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Inflection point for Occupy Portland

8 November 2011

Tonight I caught up on an Occupy Portland email thread I’ve been watching since this morning. In it was buried this gem:

Occupy’s Asshole Problem: Flashbacks from An Old Hippie

I wish I could say that the problems that the Occupy movement is having with infiltrators and agitators are new. But they’re not. In fact, they’re problems that the Old Hippies who survived the 60s and 70s remember acutely, and with considerable pain.

As a veteran of those days — with the scars to prove it — watching the OWS organizers struggle with drummers, druggies, sexual harassers, racists, and anarchists brings me back to a few lessons we had to learn the hard way back in the day, always after putting up with way too much over-the-top behavior from people we didn’t think we were allowed to say “no” to. It’s heartening to watch the Occupiers begin to work out solutions to what I can only indelicately call “the asshole problem.” In the hope of speeding that learning process along, here are a few glimmers from my own personal flashbacks — things that it’s high time somebody said right out loud. More…

The person who posted this article in the thread made a very valid point, paraphrased here: “Feeding everyone” is a noble goal, but #OccupyWallStreet was not set up to be a homeless shelter or social services agency. #OWS is a movement to lend voice to the 99% — to lobby, however that is to be accomplished, for change. To feed, clothe and house the homeless, addicted and mentally ill is an end result of reattaining economic justice. It is not, however, part of the means to accomplish that mission. It is a major logistical problem and one that the volunteers are simply not equipped to handle in a safe manner — or at all. Outside In, United Gospel Mission, The Salvation Army, Human Solutions, and many other agencies are set up to handle the homeless and addicted in Portland. #OWS is not.

(end paraphrase, my own summation) The movement itself will collapse under the weight of these problems if they are not handled SOON. The above piece about the Asshole Problem is required reading for anybody with a serious interest in sustaining the movement.

To back all that, here’s today’s open letter to Occupy Portland from our mayor, Sam Adams:

@MayorSamAdams Mayor Sam Adams

An open letter to #OccupyPortland: drug & alcohol use, violent behavior & other criminal conduct must be immediately addressed.

The mayor, the poster who I paraphrased above, and I all have the same point: we are approaching an inflection point. There are major structural problems with the state in which the Occupy PDX movement exists today, and if they’re not handled by Occupy itself, they’re gonna be handled one way or another, likely by the police or by mother nature.

Fortunately there is cause for hope. I’ve spoken — well, listened mostly — to one incredibly dedicated volunteer living at the camp. Occupy Portland is doing their best to rapidly address many of the issues currently threatening their continued existence. There have been recent meetings with health and fire officials. They’ve reorganized the kitchen and made it safer in a big overnight push of round-the-clock labor. Tarps are being redeployed at the request of fire officials. Importantly, the raising of the tarps is part of a larger “transparency” movement: no more enclaves of tents; everything is to be arranged so that visibility is as unimpeded as possible from the sidewalks and paths in the parks, reducing the ability to hide bad behavior. This is also a chance to clean up as tents are rearranged, and to make contact with all the people living in the camp, particularly the addicted and mentally ill.

Even better, there is more-than-idle talk about attaining permanent office space for an Occupy Portland headquarters — one in which sleeping and camping isn’t allowed, and rightfully not. This, I believe, represents part of the “evolution” that the Mayor and so many supporters on the sidelines hope for. And it’s coupled with an absolutely brilliant resolution on behalf of the homeless and mentally ill who need a place to sleep. I’m not sure this resolution has yet been made public, so I can’t yet speak directly about it. But I believe it will in the end yield a good solution for the homeless, for the OWS movement in Portland, for the city, and for the Mayor who — like him or not — has so far done pretty well walking a razor’s edge.

There’s little time to spare, but I’m hopeful Occupy PDX will take the best path forward.


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