CAMERON WHITTEN, 21, has been sitting outside Portland's city hall for more than 30 days, eating nothing but vitamin-laced juice. The surprisingly chipper hunger striker announced Sunday night, July 1—surrounded by strangers and supporters who turned out for a "slumber party" in solidarity—that he'll now switch to water only in his quest to convince city council to agree to several housing justice demands, including waiving fines on Old Town's Right 2 Dream Too tent city and ending Portland's camping ban. We talked with Whitten—a former mayoral candidate—as revelers grilled hot dogs on a sidewalk BBQ tantalizingly close to Whitten's face.
MERCURY: What's been the hardest day or night so far?
CAMERON WHITTEN: Any night that it rains. I have to be honest, I think yesterday I cried a little bit as I woke up. I started singing "Mad World": "All around me are familiar faces, worn-out places, worn-out faces." I feel like that's my anthem right now. We're facing so many problems and our culture is all about apathy and distraction. Last night was bad. It was raining hard. I had to go take a shower.
What's surprised you about your campaign?
I was really surprised that it took 30 days to talk to all the city commissioners. I thought after, like, 10 days, they would all at least come say hi. Amanda [Fritz] came up day seven, Randy [Leonard] came day 17, Sam [Adams] I just talked to a few days ago, and then Nick [Fish], and then just yesterday, day 29, I talked to [Dan] Saltzman.
Who was the most awkward?
Saltzman. Nick Fish is all like, "Hey! I'm Nick Fish! Let's talk!" And Sam's a real social guy, he says hi to everyone. Saltzman just kind of looks offset.
What have you seen happen outside city hall in the middle of the night?
There are a lot of mentally affected people out here who get the police called on them, and then there are other people who fight, there are other people who are up all night. It's a variety. We've had Pedalpalooza, the Naked Bike Ride, Fleet Week, the Rose Festival. I've seen fireworks, I got to see the fire chief sworn in, Chinese dragons. The night of the Starlight Parade, there was this guy who was just shouting, running around, no one could tell what he was saying. He ran down here, there were police running down the street saying, "This guy: tall, black, shirtless!" Stuff like that is happening all the time. I see it when I get up to use the bathroom.
Where do you go?
We have bottles for that.
What food do you miss the most?
Probably avocado. That was the main thing I was eating as I was transitioning into the hunger strike. I had it really simple, I was eating completely raw, so I would eat an avocado with some sea salt, some diced tomato, some really dank vinegar. You simplify to prepare your body for starvation mode and no eating complex foods. It probably helped that I've been vegan for two years.
So how worried are you about doing damage to yourself?
I tried to do as much research as possible on the safest way to do a hunger strike. I've been putting salt in my water and on my tongue sometimes, but I've had to cut it out recently because I've been feeling tightness in my chest. I drink about three cans of coconut water a day and a bottle of juice every day, I take a daily vitamin in water, and every three days I take a tablespoon of a protein mix to preserve my heart muscle. When I look at myself in the mirror, I feel like I look like a rock star who has done too much cocaine.
I hate being out here every day, it kind of sucks, because there's so much I could have been a part of that I'm missing.
What brought you to Portland?
My family. They're all in Virginia [laughs]. I have a lot of bad history with my family. A month after I graduated from high school, I realized that if I stayed close to home, my life wouldn't go anywhere.
Did your family lead in some way to your politics?
Ever since I was a kid, I had to deal with a really abusive father. I had a lot of trouble in school. Some small thing would happen and I would break down completely. My older brother, he's got severe anger issues, he's never been able to keep a job. My brother made me realize that I would have to take my opportunities seriously, to be independent. Before Occupy, I never really had anyone I could rely on.
Do you remember how you first became politically active?
I always thought I just took my small chunk of the world but couldn't really worry about bigger things. Then Occupy started, and I saw this community of people who were inspired and pissed off. And I decided: This is my time. I can give up everything else I'm working on and contribute to this social movement. That's what really got me politicized. Down in the park, people were talking a lot about national issues: Citizens United, Taft-Hartley, the 99 percent, and I just got focused on local issues. We were a block away here from city hall and we've got issues with the PBA [Portland Business Alliance], the PPB [Portland Police Bureau], the PDC [Portland Development Commission], all the acronyms have their little issues and a lot of the people who use their services don't have much of a voice.
Do you think city council will actually change policy based on your strike?
The most important thing is that our community gets organized. I hope my methods really bring my message to people.
Why are you doing a hunger strike instead of some other form of protest?
In the past seven months, I've used an array of tactics to connect with the general public and inspire a shift in our culture. During Occupy, I helped organize marches. I got arrested four times. I did PR for the movement. I organized workshops. Then I ran for mayor. I tried to work outside the system—I tried to advocate for a better method within the system. And still people don't care, they're apathetic. This is honoring people who have made social change this way before, like Gandhi and MLK. I'm saying, "This is a big enough thing to die for." My hero right now is [self-immolating Arab Spring martyr] Mohamed Bouazizi. Through that one act, he was able to inspire a world of revolution. I feel like, as a person, I can self-immolate my ego. Having to eat, sleep, have sex, date—I can burn that all away and start to impact this world. Every day, I've been out there trying to educate and empower people. I've just been an Energizer Bunny.