"A Peaceful Event..." 

Emails Reveal How Sam Adams Shaped a Hands-Off Response to Occupy Portland

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ON MONDAY, October 3, before members of Occupy Portland defiantly pitched their tents in a cramped city park outside the Justice Center—and days before they led a non-permitted march of thousands through choked downtown streets—Mayor Sam Adams decided not to wait when it came to sending a message to his police force.

In a message to Eric Hendricks—the acting police chief while Mike Reese is out of the country—Adams laid out the essence of his strategy for the protests. And he didn't mince words.

"I want to make sure we are prepared for a peaceful event..."

And so far? Adams has gotten his wish—as revealed in a series of emails, obtained by the Mercury, that offer an interesting glimpse at how his office worked to shape Portland's response to the growing Occupy movement this month.

Portland police had made only two arrests as of press time Tuesday, October 11, both for tagging. Meanwhile, in a stunning twist, Occupy Portland campers were taking to YouTube to profess their affection for cops who've been noticeably hands off as the occupation approaches a week.

It's a stark departure not only from "occupied" cities across the country—wee-hours camp sweeps in Boston, unprovoked pepper spraying in New York City, threatened arrests in Seattle—but also from the bureau's own history of excessive force at marches.

This is the same police bureau, after all, that wound up pepper spraying an infant during a march in 2002—one of several troubling incidents early last decade that cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlements and legal fees.

So does Adams' response mean Portland officials are really and truly minding their history?

"Yes, of course," says Liz Joffe, one of the attorneys who, in 2004, helped wring a $300,000 settlement from Portland over pepper-spraying incidents at protests in 2002 and 2003. It wasn't just the "financial hurt," as Joffe put it. The city was also required to meet with the plaintiffs to discuss "what went wrong." "It was a principal aim of the suit."

The emails obtained from Adams' office paint a picture of rapt attention that began almost immediately as plans for a Portland movement began coalescing in late September. Officials closely monitored the occupiers' movements, even as others compiled—and still compile—reports on how other cities have responded. Internally, twice-daily check-ins have been scheduled among the mayor's office and police command staff.

After the occupation of Chapman Square, the mayor's office intervened to soften police statements about what kind of conduct at the park would lead to arrests ("major" laws would need to be broken, not "all" laws). Adams' office also took the lead in brokering the compromise that allowed the occupiers to remain in camp even as the Portland Marathon swallowed them up for several hours on Saturday and Sunday.

Occupy organizers have lavished praise on the mayor for his support—coming, as emails show, despite a steady stream of messages from citizens and some businesses imploring him take a harder line. The continued closing of SW Main between 3rd and 4th has increasingly annoyed big shots like Standard Insurance.

"This is obviously part of a bigger issue than just Portland," says Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who also raised the notion that the occupation can't continue forever. But "I don't fault the mayor at all for his handling of things."

But many observers also wonder whether the lame-duck mayor would feel as free to stand by the movement if he had decided to run for reelection and still needed campaign cash from business interests. And some, like Portland Copwatch's Dan Handelman, wonder if the mayor's tone with the police is merely a bid to keep the movement in check.

"They looked at what happened in New York, and it caused the movement to grow," he said. "They might be trying to let the wind out of their sails by cooperating. I don't know how successful that strategy is. But it's definitely better PR for the city not to crack people's heads."

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