Monday, March 10, 2014
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PORTLAND – Traffic lights flash red and amber. A dozen gongs ring out from City Hall’s clock tower. As Maine’s largest city settles down, so does activity in Lincoln Park, home to the Occupy Maine protest movement.
Occupy Maine participant Robert W. Davis IV, also known as “Bobby D,” of Portland, reads a newspaper inside his tent in Lincoln Park on Tuesday night. Davis’ tent, which includes a small mattress, nightstand, lamp and other personal effects, is one of about three dozen that have created a small tent city housing Maine’s incarnation of the protest movement.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
It has been nearly a month since the first few tents were pitched in the historic park, making Portland an early focal point in an amorphous, worldwide campaign against government and corporate dominance.
Now, a settlement of nearly three dozen tents lines the formal walking paths in the 2.5-acre park, a functioning, blue-tarp city within a city, with its own food, rules and security.
Young and idealistic, the people of Occupy Maine espouse the principles of a world community built on participation and democracy. A recent night spent with the occupants offers a glimpse of how those ideals are being put into practice in the encampment, and how they sometimes butt up against a harsher reality.
Macy Lamson is washing dishes in a plastic tub. Volunteers have lugged the water from the bathroom at City Hall, among other places.
Dusk is near. The protesters who spend their days engaging the public in Monument Square, four blocks away, will return for supper. Her fiance is among them. Neither has had steady work in three years.
But Lamson can cook. She stands in a tarp shelter that functions as the camp’s community kitchen. Shelves are stacked with canned vegetables, cereal and peanut butter, much of it donated by supporters.
Lamson begins cooking acorn squash outside on a gas-fired grill. It, too, was donated.
It’s 6 p.m. Time for the general assembly, a daily meeting to set local goals for the movement and discuss logistics for action.
After being held in Monument Square in the movement’s beginning, the general assembly now is held next to Lincoln Park’s fountain, to attract more participants from the encampment.
The general assembly is a study in democracy and dysfunction. Two dozen people stand in the dark around a propane lantern. A facilitator reviews protocol and displays the hand motions meant to signal approval or rejection of an idea. A “temperature check” by the group indicates whether a concept is hot or cold.
Some proposals are tabled for more discussion, such as a teach-in about privilege and oppression. Details about a noon protest in Monument Square on Friday against Bank of America get hammered out; local coordination of a national protest against police brutality moves ahead, but needs money for a public address system and electricity.
The meeting runs nearly 90 minutes, with many items left to be tackled by smaller groups.
“Hey guys, democracy is long and boring, as we’re finding,” says Jake Lowry, one of the coordinators. “But it’s awesome.”
Some participants filter back to the kitchen area, where a handwritten sign articulates rules:
“Welcome to the occupation. This is a safe space. We are all leaders here.”
Clean up after yourself and help others, it says. No drunkenness. No drugs. Quiet time at midnight.
Since rejecting the occupants’ attempt to pitch tents in Monument Square, city officials have allowed the camp to exist in the park. Police have received few complaints, and on a recent night no officers were seen patrolling the grounds.
The city also gave permission for Occupy Maine to set up a portable toilet, said John Branson, the group’s lawyer. The group just needs money to pay for it.
Portland’s accommodating spirit is being noticed worldwide by a movement that in some places has had violent run-ins with police, Branson says, and organizers are grateful.
But Occupy Maine, a movement without direct leaders or clear authority, is testing the boundaries of its principles. The camp has a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol. But as he looks around the park, Branson knows that people with substance abuse issues are part of the scene.
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