The previous "big march" in Portland had been on Oct. 5. Many of us were delighted at the size of the crowd in Portland that day, and of the events around the country that week. "Five Days in October Spark Movement", trumpeted the headline on the global indymedia site, and the story read, "The first five days of October saw an eruption of organizing, demonstrations, and energy across the U.S. for stopping a possible war with Iraq. Tens of thousands of people gathered at various events to express their opposition to such a war. These events ranged from teach-ins to mass demonstrations, and from anti-corporate rallies to sit-ins, displaying a focus upon the economic as well as diplomatic issues facing the country." It was a time of rising hopes and raised voices, and felt damn good after the malaise that had been dragging down the activist community since Sept. 11. "We're back," Oct. 5 seemed to say. |
Many of us were thus very excited about the Nov. 17 rally. I remember doing everything I could to help promote it on portland indymedia, like posting what was basically a fluff piece. Those of editing the site featured into the center column every little story we could. Anything to help get the word out. It felt like everyone was working together: liberals, radicals, anarchists, etc. In fact, those labels didn't seem so important at that moment. That's what changed on Nov. 17.
The day started differently than Oct. 5, with a "Radical Feeder March" to start from the North Park Blocks, while the main event was convening in Pioneer Courthouse Square. The radicals desired to take the streets without a permit (why "ask permission or pay any fees for 'free' speech"?) and then join the liberals in solidarity in the square. That part worked fine. A few hundred of us spilled out onto Burnside and took all the lanes of Broadway all the way up to the Square without police harrassment. I smile even now remembering the joy of that moment (and other unpermitted actions of the period). You can't get that particular feeling of freedom any other way.
In the square, our comparatively small numbers were soon swallowed up in the larger crowd, though you could pick people out by looking for red and black flags or black masks. As was usual with these events, the speakers were not the highlight. After a while it was finally time to hit the steets.
The cops were blocking intersections along the route, and staying out of the way. (After being paid to do so by the march organizers, that's what you would hope for!) The energy was high. Chanting echoed between the tall buildings. People danced. It wasn't like just taking the streets, but it felt good. The weather was nice and I was just settling into what felt like would be an uneventful but not unpleasant (and maybe even energizing) day, when the cops grabbed a kid out in front.
I recognized the kid from previous protests. He ran with the radical high school students, and like to climb things. I'd seen him scrambling up onto a roof at one march, and onto a tall trellis at another. His energy was keen and bright. Seemed like he wouldn't hurt a fly. Why had they grabbed him?
At first there was no time to sort out those details. I was caught up in a group of people who broke away from the march and surround the cops who had him pinned to the ground, outside the entrance way of a building set back slightly from the street. "Let him go! Let him go!" we shouted. The officers were bike cops. They had helmets for riding but weren't in riot gear. They seemed a little taken aback by the response to their nab. There were only two of them, and nigh on a hundred of us. I got up close with my camera, as did other indymedia activists. The cops were gripping the kid's wrists tightly. He was making a peace sign with each one, but his hands were turning blue. I was furious. It was a fury that was shared by those around me. "What are you doing to him? Let him go! Let him go!"
I ran back to the street. The "official" front of the march (the people carrying the large banner) was just passing by. I recognized some of the faces. I ran up to one of them. "Hey," I said, a little breathless perhaps. "The cops just grabbed this kid. We've gotta stop and give him support." The man looked confused at my request, so I repeated it and gave a little more information, throwing in the word "violent" to describe how the cops were treating the kid, since I knew being against "violence" was a key concept to these organizers. He dismissed me. "We can't do that," he said, and made an excuse about being "started already" and keeping on time. A couple more of the people leading the march gave me the same response.
Disgusted, I returned to the arrest scene. The kid was still physically detained and the crowd, which had grown to a little more than a hundred, was louder. More cops arrived, and they forced their way out of the crowd, which surged up to follow them. Many individuals tried to block the cops' way, and were brushed aside. The going was slow, but steady, and eventually of course, the kid disappeared into the inJustice Center with his uniformed escort. Some of made noise outside for awhile, and a corporate media reporter who waded into the scene was pulled out by cops after a fight with a protester. But the anger that filled the air quickly changed; more cops were showing up, and, fearing more arrests, most of those who had followed the kid made their way back to the peace march.
I fumed the whole way through downtown. My friends and I were convinced that the kid's release could have been gained if the crowd had stopped and made it a priority. We were pissed as hell that the opportunity to change the dynamics with the cops had been lost. We felt deflated of the good energy that had bouyed us earlier.
We arrived back in Pioneer Square. The crowd continued to trickle in. Speakers started again. Radicals started planning for a march to the inJustice Center to demand the kid's release. Following an inspiration, I made my way to the back of the stage and talked to the organizers there, telling them I wanted to make an announcement about the jail solidarity march. I made it to the stage, where I had to talk to just one more person. I could feel a little resistance on his part, so I asserted myself, made my request sound as reasonable as possible, and brushed by him.
At the microphone, I delivered a speech that I remember as passionate, though I don't know how coherent it was. I shared the news of the arrest, described his mistreatment at the cop's hands, and then berated the march organizers for not stopping. "Oppression," I remember saying, "is not just something that happens in Iraq. It happens right here, too." If we couldn't fight injustice in our town, how could we hope to eradicate it anywhere else? I then announced the time and departure point for the march to the inJustice Center and stepped back down.
I was quite moved by the jail solidarity march. The righteously angry energy of the Radical Feeder March was back, and we filled up the inJustice Center's foyer with it. After a few minutes, the kid's mom came out and assured us that she was taking care of him, and that we should move along. Most of us were satisfied with that, and called it a day.
I have often felt like the Peace Movement in Portland made a choice that day that reverberated down into the events that followed. Had the organizers of the march had a frame of reference that allowed them to safely improvise, and who could have understood the parallels between injustice abroad and at home, and had they then paused the march to try to release the kid, much might have been different. What if the crowd shouting "Let him go!" had been a thousand strong rather than a hundred? If cop reinforcements attempting to join the two arresting officers had been met with polite but firm reminders that they work for us, and that we don't want this, and that they ought to just let him go now, please, 'cause we're not letting you through if you're gonna do the wrong thing? If, upon returning to the Square, a speaker could have celebrated the victory of a citizen-demanded unarrest, and taken the opportunity to talk about police harrassment of people of color all over the city, and how we should try to stop that?
If the people of Portland had told the police, "NO!" that day, it would have been empowering in many different ways, and would've represented an escalation in tactics that would've shown that "the Movement" meant business. A whole array of new possibilities would've opened up. The city and the police would've had to decide how to deal with people at future rallies, and it's not beyond the pale that they might've decided to back down more. You don't want to upset 10,000 people. As it was, the message sent was that business-as-usual could continue, and the mainstream liberal organizers would not be trying to stop it. City/Police 1, Peace Movement 0.
I have never forgotten Nov. 17, 2002. I wonder still sometimes how things might've been different, if at all. I'll never know, of course, but I do know that I learned some hard lessons that day, and was disappointed and angry in a way that soon became familar.
Those days are done now; the anti-war movement ended in March, 2003. A year after that, all the energy seemed to be going into supporting various Democratic politicians and the "Anybody But Bush" myopia. Ugh. And now we've got a stolen election that the mainstream liberals refuse to openly contest, and instead they wring their hands and whine about "moral" people in "the Red States". Ugh again! Where's the energy? Where's the life? Two years ago, on the streets, we saw a chance to grab some, and it didn't happen, and the mindframe that would make a move like that is still not with us.
Where to, from here? Hell if I know.