Wake Up America: Notes From a Protest

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Written by Keith Going

First things first: I did not originally attend the Occupy Portland protest on the grounds of protesting myself; I went for my own reasons of trying to remain on neutral ground. Like many others I’m sure, I have been somewhat  leery of large masses of people shouting for one side or another, whether it be at stadiums or in street marches, even if the side they’re on is my own.

The reason is less the suffocating claustrophobia of such crowds—though this is also true—but rather something akin to the  feeling that “behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching by with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.” Which is to say I have always found myself more in tune with the dogged, often lonely, unsung work of community organizers, advocates and longtime volunteers, however rare such dedication may be? It is not that symbolic manifestations have no power, but that such symbols often spin out of the control of even the best intentions.

Still, it was hard to see any “basic, pervasive evil” in the peaceable, affable crowds that marched Thursday into and out of downtown’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, from our 2:30 pm starting point at Waterfront Park. Though a long array of shopworn protest slogans were chanted, it was hardly a group in militarized lockstep but rather a broad cross-section of the disenchanted and the disenfranchised, young and old and in between: paired mothers and daughters were a not-uncommon sight, alongside elderly couples, wide-eyed college kids and the inevitable raft of the deeply radicalized. For the most part it just looked like “The People,” in the old optimistic sense of the phrase.

One protester attending told me, “I know it’s mostly liberals here, but I can’t help but think that a lot of conservatives see the same problems we do.”

By simple back of envelope calculation (an average of 8-10 people passing by per second, for a total of 24 minutes), I personally  arrived at a figure of between 8,000 and 11,000 people in attendance, which for a city the size of Portland is a figure that would seem very difficult to ignore. At times it seemed there would be no end to the marchers, that the streets would be forever filled in lemniscuses.

Upon arrival at Pioneer Square, people did just what the protest’s title implied: they occupied the square. At the square’s very center, whatever was said on the inadequate P.A. was hopelessly garbled and diffused by the mass of bodies. The solidarity was thus less about a specific message, than in the simple shared presence, the optimism in discovering that so large a group cares about what one cares about. Those at the edges of the square milled around somewhat confused about their purpose, while in the middle of Broadway Avenue, someone who’d brought a much more effective sound system had started an impromptu street dance party by the Nordstrom store.

Police presence was benign, though ever increasing: officers smiled and waved at the occasional (very uncommon) heckle, mostly serving to block streets from cars and to support Tri-Met employees trying desperately to keep everyone off the MAX tracks as trains rolled in. “Please be careful,” said a man in a yellow vest. “Please be careful. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Of course, there was also something of the carnivalesque in the air: A young man sitting on a brick wall somewhat treacherously held a sign reading “Tear Down the Wall,” above a woman in bunny ears with a sign (the day’s winner, in my book) that read “Screw Us and We Multiply.” A number of protesters wore Guy Fawkes “V” saboteur masks popularized in the political sphere by Anonymous, though I couldn’t help but think that every time they bought one they were giving money to Time Warner.

People with cameras trained their lenses on other people with cameras. One man emphatically vocalized to another, “I’m pissed off because we have no voice.”

A collection of some responses of the assembled occupation when I asked why, in fact, they were there:

• From a slightly shy young woman at the edge of the square, dressed in a pink hoodie: “I was thinking about that in the shower this morning, and honestly I think it’s kind of vague, what this movement is. It’s just a kind of roiling dissatisfaction. I’d be interested to hear what other people’s responses would be.”

• From a gregarious older man with close-cropped hair: “I’m an old guy who’s genuinely ashamed of what’s happened to my society on my adult watch since 1980. The project of improving democracy and putting us on a sustainable course has failed. Oligarchy, a few people of wealth and power controlling society even more so than in 1980, has us totally on the wrong course. It’s awful.”

• From an older woman taking a break on the square’s bricks: “I’m just fed up with the way that things are being portrayed in the media. Corporate media has us all thinking that austerity is the only solution and it’s just not true. Social security and Medicare should not be privatized. I think when things get privatized that’s when there’s fraud and corruption.”

• From a conservative-looking young man in a North Face vest: “Because the top 1 percent owns close to a third of the wealth, and I don’t think that’s right.”

I left just as the march reached the square where many would remain overnight, in harmless occupation; city officials had already decided to overturn the park’s camping ban, promising a relatively friction-free stay. Still, a team of six horse police moved toward the square, and behind them, a pack of eight police motorcycles filled the next road to the north of the marchers. The looming clouds had already buffed most of the day’s shine into a dull glaze, the wind was lazily shifting directions, and just as I turned away from the occupation for personal exploration of the city, it began to gently rain.

As I exited the park I was drawn to a sign reading “I am morally obligated to stand up in defense of Democracy”, at that moment I realized I could no longer be the neutral observer I intended to be but would shortly become an active member of a revolution that has been a long time coming.

One thing I found disheartening was comments from a conservative viewpoint that this movement was nothing but “A bunch of socialist liberal cry-babies in search of handouts.” Was / and or is Christianity not fundamentally part of the conservative framework? If so, I invite you to read the following:

  • 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.


Deuteronomy 15:7, 11

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.


So My Friends I will leave you with my Final summary:   

  • God has commanded it
  • The People now demand it
  • Is it really that difficult to solve it ??????????


One Response to Wake Up America: Notes From a Protest

  1. Nice balance…thank you Keith!