MIDNIGHT WAS minutes off, Mount Tabor Park would soon be closed, and Camp Cascadia protestors had begun to sing. Among the crowd of around 100, people quizzed each other, both jocular and nervous: Are you ready to be arrested?
This was Monday, July 15, the day organizers of Camp Cascadia—the group protesting the forthcoming demise of the city's open-air reservoirs—had announced they would, by no means, leave the park when it closed.
The previous Friday, July 12, calls to camp in the park were quickly abandoned in the face of cops on all-terrain vehicles, and protestors over the weekend had formed an amiable relationship with park rangers. But city hall had not relented—not even reached out—so, Camp Cascadia said, the time for following rules was over.
A press release cautioned demonstrators to leave children at home, lest they be exposed to "mass arrests" and "expected police brutality."
"I'm not going to lie, I'm fucking scared, man," organizer Jessie Sponberg announced to the crowd early Monday evening. "I don't want to go to jail tonight."
The protest was the latest example of a lesson the city learned all too well in this year's fight over water fluoridation: Portlanders are churlish about their drinking water.
Since 2006, the city has fought a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rule that would force it to cover or do away with the scenic, open-air reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington Parks. But when city council—with the exception of Commissioner Amanda Fritz—announced in June it had expended its legal options and would comply with the rule, outcry was instantaneous.
Protestors—a coalition of Mount Tabor residents and water activists—widely characterize the decision as a giveaway to contractors with friends in city hall. They decry upcoming water rate increases, and want officials to pursue the same strategy as New York City, which has successfully delayed a requirement to cover an enormous reservoir.
The city says circumstances in New York are far different than Portland's, and a similar move simply isn't possible.
“I appreciate the frustration, which is why I’ve said: ‘Go occupy the EPA,’” said Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Water Bureau.
While there was a clear passion among Camp Cascadia participants, the movement’s goal posts moved fluidly and frequently.
The initial planned campout in the park—preceded by all manner of rhetoric about arrests and conflict by Sponberg and others—melted away before cops on Friday. Organizers said they wouldn’t risk the safety of children present by resisting orders to take down a handful of tents. They called police’s move a “dirty fucking tactic.”
Protestors dwindled on Saturday and Sunday and, when Mayor Charlie Hales hadn't reached out to the group by Monday, it announced the time had come, finally, to defy city ordinance.
“When there's 50 people going to the Justice Center tonight, maybe that'll get his attention,” Sponberg told Willamette Week on Monday afternoon.
But there was a twist. Many of those bracing for police action as the clock struck 12 on Monday night didn't yet realize that organizers had worked out a deal earlier in the evening with park rangers. Yes, the park technically closed at midnight, but protestors could stay until 12:30 am—a kind of token disobedience—before the cops would move in.
"We've already won," Sponberg told the crowd. "It's after midnight and we're still in this park. We're gonna declare a victory, and then at 12:30 am most of us are going to go stand on that sidewalk right there."
There were arguments, but almost everyone played along. When something like 25 officers clad in tactical gear rounded the corner shortly before 1 am, only four singing protestors were arrested for trespass in Mount Tabor Park.
Camp Cascadia dissipated into the night. There were talks of continuing the movement, but no plans to return Tuesday.