Occupy Portland at Risk of Being… Well, Occupied.

There has been growing concern that the Democratic Party will surreptitiously appropriate the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, Chris Hedges assured readers recently that the great groundswell of protest growing in the “squares, parks and plazas across the nation in defiance of the corporate state” are in no danger of being co-opted. He asserts that rather than power elites, it is everyday citizens alone “who hold out the possibility of salvation”.
Hedges may be right in this regard. However, in Portland, Oregon’s Occupy Portland movement there exists the genuine possibility of hijacking. This threat is not so clandestine either. Whatever hidden maneuverings the power elite may be conducting, there are some very overt groups that seems to be monopolizing the popular demonstration. The Dirty, the Drunk and the Deranged have swept in en masse and would appear to outside observers to be the primary constituents of this movement. Portland is an interesting mix of folks. Portlanders are proud. Many more support the Occupy movement than might be apparent from a drive by of the occupied parks. More mainstream Portlanders would like to participate more directly and more long-term. However, frankly many are just turned off by what they see in the park. It’s not kind; it’s not fair; yet it’s the truth.

It seems as though a tale of two parks has developed over the past two weeks. Today the park is considerably well organized. Two weeks ago on day two as occupiers settled in, there were far fewer people, but still enough to warrant serious logistical planning. These were just developing and seemed worryingly inadequate. It appeared at first that the occupation might be in danger of collapsing in upon itself for lack strategic management. Now two weeks later, the management is impressive. People are working efficiently in shifts to feed the occupiers and clean up after them as well. In those first days, there were far fewer people but far more impromptu discussions and debates. Now there are four times as many people, but talking circles seem a much rarer occurrence. Where they have gotten their logistical business in order, the occupiers may have sacrificed crowd quality for quantity. It is hard to discern between the activists and the merely active (often barely active at that). Upon first glance they all look much the same. Sadly, they are for the most part divisible into the three aforementioned camps: dirty, drunk and deranged. This makes one all-the-more grateful that they at least got those sanitation logistics sorted.

Now, when I say dirty, I don’t mean a group of people that have been camping out in the park for three weeks, bathing only occasionally, if at all, a little funky, but generally presentable. I mean a mass of people who choose to express a lifelong pride in the fact that they have small critters living in their hair. For the most part these are decent, intelligent, articulate and impassioned people who simply lack much regard for personal hygiene. No big deal. They have always been a ubiquitous assemblage in Portland, and the city would be a sadder place if they were to all suddenly shower and don suits. Their seeming indifferent approach to life and appearance is in its way (ironically) refreshing. However, once assembled in single locale they resemble not just a single part of the whole, but a vast swath of a town of transients. It’s as if Lady Liberty said, “Give me your unwashed masses and I will stash them away over in Lonsdale Park in Portland, OR.” Most of these folks are not, in fact, homeless; many of them are. The point is that they all appear to be. As unfair or unkind as it may be, it frightens off much of the more presentable public – a contingent of our city that wants its voice heard as well.

If that is not enough to keep “mainstream” Portlanders at home, there is the second co-opting group: The Drunk. Now, when I say drunk, I say so in relative terms, “drunk” being the baseline. I also say “drunk” with a twinge of hope that they are merely drunk and not strung out on meth. The drunks are not as prevalent as the merely dirty. They seem to mostly converge on the sidewalks surrounding the parks. Sadly, this is the area most visible to passersby. Again, mainstream Portlanders, people who want to join this movement, people who want to bring their children to this possibly-historic event are driving past and heading home.

Aside from politely holding your breath to avoid the emissions from the dirty and the drunk, there are still the deranged to deal with; and holding your breath won’t help. Along with the addicts, it’s most appropriate that the city’s mentally ill have gathered to criticize the relationship between corporations and our government. By redirecting funds to private enterprises, corporations and government representatives have derailed the institutions that served the mentally ill. Now they wander the streets, seeking whatever it is they need, railing at the world or nothing at all. The Occupy Portland movement has given them a home and a captured audience. A tent was set up to serve as a sort of psychiatric triage center offering help for any who suffer from mental illness. None were inside. Yet, plenty were outside the tent, wandering the park, or planted firmly in one place. Lost perhaps. Some were silent. Some were loud. One was terrified, shoeless and obviously sick. This is the smallest of the three groups of usurpers, but they probably require the most immediate attention. They need quality, individual-care from professionals. In most cases they are harmless, but still intimidating. In some cases there is a very real concern for their safety and that of others. If for no other reason, it is good the police have a small but constant presence within the park.

The Dirty, the Drunk and Deranged are all one small piece of the Portland pie. The Occupy Portland movement would be much more effective if a broader representation was present in the park. Of these three groups, the Dirty should take the lead in making this possible. Unlike the mentally ill and the addicts, most of our unwashed brethren have a choice. By shaving (or even trimming), bathing (or even deodorizing) and changing their clothes (or even washing their rags), they will help the cause in myriad ways. Here are three: First, this will help distinguish the truly needy so that they may get the appropriate support they need. Also this will present a more palatable public face to the occupation, which will in turn bring additional support from a broader spectrum of Portland. Lastly, it will disarm critics of the occupation. As it is, it is easy for them to write off this movement as just a bunch of unemployed, lazy reprobates. Having been there, I must assert plainly that this is not true. There are brilliant minds and articulate voices occupying Portland. The sad truth is however that from afar it is hard to discern the brilliant from the demented and the articulate from the raving.

This is a point of perception that may seem frivolous. However if we’ve learned anything about ourselves and our society over the last 3 decades of capitalistic orgyfest, it is that perception is everything. Aside from a hefty bill (and a worrisome itch) at the end of a long bad date, corporations have left us with many life lessons and misguided values. The recently deceased and glorified Steve Jobs, among others, with beautiful gadgets, ingrained in us the notion that it doesn’t really matter what is on the inside that counts. Perception is everything. Build it beautiful and they will come. As sad as this fact is, it is the reality in which we live. The Occupy movement could apply this lesson in honor of the man so many of them seem to worship, even as they ironically excoriate the corporate world he revolutionized. Image is everything (insert Apple logo here). Even better, they should do it because it is good for the movement and for all of Portland’s proud people.