Ferguson protesters in Portland seek to build on, learn from Occupy Wall Street movement

Police move forward towards protesters who were marching downtown after flash bang grenades were deployed in Portland during a Ferguson rally on November 29, 2014. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

By Anna Griffin


Protesters who’ve stopped Portland traffic almost daily since a grand jury opted not to indict Darren Wilson began their work back in August. Their goal: to mirror and in some ways build on the Occupy Wall Street movement – but with a more cohesive and ultimately constructive end.

"We’re trying to create something that is going to last," said Teressa Raiford, an organizer of Portland’s Ferguson response rallies. "What you’re seeing is the result of a lot of planning."

Zuccotti Park and the Ferguson, Missouri, street where Wilson shot Michael Brown sit almost 1,000 miles apart. But in terms of their recent impact, they’re practically next-door neighbors.

As they did three years ago, marchers the past week have opted for civil disobedience rather than simply making speeches and rallying in front of Portland civic landmarks. They’ve held "die ins," led police on long, winding marches through downtown, filled Willamette River bridges during rush hour and attempted to seize Interstate 5.

The crowds have included black-clad anarchists and a few Occupy-style protesters in Guy Fawkes masks. The large groups have advocated for a number of causes besides police reform, including a $15 minimum wage, policies to stop gentrification and government disinvestment in multinational corporations. A few of the leading figures in the push to protest the Ferguson decision nationally are the same as Occupy, including Lisa Fithian, who helped put together the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle and was dubbed "Professor Occupy" by Mother Jones magazine.

"It’s similar in that it’s spreading without any central authority, it’s spreading by inspiration, by a compound of desperation and hope with a little bit of euphoria mixed in," said Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University and author of the 2012 book "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street." "The big changes made by Occupy were at the level of discourse, making the ‘1 percent’ and ‘the 99 percent’ part of everyday language. The quandary for people angry about Ferguson is how to channel this momentary energy into something that makes changes in more than just the conversation"

At the heart of both movements is an overarching distrust of the nation’s political and economic establishment, a sense that the system does not work for everyone.

"There are similarities and a connection in terms of this general sense of frustration with authority," said Matt Whitaker, who runs the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University. "But there are also some important differences that suggest what we’re seeing now will have a longer, more lasting impact."

Among those differences: Unlike Occupy, which was more spur of the moment, the post-Ferguson protests have been in the planning for months and have identifiable leaders with deep roots in the community. Raiford, for example, is a 1988 Jefferson High graduate whose grandmother owned the former Burger Barn in Northeast Portland in 1981 when two Portland police officers tossed dead possums outside the restaurant’s front door. She’s been advocating for tougher gun control laws since her nephew was shot outside an Old Town nightclub in September 2010.

"I have a son, and I’ve been scared for him since he became a teenager," she said. "This is very personal to me."

In August, after Michael Brown was shot, Raiford and several colleagues attended an Amnesty International-led protest downtown. That led to their own rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Northeast Portland and a series of educational meetings in conjunction with the ACLU to prepare for protests once the Ferguson grand jury finished.

Last week, at the close of the first late-night rally to decry the grand jury’s decision not to charge Wilson, Raiford and other organizers encouraged protesters to attend a civil disobedience training session scheduled for the next evening. On Monday, several dozen protesters showed up at City Hall to file formal complaints against police for a Saturday night protest in which 10 people were arrested and officers used "flash bang" grenades to scatter the crowd. The city’s Independent Police Review office will investigate the Police Bureau’s handling of Ferguson protests.

"We have to use the legal system to our benefit," Raiford said. "If we can get people to file complaints, that sends a message: We’ll use your system, even if we don’t think it works."

At times the past week, the tension between people marching for specific police reforms and those interested in more sweeping, societal changes – or in simply seizing the streets for the fun of it – has been obvious: Organizers at one march last week repeatedly steered the chants away from those advocating violence toward police officers. (Everyone in the march chanted along with, "Hands up, don’t shoot," but the volume dropped noticeably on the first half of, "All cops in the ground, rest in peace, Michael Brown.") On social media, several African-American activists criticized the white protester who climbed atop a Portland police car Saturday night as hurting the cause.

Ferguson activists may succeed where Occupy protesters did not, Whitaker says, because they have specific demands that vary from city to city – it’s a national movement with more precise local goals.

In Portland, those include body cameras for police officers, disarming of beat officers, a ban on riot police at political demonstrations and a requirement that Portland officers live in the city they’re paid to protect. More rallies are planned, including Wednesday night in Gresham.

"We’ve had a couple of little kinks but we’re working it out," Raiford said. "I’m not concerned about having all these different groups coming together, because this is a community we’re building. This is not something that stops next week or next month."

— Anna Griffin