I first saw Occupy Portland by accident. I was cutting through the edge of downtown after work to avoid congested freeways, and I felt a surge of excitement. It’s real, I thought, it’s real. I’d been following the movement online through news clips and friends’ Facebook updates, after which I’d go to the Occupy Portland website and daydream about bringing food, or wonder what camping stuff I had in the garage that I didn’t need anymore. I kept meaning to go down there, but hadn’t, not even when I was practically dared to go. (Though that was at three in the morning.) It just never seemed the right time. Finally a friend and I planned to go on Sunday, even before I got a Facebook message that there was a Eucharist planned.
October rain feels colder than other times of year because we’re just getting accustomed to being damp again. Lots of the paper signs around the camps were blurry and wrinkled. I found the two priests at a card table covered with a green printed cloth, under a pop-up awning wedged off the paved path between tents and tarps, about ten feet square. It was the designated sacred space area of the camp, just inside the northwest corner. There were two older men there, one with a yellow armband emblazoned with a Sharpied heart, distinguishing him as a chaplain. There was a man there in a long black duster who shifted back and forth on his feet. There was a tall androgynous person arguing with one of the priests, something about photos? Something about a reporter?
There was nowhere to sit down. Behind us, a huge structure that had been a succah was being transformed into a more permanent living space, but the priests had prevailed on the builders to wait until we were finished to use their hammers. The rain had started up in earnest, and as we began the service, both priests in their collars and overcoats, a few people stopped by to watch or stand with us. To my right was a young white man with a purple dhoti, barefoot, with lipstick. We sang Dona Nobis Pacem. I read the Gospel aloud. I don’t remember what it was. The man in the duster cried when we sang Amazing Grace after communion. A woman, breathless, wanted to offer a song. Is it appropriate for the occasion, one of the priests asked gently? She closed her eyes and sang her own lyrics about believing in yourself. She earnestly encouraged us to join in. The communion bread was a sweet loaf one of the priests had brought from home. The wine was grape juice—there’s no alcohol allowed at Occupy. As the cup went around from mouth to mouth, and I watched people snuffle, I thought, right, the ritual of the shared common cup. This is the point. The ground was uneven; I wasn’t sure whether the mud would seep up and overwhelm the well-intentioned straw.
Walking around the camp, everyone seemed to be going about their business. I felt a bit like a tourist in a strange country; I didn’t know what customs to expect, or what was expected of me. All the angled tarps were polka-dotted in silhouette, confettied with wet yellow leaves from the elms overhead. Under the tarps marked “library,” two young organizers were friendly and welcoming. The shelves were well organized, with a general damp chaos all around, like a used bookstore.
A large printer sat in the corner, color copies of bar graphs about some kind of finance beginning to curl at the edges. One of the librarians proudly showed me a stamp that someone at the county library had helped design. If these books showed up at a branch, they could easily be returned here. My friend and I began to think about what kind of textbooks we see stacked up at work, no longer in use.
The kitchen was the heart of the camp. A small group square-danced on the concrete slab in front of the pioneer statue around which it was based, while a band banged out amplified bluegrass. Two of the four couples in the square were punked-out in tight black jeans and vests with safety pins. One couple was in khakis and jeans, shirts from REI. The youth in black had painted their faces like ghouls; it was the day before Halloween.
I’ve lived in enough cities in the Northwest now to be familiar with communal living for a cause. It was a little like the Oregon Country Fair only wetter and with less frivolity. And more to a purpose: behind the library in a tent, five people sat in a circle, and beside it, in another tent, the same thing, a teach-in listed on the sign beside it. All over the camp hung signs both strident and community building, combining the tone of Chinese Communist propaganda posters with hippie earnestness.
But I admit, I was a little disillusioned. Looking around, my friend said, there need to be more people who look like us here. She was talking about class, or about aesthetics, more than race or gender. (Though both of those were pretty homogenous too—a smattering of women, and very few people of color, at least, in those visible on a Sunday afternoon.) While my rarefied liberal bubble keeps me mostly free from some of the rude mocking that the movement has faced, I’ve heard some of it. Of those who were there, many had a determination balancing resignation, while others, like us, had a wary sense of being game for this. There has been a large movement of Portland homeless into the camp itself, making the camp half activist venue, half shelter. Homeless Americans are also part of the 99%, as are many of the families who attend the private school where I teach. What occurred to me is that 99% of anything means a broad range. It encompasses people who are really, really different from each other, with very disparate goals and ways of looking at the world. I was struck by the futility of simply representing that group, let alone helping it work as a unit.
It’s cute to speculate that Jesus’s entourage probably looked a little bit like Occupy. I still think it’s true. It would have been pretty awkward to hang out with his crowd. Social stigma aside even, they were a ragtag group that had a general disillusionment with the status quo, a dream filled with good ideas, and a person to represent them. Don’t tell, but I’m not sure I would have immediately jumped in with that movement either. I probably would have stood at the edges. So what do I owe my neighbor, my fellow 99 percenter? Right now I have a full-time job, manageable bills, enough for a little extra, and a safety net. And although I know that I, like almost all of us, am one medical crisis away from losing much of that, I live my life usually in ignorance of that fact. I love this in theory, but the practice is kind of damp and smelly.
I do understand now how the experience is a huge part of the movement itself. It is a radical practice of community in a culture that moves to cheapen and question the work community requires, and its value. We are learning that sacrifice is not death, and that solidarity can be more healing than anything that comes in a package. On my way out, I saw the man in the duster again, Larry, and he leaned into the collar of his duster and muttered. When a two-way radio answered back, I was startled. In what other ways had I misjudged him? The elders said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’