Occupy Portland: End game leaves us in the same place

Occupy Portland's campsite in downtown Portland.  (Image: KATU)

Occupy Portland’s campsite in downtown Portland. (Image: KATU)

By Jenny Westberg, on behalf of the board of the Mental Health Association of Portland, Portland Tribune, Nov. 9, 2011

The first of the season’s heavy rains was almost enchanting.  You lay that night in the occupied park blocks listening to a pizzicato Magnificat pattering on the rooftop of your tent, your anti-Wall Street heart resounding, “The rich he has sent empty away!”

But days later, under a cold sun and clouds that might burst any minute, you feel a persistent cough coming on, and you’re not hearing J.S. Bach anymore.  Instead it’s Joe Strummer: “Should I stay or should I go?”

It’s the moment of truth for Occupy Portland.

Most activist movements fade through loss of heart or mission.  Stalwarts grow fewer and louder as the tepid drift to the periphery, until the last true believer is left shouting to no one.  Occupy Portland peaked early and artificially, its ranks swelled by Portlanders with no particular political affiliation and no permanent address. Its demise in the November rains, if it comes, will be sudden as the popping of a soap bubble and equally unrelated to politics. Simply put, those heading home will be those with homes to go to.

As our society grows more complex, vertical and distinct, more persons are unable to fit in.  For the most part they are broken — old, poor, lame, mad, mistreated.  Usually they’re easy to ignore. Just step a little quicker on your way to that chic eatery in Old Town, eyes straight ahead as you pass the woman muttering to herself, the man slumped in the doorway, the kid trying to catch your eye and beg for change.

But that was before Mayor Sam Adams’s “peace treaty” with Occupy carved a temporary exception into the city’s anti-camping ordinance, and large numbers of Portland’s homeless headed for the park blocks. Overnight the mostly young, mostly starry-eyed protesters discovered the problems of this world right in front of them — where they had been all along.

Organizers, to their great credit, kept the gates open and welcomed the hordes of newcomers with a steady supply of food, blankets and camaraderie, but the difficulties of mental illness and addiction quickly overwhelmed their resources.

Occupy leaders tried again and again to get some help.  They asked for medical services; they got police.  They begged the county for aid; they got silence.

The starry-eyed kids with their open hearts and open gates had all the right ideas, all the right instincts. They just needed a hand.  But the responsible grown-ups at Multnomah County’s Mental Health Division have been playing the bratty 4-year-olds who can’t make their little motorcar go, so nobody else gets to try winding it up either.

The kids know, too, that madness, homelessness, addiction and unemployment are imminently fixable, especially compared to busting down the capitalist system.  The “impossibility” of these problems comes from never really having tried.

And now, as winter approaches, things aren’t looking good for Occupy Portland.  If the sleet doesn’t break them, our icy inattention will.