein, an occupier who was inside the bank's ATM vestibule but who left before arrest, said he was shoved by a cop while complying with an order to walk backward. Klein says he was trying to see what happened to a woman who had been pulled down.

Another occupier in the vestibule who left, Cameron Whitten, says he also was shoved and jabbed by officers despite having nowhere else to move to. Eventually, he was picked up and thrown to the ground, he says, before the crowd grabbed him away from officers.

"I had nowhere else to go. I was completely surrounded by people," he said.

I asked a cop on my way up to the scene how many days he'd been on, and he replied wearily, "a lot." How much longer can the chief and mayor keep reacting to protests by throwing hundreds of cops at them? Sure the OT bill is concerning, but based on what I saw today, the fraying nerves of a group of professionals trained to be cool and collected is far more troubling.

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