IT TOOK ONLY SECONDS.
Last Thursday, November 17, outside a Chase bank branch on Pioneer Courthouse Square, a confused and angry Occupy Portland crowd found itself squeezed into the street by riot cops and armored horses. And in this moment, the increasingly brittle relationship between Portland officials and occupiers finally began to crumble.
A young protester, in an iconic moment captured by the Oregonian, was standing feet from riot cops with her mouth agape, taking in a stream of pepper spray from a can held by Sergeant Jeff McDaniel. While a female officer inside a police PA van calmly ordered people out of the roadway at SW 6th and Yamhill, more and more riot cops showed up, with batons jabbing and smashing, actually pushing occupiers into the streets. Across SW Yamhill, on the sidewalk along the square, more outraged protesters soon felt the burn of the hot oil—and dozens more, myself included, could taste its acrid flavor in the wind. There had been no warning on the loudspeaker that chemicals would be deployed.
Meanwhile, just feet from the melee, Police Chief (and would-be mayoral candidate) Mike Reese was speaking on air at KGW's fishbowl studio, blaming Occupy Portland for his bureau's inability to reach out to a rape victim until three hours after she called. It seemed like a declaration of war.
Taking away Occupy's campsite on November 13 had backfired on Portland officials. Galvanized by the eviction, the movement had only grown stronger—luring hundreds downtown for its Day of Action on Thursday, November 17, with organizers promising to do it again and again. Occupy had also shut off regular talks with the city. An expensive, protracted standoff loomed.
"We're not in a position, as it goes forward, to pull back and allow people to be in the street without consequence or be engaged in criminal acts," the bureau's lead spokesman, Lieutenant Robert King told the Mercury the following day, November 18, making sure to add, for good measure, that "the tone of it was different" and that "a lot of people" were "hostile and aggressive."
"It's very expensive," King went on. "But I don't know that we're able to entertain the alternative. That would leave a lot of people in the downtown vulnerable."
But then, by Saturday night, something funny had happened. In an inconvenient collision of politics and populist outrage, it was Reese—and not Occupy Portland— who blinked.
Reese, beset by a wave of opprobrium, personally wrote a letter to Portland promising to call off the riot cops. He also apologized for an even larger source of outrage: his mention of the rape case. It was a major gaffe, especially for an aspiring politician. By Monday, November 21, the Mercury was breaking the news that Reese would not, in fact, be running for mayor.
And Occupy Portland had a victory to savor.
* * *
Signs of the imminent détente would have been apparent earlier on Saturday, if anyone had thought to look for them.
But at 8 am that morning, in the cold breeze blowing through the Park Blocks just north of Portland State University, a few dozen occupiers were too busy moving forward to spend much time looking back.
In another display that the movement refuses to go away quietly—despite having lost the tent city that served as its home base—close to 40 people descended on a block of green space on SW Park bound by Columbia and Jefferson with tents and tarps, chairs, several signs, and a tote of books.
After planning for days, a well-organized splinter group of occupiers had begun what they were calling a "reoccupation," seizing on an idea tossed around since the night of the eviction. A tarp fence was going up around the block. Music was playing. Tents were popping up. The difference? Stricter rules about who could set up tents and move in.
People were passing around smartphones reporting news out of Boston where a judge decreed that camping in a park—that the tents themselves—were a medium of expression. The National Lawyers Guild's Stu Sugarman, on hand to oversee the morning's work, said that could make it easier for Occupy Portland to win court backing for their own efforts.
"There is case law," he said. "There is precedent. The occupation is really a symbol for how banks and corporations are already occupying America."
Still, it wasn't long until neighbors popped their heads out of condo windows.
And the TV cameras arrived. And the cops.
"So you understand this is illegal?" one cop asked. "Good luck with your cause—but this is illegal," another made sure to point out.
Police have been closely following Twitter and the Occupy website for intelligence on the movement. The Mercury, through an ongoing public records request, also has learned that an occupier associated with "the Real Occupy Portland," and on the outs with many of the movement's more vocal volunteers, has been forwarding police officials some of Occupy's internal planning documents and committee discussions.
But the reoccupation was so closely guarded that it didn't show up on the cops' radar until neighbors started to call in.
And while previous incursions into other parks had been met with arrests and cops in tactical gear, the response Saturday morning was considerably lighter. Instead of helmets and batons, a handful of uniformed cops and bike cops came by to issue warnings and take all the tarps down.
"We got the cameras here to see that we're doing something," said one occupier just after the tents were dismantled, an hour and a half or so after the work began.
That might have been the weekend's most controversial Occupy statement, but it was hardly the only one.
Later on Saturday, Occupy joined with advocacy groups for a march in support of single-payer health care. Hundreds trudged from the waterfront up to Pioneer Courthouse Square and back to Ankeny Plaza.
Occupiers were fretting over the police response—given what happened on Thursday, November 17, followed by the tough talk from police officials the day after. The route, which was shared with police, was largely along MAX and streetcar lines and busy streets: Morrison, 10th, and Burnside.
Who showed up? Maybe a couple of bike cops. When I was joining along—as the march left Pioneer Courthouse Square and headed toward Powell's—there were no cops in sight. It was curious... as well as telling: No one needed police to keep them from straying off the sidewalk, blocking traffic, or getting in the way of trains.
Complaints about the way Reese and his staff handled Thursday's events—with traffic obstructions made worse by armored cops, and in some cases entirely caused by their presence—had ricocheted everywhere, up to and including Mayor Sam Adams' Twitter feed.
Among them was my Blogtown piece, "The Moment When the Police Lost the Occupy Portland Narrative" [Blogtown, Nov 17]. Adams, having been sent the link a few times, tweeted, "Yes, helpful perspective; reviewed it with my team."
