The Dream of Occupy Wall Street Is Alive in Portland
Nov. 15, 2011: Police in New York, Portland, Ore., and other cities clear Occupy protesters from parks
When Occupy Wall Street protesters set up camp in Plaza Blocks Park in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 6, 2011, Jose Serrica bought a tent. “I saw them on the news popping tents, and I said, ‘This is cool.’ I didn’t realize we’d be there five weeks. I thought we’d be kicked out that night.” Serrica, 57, was majoring in psychology at Mt. Hood Community College, working the graveyard shift at a convenience store, and living with a family that ran a small home church. A bank had just foreclosed on the pastor’s house. Serrica liked the idea of fighting the financial system.
Although the protesters were kicked out on Nov. 15, 2011—along with Occupiers in other U.S. cities—Serrica still hasn’t left. The last remaining Occupier is sleeping across from that park, in front of City Hall, on the sidewalk in a sleeping bag. On March 1, 2013, he gave away his motorcycle, television, furniture, and most of his clothing, having pledged to spend the next year living on the street in protest of the treatment of the houseless (the politically correct term he uses for the homeless). He relies on donations to help pay the monthly bill for his Huawei smartphone, which he uses to stream protests live.
Serrica is emblematic of what’s happened to the remnants of the Occupy movement around the country. Portland has one of the strongest remaining chapters. They’ve got a tiny office in a church, a weekly radio show, a nonprofit organization, and a lone tent—actually, it’s more like a tarp—still standing as a monument in the park. The office helps to organize protests, which, this being Portland, aren’t hard to instigate. Few are focused on the financial system that the original Occupy movement was so furious about. Now it’s things such as closing the local Mt. Tabor reservoir; U.S. Postal Service outsourcing; coal transportation; Gitmo; shipping fossil fuels down the Columbia River; the Trayvon Martin verdict. In their office, just across the street from an anarchist-themed cafe, there’s a poster that says, “Bradley Manning: American Hero,” and a whiteboard advertising Occupy events, which include “World Record Tree Hugging: Sat at 2 at Hoyt Arboretum.”
But mostly they work on homelessness. When the protesters in cities nationwide took over city parks, homeless people in the surrounding areas came for the free food, clinics, day care, electricity, and safety. Many occupiers, in turn, chose to focus less on decrying the evils of overleveraged banks and more on feeding their new camping buddies. “It was a hard, hard decision and broke up part of the movement,” says Joe “Joe Anarchist” Bennie, one of the original and still-active members of Occupy Portland. “When your need is immediate survival, the banking system issues don’t mean anything to you. I got sidetracked. And I accept that. New York really struggled with this. They had fistfights regularly in their general assembly meetings. They said that we’re doing a much better job of it.”
Bennie is one of four members of Occupy Portland’s finance team, or, as the other Occupiers call them, the Old White Men Club. He has an MBA from the University of Phoenix. Jack “Lit” DePue, who has a ponytail that hangs over an Overturn Citizens United shirt, was a real estate loan officer for 10 years. Michael Wade, a software developer at a hedge fund, is the de facto head of the group. A mellow, churchgoing liberal who feels a little bad about saying he’s uncomfortable around anarchists while in front of Joe Anarchist, Wade sees the irony in working for a hedge fund and for Occupy Portland. But he likes that some of the money he earns goes to help change the system.
The Old White Men created a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) called Friends of Occupy Portland. It’s a lot of effort to keep it going. “I have a couple of people who donate a couple of hundred dollars a month, but that’s about it,” says Wade, as he leaves to deposit some Friends of Occupy Portland checks at a credit union and pay the office rent. “Fundraising is just not a priority. … We’re not really into accumulating big piles of capital. There’s a real undercurrent against money.”
Friends of Occupy Portland’s best fundraiser is Daniel Hong, an 18-year-old freshman at Reed College. At the Bula Kava House, a cafe where they serve the bitter Polynesian hippie drink that’s the only legal high Hong can get, he says he started volunteering at the office as soon as it opened. The group had trouble paying the rent even after the church lowered it from $800 a month to $375. So Hong went on crowdfunding website Indiegogo and scored $900. Worried that people thought Occupy was no longer around, and looking for more volunteers, he raised another $1,885 online and took out 25 ads inside buses and MAX Light Rail cars. “It’s ironic,” he says, “because I don’t like money.”
Aside from office space, about the only thing Occupy Portland spends money on is Serrica’s yearlong project to draw attention to homelessness. In late July, Portland finally ordered Serrica and the roughly 20 other people who slept near City Hall off the sidewalks, claiming they made it hard to access the building. So they moved right across the street. “We’re back at the park that we occupied at the occupation,” he says. “It’s hilarious.”
Serrica, who has a mellow, likable cheeriness, giggling after nearly everything he says, did a previous stint as a houseless person—decades ago, for two weeks in Reno, Nev., during a rough patch partly caused by his past struggles with cocaine addiction—but this feels totally different. Not because he gets breaks by going to friends’ houses to do laundry and shower but because he’s built a community mostly thanks to Occupy Portland. The people who sleep outside City Hall with him cook on a little cart they keep stowed in the park and share vegan meals delivered by Food Not Bombs. The Occupy Portland media team shows movies, and Rumorz Cafe brings coffee. The outlets at the park for electric cars also work for cell phones. When his year of living on the street is officially over, Serrica says he’s not leaving the sidewalk. “This is the best time in my life. I feel like I’m free,” he says. “I’m not going to go back into the systemic workforce, plain and simple.”