Public Space and Protest: Occupying the City

Tent spacing, early occupation (photo by author). The Occupy Wall Street movement is now a wide-spread and well-known phenomenon which, at its peak, created hundreds of camps in solidarity with each other in public parks across the globe. Portland, Oregon, was of course no exception to this and set up a mini tent-city in Chapman and Lownsdale Square Parks between October 6th and November 12, 2011. As a masters student of Urban Studies at Portland State University, a public space aficionado, and a general supporter of the movement, I decided to investigate this historical and potentially once-in-a-lifetime situation and conduct research within the camps. As some of you may know, the communication between Occupy Portland and Mayor Adams was consistent and clear while also being openly defiant via civic disobedience. As opposed to some other occupations, the occupiers were no hassled regularly or evicted immediately. Tents and tarps, open flame, and generators were allowed to a certain extent which created a mostly self-contained unit of civilization within the city's downtown district. Precise numbers are unknown, but approximately 500-600 people were living within two square blocks making upwards of 1500 meals per day and put on hundreds of protests, rallies, and marches during its six week lifespan.

P1020770As an anthropologist by trade I decided the best approach to gathering the most information at the camps would be to conduct a short ethnography of place. Due to the unexpectedness of the movement and encampment (and my already existing class schedule) I was unable to stay overnight but instead visited the camps for 3-10 hours every day that I was able to (about 5 days per week) between October 22nd and November 12th. Aside from mingling and observing with the occupiers, I also volunteered at the Information Tent - basically the heart of the camps where one could ask questions, get directions, drop off donations, or request supplies. Here, I was also able to gather a sample of surveys from occupiers and non-occupiers alike, looking to get more information on why they were here, who they were, and how they were involved in the movement. In general, however, the interactions and observations at the camps were more enlightening than the surveys which turned out to be very similar to other surveys conducted at the main Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

While there I saw otherwise completely unrelated individuals with varying ideals and ideas come together for a common cause: improving the country. Many were homeless, yes, but many were also students or employed living in apartments, houses, or with their parents - just like the rest of us. Ages and incomes varied widely, with most people being male, under 35, making less than $25,000 annually. Most visitors were waiting for this to happen for years, they said, as they dropped off donations in the form of cash, food, or clothing. Tents went up like wildfire and neighborhood "tribes" started to form consisting of communal areas and self-titled groups of people - previously strangers - now united in quadrant and cause. In a virtually anarchistic community, in the purest sense of the term, people were free to put signs up without the stigma of graffiti, converse about politics and culture with complete strangers, and form working groups for coordination and solutions. While the movement strove to represent every individual through a consensus model of democracy at the General Assemblies, it was often the case that the day-to-day organization and problem-solving were more immediate than the official approval and announcements otherwise expected from the movement's model.

Eviction night, November 12, 2011 (photo by author).

Given the circumstances of these camps, it was surprisingly successful while it lasted, and may have even overcome its issues given more time. In the United States, impromptu settlements like this do not occur frequently or for very long due to the rigid control placed over urban environments through codes and the like. In Portland, as is the case elsewhere, camping in the city is banned and public parks have curfews in order to curb homelessness in publicly visible areas. One of the core concepts surrounding public space, and indeed what drives many efforts to ensure that they remain public (as opposed to privately owned), is the use of such space by (appropriately) the public. This of course includes public assembly as part of our American values, but does not always manifest itself in such a permanent way. Eventually, these original regulations on the public parks were enacted once it was deemed that "health and safety" were at risk and Occupy Portland was evicted on November 13, 2011. While this case study of sorts can illustrate the complications of putting so many people in a small space, it also illustrates the now apparent complications of balancing, "allowing" and enforcing public actions in public space.

For those of you interested in the unofficial project report, you can find the full document for discussion here: Public Space and Protest: An Ethnographic Analysis of Alpha and Beta Camps at Occupy Portland or view the summary of significant survey statistics here: Occupy Portland Data.