THE WELCOME MAT grudgingly offered to a hardy group of campers outside Portland City Hall—drawn to the building's wide sidewalks ever since an Occupy-inflected prayer vigil and protest sprung up in December—appears on the verge of being rolled up for good.
And, at the same time, city officials are losing patience with activist Cameron Whitten and his 40-day-long housing-justice hunger strike—which has emerged as another magnet for protesters looking to poke at the heart of Portland's government.
Early Monday, July 16—days after the city complained about public sex and intoxication, and promised cops would start enforcing city codes—power-washing crews showed up and forced campers, along with Whitten, across SW 4th to the sidewalks along Terry Schrunk Plaza.
As of press time, Tuesday, July 17, many of those campers were still across the street, unsure how to take a warning from the mayor's office that even though sleeping will be permitted on the sidewalk, storing personal property would not be.
"Look, if you wanted to stay at city hall overnight and then stay during the day," says Caryn Brooks, Mayor Sam Adams' spokeswoman, "the courteous thing to do is take your sleeping bag, roll it up tight, and make sure you're not in anyone's way. That's all we're asking for."
Whitten was back at his usual spot in front of city hall with his water bottles, blankets, laptop-powering car batteries, and pile of placards. He'd written a letter the day before letting city commissioners know why he needed to keep his stuff outside city hall—even when he leaves to go to class.
"Lack of these items will most likely cause me to lead to a very dramatic hospitalization," he wrote, "which is publicity that I would rather wish to avoid."
Brooks wasn't very charitable, asking "is he more special" than someone with, say, mobility issues who can't navigate the sidewalk? "That's what we're dealing with."
But Commissioner Amanda Fritz, replying to Whitten's email, was more reassuring. "Whenever I've visited you," she wrote, "all your stuff has been within arm's reach."
The tension comes prior to another city hall rally, planned by Whitten and Occupy Portland, this Friday, July 20. That will be the 50th day of Whitten's strike, and the 20th since he gave up drinking juice. Both mayoral candidates, Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith, are expected to address the crowd.
That kind of drawing power shows the extent that Whitten's strike—particularly his call that the city waive fines against the Old Town homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2)—has focused even more attention on housing issues. Last week, for example, Mark Kramer, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, wrote the city a letter asking if R2D2 might be treated like a second Dignity Village-style camp.
It's less clear, however, whether city hall is still listening to Whitten. Instead, the place abounded with the wishful rumor that Whitten was spotted (gasp!) eating an orange.
Housing Commissioner Nick Fish said he'd take Kramer's letter seriously, but Fish's office has kept mum on Whitten and his demands after the two met this month. The mayor's office has also been largely silent on Whitten's cause.
But not Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the code enforcers who are fining R2D2. Saltzman, hoping to broker some kind of deal, says he approached Whitten on a recent Saturday to talk about finding a new location for R2D2. He even called fellow Commissioner Randy Leonard's cell phone during dinner and had Whitten talk to him.
Saltzman grumbled that Whitten demanded a citizen panel work on the issue—a dealbreaker, he says, for him and Leonard. After that, he was done.
"Everybody in this building is through with him. No one is negotiating," Saltzman says. "If there's a medical crisis, we'll call 911."
Whitten smiled when he heard that. He's lost 30 pounds, he looks noticeably more haggard, but he's not planning on ending his hunger strike.
"I'm out here to say this isn't working."