City has peppery history with protests
Police paid high price for familar protest clashes in ’02, ’03
Protesters rally in Tom McCall Waterfront Park and march downtown. Police confront some on a bridge. Officers in riot gear line up on the Transit Mall. Merchants worry that shoppers are being scared away. Demonstrators are pepper-sprayed. Their lawyers look into suing the city. Scenes from last Thursday’s “N17” protest targeting some downtown bank branches? Yes and no. Similar scenes also unfolded downtown in late 2002 and early 2003. They were triggered by a campaign fundraising appearance by President George W. Bush and the start of the Iraq War. Hundreds of protesters were arrested, and the city eventually paid $300,000 to 24 protesters hurt during confrontations. As the latest protests unfolding under the umbrella of the Occupy movement enter their third month, some analysts say they represent the birth of the biggest American social movement in decades — a movement fueled by the poor economy and growing economic disparity. “They are protesting issues that affect everyone. We have all lost jobs, taken pay cuts, lost our homes or know someone who has,” says Randy Blazak, a sociology professor at Portland State University who studies social movements. But at least in Portland, the Occupy protests look a lot like other protests that have taken place in the past 10 years. Although organized around a specific cause, protesters have spouted a wide variety of messages, encompassing a broad range of environmental, labor, social justice and other issues traditionally associated with the political left. Many of the sponsoring organizations and support groups are the same, too, including the labor-oriented Jobs With Justice, the Portland Central American Solidarity Committee and the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. Even the numbers are not that different. An estimated 10,000 people took part in the Oct. 6 march and rally that was called to protest Wall Street greed and that ended with the Occupy Portland camp being set up in Chapman and Lownsdale squares. But an even larger group participated in a Jan. 18, 2003, protest against the Iraq War, one of four large downtown demonstrations that month. Similar protests took place in many American cities around that time. Police arrested about 50 people on Nov. 17; more than 130 were arrested during a protest that began on March 20, 2003. There is at least one significant difference between the previous Portland protests and those associated with the Occupy movement, especially N17. Almost all of the previous ones were called to protest specific events, such as the start or anniversary of the start of a war. The Occupy movement movement itself set the date for N17, a so-called Day of Action that produced large turnouts in cities across the country. “Social media is reducing the need for a movement to have a charismatic leader. Now a single tweet can bring thousands of people into the streets,” says Blazak. A ‘mixed bag’ Although more protests under the Occupy banner are still being planned, they face the same question as all previous ones: what are they accomplishing? The numerous protests against the war in Iraq did not end the conflict. President Obama finally declared military operations finished eight years later. Judging the success of the Occupy-associated protests is even harder. The movement has been criticized for not making specific demands. Some protesters have discussed a number of issues with members of the City Council, including a request to pull city money out of large banks, which protesters blame for the nation’s economic crisis. The council has not agreed to the request, however, or even set a time to discuss it. Nevertheless, Blazak says that some of the movement’s goals already have been accomplished. “The movement has succeeded in creating a pubic dialogue about its issues,” he says. “When you have hours of TV coverage of protests — without commercial interruption, I might add — everyone is talking about it. But it is still a young, evolving movement. It really started just two months ago.” During the early 2003 protests, downtown business leaders openly complained about how they were discouraging shoppers and diners from coming downtown. Today, some worry that nightly TV images of protesters camping in parks and clashing with police could have the same effect as the holiday shopping season approaches, a crucial time for many retailers, restaurants and arts organizations. “Some of the biggest impediments to getting people to come downtown are congestion and parking. When you see anything that makes it look like those problems could be worse, it can be discouraging,” says Courtney Ries, marketing manager of the Downtown Marketing Initiative, a campaign funded with a percentage of SmartPark garage fees to encourage people to come downtown. According to Ries, it is too early to know what effect the weeks of protests are having on shoppers. Some businesses report sales declines while others report increases, she says. “It’s a mixed bag, to be honest,” Ries says. Possible legal action The police use of pepper spray during the N17 protest was a major focus of press coverage during the following days. But, despite the dramatic pictures and video images, that also was nothing new. The $300,000 paid by the city in 2004 to settle a lawsuit was based in part on several incidents during which police used pepper spray on protesters. The first incident occurred at an Aug. 22, 2002 protest outside a fundraising visit by President Bush. Others happened during protests against the start of the Iraq War that occurred March 20 to 25, 2003. Despite the settlement, police have continued to use pepper spray against protesters. Once was during the downtown World Can’t Wait demonstration on Oct. 5, 2006. Another was during a March 18, 2007 protest marking the anniversary of the Iraq War. These and other incidents of alleged police abuse are included in a report issued by the National Lawyers Guild and Northwest Constitutional Rights Center in 2008. It is being reviewed by lawyers with the Portland Law Collective, who are also collecting photographs, videos and other documentation on the N17 protests. The nonprofit legal firm is considering yet another lawsuit against the city because of its handling of demonstrators. “Litigation is a possibility,” says Brenna Bell, an environmental attorney assisting with the research. Bell should know. As a Lewis and Clark Law student, she helped organize a number of protests in the 1990s.
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