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Portland Among Cities Grappling With How to Handle ‘Occupy’ Protesters

November 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
City officials around the nation are confronting the question of how to deal with the "Occupy" protesters who have camped out in public spaces. Jeffrey Brown discusses the growing movement and its implications with Portland Mayor Sam Adams and "Occupy Portland" representative Jim Oliver.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, city officials confront the question of how to deal with the Occupy movements amid reports of problems and conflict at some encampments.

As the Occupy Wall Street movement approaches the start of its third month, demonstrations have spread from New York to more than 100 cities nationwide. While most have remained peaceful, strains are beginning to show after a number of recent incidents.

In Portland, Ore., the people who’ve camped in two parks for more than a month received an eviction notice yesterday.

Portland’s police chief, Mike Reese:

MIKE REESE, Portland, Ore., chief of police: We’re going to communicate very clearly to people our intentions. We’re starting that today, to give people notice that we’re going to start enforcing park rules effective 12:01 Sunday and that, at that point, they’re going to be subject to all of the authority that the city has around park ordinances and violations of state statutes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Police said the sites have been plagued by a series of problems, including multiple assaults and two fatal drug overdoses. And on Wednesday, a man was arrested on suspicion of throwing a Molotov cocktail the night before, doing minor damage at the city’s World Trade Center. The building is located one block from the two parks that have been home to Occupy Portland.

In Oakland, Calif., police today investigated a fatal shooting last night outside the Occupy Oakland camp. They said it resulted from a fight between two groups of men. Protest organizers said the attack was unrelated to Occupy Oakland.

But the Oakland Police Officers Association issued an open letter, appealing to protesters to go home. It read in part: “Please leave peacefully, with your heads held high, so we can get police officers back to work fighting crime.”

The demonstrators were asked to vacate their encampment voluntarily within 24 hours, the goal, to avoid a repeat of last month’s violence, when police raided the camp to expel protesters. The mayor later allowed them back.

Elsewhere, a 35-year-old military veteran fatally shot himself in the head in Burlington, Vt., last night at the anti-Wall Street protest there, while, in Utah, authorities have ordered protesters camping in a Salt Lake City park to leave after a man there was found dead inside his tent.

And dozens of people were arrested at the University of California in Berkeley on Wednesday as riot police clashed with protesters trying to set up tents. Calm was restored today after students voted not to erect those tents for now.

Meanwhile, back in New York, two dozen activists have left Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, the site of the original protest, to march south to Washington, D.C. They’re supposed to join the Occupy D.C. encampment by Nov. 23, the deadline for a congressional super committee to agree to a new deficit-cutting plan. And protesters in Pasadena, Calif., say they will Occupy the Rose Parade on Jan. 2.

In Portland, where, as we said, officials have called for an eviction this weekend, both sides appear to be facing a decisive moment, one that is being watched around the country.

We hear from Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams, and a representative of Occupy Portland, Jim Oliver. He serves as the group’s city liaison.

Mayor Adams, fill in the picture as you see it. Why have you given an ultimatum to clear the parks?

SAM ADAMS, mayor of Portland, Ore.: Well, our concerns have not been with the Occupy Portland organizers or faciliti — facilitators, I should say.

It has been to the other folks that have also gathered at the encampment, and our concern is with a growing 20 percent increase in crime around occupations. It’s the concern about two nearly fatal drug overdoses in the camp. It’s concern with someone who lit a — ignited a Molotov cocktail in a building nearby that you mentioned in the lead-in and used the camp as sort of camouflage for his activities.

Those are our concerns, that, you know, the camp is out of balance and is unsafe.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jim Oliver, what’s the response? What is the plan? Are you planning to abide by this deadline?

JIM OLIVER, Occupy Portland: The mainstream media has been talking a lot about these everyday actions and petty crimes committed by economic refugees in an effort to detract from the message of the Occupy movement.

We have been staying focused on our message of social change, trying to call attention to who the real criminals are in our society, people like Jamie Dimon, the CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase, gave himself a $19 million raise last year, while thousands of Americans are being thrown out of their homes.

Banks talk a lot about the benefits homeownership, and use it as a way to ensnare working-class Americans into unsustainable mortgage payments. It’s time to begin a conversation about how a fair homeownership system could open up opportunities for all Americans and how to transition away from a housing industry driven solely by profits and the blatant greed of international criminals like Jamie Dimon and J.P. Morgan Chase.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jim — Jim, we have talked a lot about that on the program, and I appreciate you bringing it up again.

But I do want to ask you, the incidents that have happened, do you just see them as isolated? And, again, I want to ask, what is the response going to be? Are you going to clear the parks on Saturday night at midnight?

JIM OLIVER: Absolutely they’re isolated incidents.

Each of these individual incidents has nothing to do with Occupy Portland or with the Occupy movement as a whole. Again, the mainstream media has been very clear about their intention to distract from our message by focusing on the actions of individuals.

