Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Occupy Transition: As encampment fades, protest shifts back to core issues

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Even as Portland city officials continue to pressure OccupyMaine to leave Lincoln Park, they have done the Occupation a great favor, perhaps unintentionally. By extending the deadline for the encampment to end until Friday from its previous Monday-night limit, they have given the Occupiers a chance to retake the media narrative of their departure.

Had Monday been the final day, the lasting image of the encampment would have been of one man's decision to burn an American flag. Unless he repeats the deed later in the week, that will no longer be the final scene, striking though it was.
As some Occupiers packed up their tents and other belongings, and others stood around in the morning chill talking about Citizens United, austerity measures, the poverty level, and other issues of economic injustice, Harry Brown — one of the four individual plaintiffs suing the city of Portland for the right to stay in Lincoln Park — drew the lens on himself, announcing that while "it might not catch like I'd like," he was going to try to "dispose of" an American flag.
He affixed the flag to the flagpole in the center of the encampment, and after several tries managed to ignite it with his cigarette lighter. The flames burned brightly as photographers converged on the scene, jockeying for position.
As it happened, and even afterward, other Occupiers present were careful in discussing the matter. The flag-burning was Brown's "autonomous act," came the common refrain, and while others said they might or might not have done the same thing or support his choice, they all defended his right to express himself in that way. (A discussion on the OccupyMaine Facebook page was less restrained, but included several impassioned defenses as well as some strident attacks on the action; a woman who stopped by Monday night's General Assembly was extremely upset by the action, but paused her tears long enough to hear Brown's defense, which amounted to him saying he thought he was doing the right thing by the flag.)
Respect for individual differences has been the hallmark of OccupyMaine — and the Occupy movement as a whole — since its inception. People of wildly divergent belief systems and political views have come together and engaged with each other, civilly, thoughtfully, and passionately. And they have often come to consensus on what to do in response to the economic, social, and political injustices that pervade American society today.
That has only happened when people of differing views have come together in good faith, though the Occupiers are resolved to give everyone a chance to truly engage — even detractors.
A passerby in Lincoln Park on Monday afternoon scolded the protesters for breaking laws and told them "the way to protest" is to walk around with signs, and then told them to "stop protesting; start doing something that makes sense." Occupier Evan McVeigh walked along with him, offering to involve him in the conversation the man had interrupted with his crankiness, and responding to his criticism with thoughtful — and passionate — rejoinders. The man wouldn't give his name, and only after several questions did it become clear that he disagreed with Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren's ruling last week that the encampment was in fact free expression.
Warren's ruling essentially declared the encampment was indeed free speech worthy of Constitutional protection, but said that the city's safety concerns about how the encampment was physically laid out were strong enough to override the protection given to free expression. Despite ending in an order to vacate the park, the ruling was a major win for the Occupiers. (Read more on the specifics of this at
The support found in Warren's ruling, as well as renewed public support — and discovery that despite councilors' claims to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Portlanders who contacted the council to express an opinion about OccupyMaine were supportive of the encampment — appears to have breathed new life into the Occupy flame here.
The activism is continuing — two video series (including an ongoing program on Portland's Community Television Network), rallies, marches, and other gatherings are scheduled for the next couple of weeks already, with more in the pipeline. A "Tiny Tent Task Force" is also forming, to continue the tent-based nature of the Occupation, albeit on a smaller scale. Other projects in the discussion phase include Occupying foreclosed properties, turning Lincoln Park into an urban garden, and expanding visible protest throughout the city in various ways.
The efforts to house the needy are also carrying on; some members are forming a commune they hope will be self-supporting, while some will take advantage of the city's extended deadline to further their search for more permanent shelter.
With a base at the Meg Perry Center, the OccupyMaine group is expecting to expand and reinvigorate its activities. More than one long-term Occupier said energy that had gone into maintaining the encampment can now be used for things that are even more productive. What form those take remains to be seen, but the commitment seems solid.