Had the cops been listening after all?
* * *
By Saturday night, the answer was a definitive yes. Reese's statement, in fact, directly referenced the success of that day's unmolested march.
"This may be an opportunity for us to collectively take a pause and reassess the way the police and protesters have been approaching this situation, to find a uniquely Portland solution," the chief wrote. "Today, we tried something new... This is a model of cooperation that we could build upon for future events, and I want to thank today's marchers for making this possible."
The more accommodating tone of Reese's statement appears to reflect an unsurprising lesson learned by the bureau in the days and hours before Occupy's eviction: When it comes to Occupy, harsh rhetoric tends only to inflame tensions, rather than calm them.
In emails obtained by the Mercury, police spokesmen took note that a panicky update email sent on Friday, November 11—the one about "anarchists" and "people in the trees"—had justifiably upset some occupiers. And the bureau consciously softened an update the next day, amplifying talk of cooperation and deciding to omit a reference to a Nordstrom shoplifting arrest that may have had a tenuous Occupy connection.
In an interview Monday, November 21, before he ended his unofficial mayoral run, Reese told me he wanted to focus on the ties police had previously built with some of the occupiers, in what had been a series of regular liaison meetings that stopped after the eviction. He also noted that a "Meet the Occupation" march and rally on Sunday, November 20—meant as an outreach effort for those who sympathize with Occupy's message, if not its tactics—had gone off similarly well without a significant police presence.
"We've had good relationships, we've worked together before," he said. "Let's try something else. We all share a responsibility for public safety."
The high cost of what had previously been the standard response—dozens of cops on call or in riot gear, working 12-hour shifts without days off—also weighed on Reese. Overtime for Occupy now clocks in at $1.29 million, it was at $750,000-plus as of last week.
That spending—which last weekend's marches seem to indicate was a slight overreaction—is unsustainable in a time of looming budget cuts. And you have to wonder if the strain on officers forced to spend long hours away from home, and sometimes on riot lines against mostly peaceful demonstrators, helped lead to Thursday's pepper spraying.
Reese's change of course, naturally, had another aim, even if the chief won't publicly acknowledge it: saving his quiet, undeclared bid for mayor.
That rape case he invoked? On Friday, after reporters began poking for details, the bureau revealed the call came 11 days before Occupy's Day of Action, on November 6. The reported sexual assault itself came two days before the call. And cops had been stretched not because of Occupy but because of a shooting and a weird case in Forest Park that saw a ranger tumble down a cliff after tussling with a knife-wielding man.
At first, before those details spilled out, Reese was ripped as insensitive and a lousy manager. Some said it was wrong to invoke a rape case, no matter the circumstances, for political gain. Others said, what, you couldn't spare one cop to take a report?
But once the real story came out, he was vilified as something worse: a liar. Even the staid Oregonian, in a headline, said he misled Portland by going public before checking his facts. Did Reese intentionally mislead? His allies say no, but everyone admits he ought to have done his homework.
The sense that his candidacy was slipping away was palpable.
During the party that erupted in the Park Blocks on Saturday after the soft raid on the reoccupation, one man unaffiliated with occupiers walked through the park shouting, "Mike Reese is a liar." And all day Friday and into Saturday, Twitter erupted with marvelous jokes tied to a new #Reese4Mayor hashtag, in which Reese also blames Occupy Portland for, among other phenomena, the bureau's inability to solve the murder of Laura Palmer (a Twin Peaks joke, for those unfamiliar with the reference).
Reese on Monday argued that the apology and newly restricted use of riot cops—sentiments well received by many who had criticized him, including some would-be voters—had "nothing to do with any campaign."
"Again, I've said as long as I've been chief that when the bureau makes mistakes, we admit them," he said. "And when we make mistakes as individuals, we admit them and then move forward."
Later the same day, he announced he would not be running.
Political observers say Reese definitely hurt himself—but that he also had plenty of time to recover, and that steps like Saturday's earnest apology were the smart way to do it. Sources say Reese was pushed less by all the bad press and more by the realities of leaving behind his current job. Reese confirmed to the Mercury that he'd received campaign checks since opening a fundraising account this month, but that the Occupy hubbub, in any case, had left him with little time to actually call donors for pledges. (See Hall Monitor, pg. 7)
* * *
After another week of relentless headlines, and even more resilient support, we now know this: Occupy Portland is looking far from beaten—and reports of the movement's demise following its park eviction were greatly exaggerated.
Even as the weather turned wet and frosty, large crowds have been descending on Occupy's general assembly meetings in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Occupiers are searching for an indoor meeting space and building deeper ties with labor unions and other groups.
Rallies like Sunday's "Meet the Occupation" event, coupled with neighborhood-specific rallies, are smart attempts at reaching out to supporters who might have been turned off by all the bad press and negative TV coverage of life at the parks. The group also held a peaceful, quiet vigil on the steps of city hall to mark the one-week anniversary of the eviction.
Some occupiers are currently bandying about a website called unsettleportland.org—the home of a coalition dedicated to occupying and reclaiming foreclosed homes. (A recent bust of a squat in Northeast late Friday, November 18, was not officially affiliated with Occupy, despite some reports.) The movement also appears to be regaining its financial footing, setting up transparent and general-assembly-approved accounts for donations, including a fund to help pay for damage to Chapman and Lownsdale Squares.
As one occupier, Arlo, shouted during the brief window when tents had sprouted on the Park Blocks on Saturday:
"The natives are already fucking watching us. Oh yeah. We're back."
Reese won't be far away, either, ensconced in his office on the Justice Center's 15th floor.
"I can best serve the community and the Portland Police Bureau," he wrote almost wistfully, "by remaining the chief of police."