We intend to maintain our occupation in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street and with working-class Americans who are being thrown out of their homes all across the country. We have seen an effort by many different city governments to try and shut down different facets of the Occupy movement. We have seen the Occupy movement standing strong for several weeks now.

And we, as Occupy Portland, will continue to stand strong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Mayor Adams, it sounds as though you’re facing a group that is going to stay there. How far are you planning to go to clear the park? In some cities, we have seen officials back off. In others, we have seen some violence. What are you planning to do?

SAM ADAMS: Well, from the very beginning, I have talked about the need to balance free speech with the need to keep a city moving, and to do all of that in a peaceful manner.

We have had to take three police actions to — one to clear a street, one to prevent an expansion of the overnight protest and another to assist the federal government in an adjacent park. I think the Portland Police Bureau has done a great job doing those enforcements in as peaceful way as one could imagine, given the general — in those situations, the general sort of pandemonium that can occur.

The important part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the founding reason that the Occupy Wall Street movement took place, you know, I agree with a lot of the — economic justice, the bringing to account a lot of folks that have driven our global economy into the ditch. And I think Occupy Wall Street has done a lot to raise those issues.

As a mayor, I have to balance, you know, that freedom of speech and the desire to protect freedom of speech with just basic protecting, you know, people’s lives. And I can’t — I’m not going to wait until somebody dies of a drug overdose and I’m not going to wait until someone is seriously hurt. Every Occupy is different around the nation. I only know what’s going on in our Occupy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mayor, I mean, one of the questions people would have would be the question of scale and appropriate response.

I mean, some of the things that happened would happen — might happen in a city in any case. So the question, I guess, they’re raising is, are these things enough to shut down the whole demonstration?

SAM ADAMS: Well, you know, when the details of the drug overdoses, the details surrounding the individual that ignited the Molotov cocktail, when I have homeless and homeless youth advocates telling me that this is a very unsafe situation, you know, I listen to that.

I have to weigh that against the fact that they might be isolated, or there’s something about the camp that is inherently unsafe. And in the end, I had to make that judgment. And my judgment was the camp itself is inherently unsafe, and the folks that have added themselves in to the original organizers of Occupy Portland — and there are folks like Jim and others who have stood up and given a lot of effort, put a lot of time and effort into making the camp as safe as possible.

But I think events have conspired to get away from them, and us to a degree, and that’s why the notice, the three-day notice to evict came about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Jim Oliver, you know, one of the questions and criticisms from some over the Occupy movement is the lack of clear goals or platforms. Is it clear at this point what those in the park want as you face this ultimatum to leave?

JIM OLIVER: Absolutely.

We are petitioning our government for a redress of grievances, as is outlined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The goal of the Occupy movement is to make systemic changes to the economic and political systems in this country that are failing the 99 percent of Americans who see our wealth decreasing, as the wealth of the .01 percent of Americans who control policy in this country increases.

I would like to add that all kinds of crime happens in downtown Portland every single day. Hundreds of people are homeless out in the street every single night, regardless of whether Occupy exists or not. And it seems to only be a crisis when it’s actually at City Hall’s doorstep.

The existence of our movement has cast light on the plight of economic refugees whose lives have been endangered and are forced to sleep on the street, thanks to the policies of the 1 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jim…

JIM OLIVER: I’m glad that public officials and the mainstream media have finally taken notice of this. And I’m disturbed that the city is going to be taking potentially violent action against those who have been assisting these individuals now for weeks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Jim Oliver, just briefly, if you would — so, you are the city liaison. Are there talks going on? Is there some room for compromise? Are there some other parks you could move to for a bit? What — is there any way around this at this point?

JIM OLIVER: Well, our encampment is firmly entrenched in Chapman and Lownsdale squares, and we intend to stay there.

We have called for an Occupation Fest 2011 that is starting on Saturday evening. Every citizen of Portland is invited to come down and join us for dancing, music, a pot luck, games. We expect thousands. And we will be holding the parks peacefully in solidarity with our movement all across the country. And we expect to remain indefinitely.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mayor, from you, very briefly, you said you are worried. Are you worried about the reputation of your city at this point if things do get violent?

SAM ADAMS: We’re going to — you know, from the very beginning, our goal has been to deal with this movement, this protest in a peaceful way.

I feel like we have, to a great degree, up to this point. And that is our goal moving forward to enforcing the notice of eviction. You know, those people that want to get arrested for civil disobedience purposes, we have facilitated that before.

But the location and the way that this camp is set up and just other events have conspired that this is an unsafe situation. And it’s not just about the fact that it’s on the doorstep of City Hall. We take these kinds of enforcement actions all over the city, you know, all the time as the need arises.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. All right.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Jim Oliver of Occupy Portland, thank you both very much.

SAM ADAMS: Thank you.

JIM OLIVER: Thank you. Thank you.