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October 22, 2011

Welcome to the Occupation

The denizens of a small tent city in Portland’s Lincoln Park stay true to democratic ideals as they fight inequality, greed – and the elements.

By Tux Turkel tturkel@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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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

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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.

“The movement has given voice to wanderers and homeless people,” he says. “They feel they have a place to come. Some have become part of the movement, but they can’t just stay here and eat.”

It’s a difficult dance. At night, volunteers act as a security detail, watching possessions and steering intoxicated men away from the sleeping camp, though they can’t keep a group of men from sitting on lawn chairs outside a tent and chatting until dawn.

Still, there is an energy and a feeling of community in the park for participants who have embraced the message of the evolving, worldwide occupy movement.

Shane Blodgett, Lamson’s fiance, arrived from Augusta intending to stay a weekend. They have been at the camp more than eight days, feeling a connection and a sense of purpose after years of frustration over their inability to find work. They want to marry and start a family. But he’s living at home with his dad, craving a future that feels beyond reach.

“It’s sad, but it has become a reality, especially for youth,” says Blodgett, who is 21. “How am I supposed to provide for my family if I can’t provide for myself?”

After Blodgett retires to his tent, a small group of night owls remains outside the kitchen, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and talking quietly. It’s after midnight. Some worry about a coming rainstorm.

At dawn, Alan Porter is up and reinforcing the dining fly with rope and additional tarps. It’s 44 degrees, and clouds are overtaking the sky.

Downpours have tested the resolve of campers over the past month, but the warm autumn has largely kept nighttime temperatures above freezing.

Porter, an unemployed truck driver and arborist, wonders what will happen to the occupation when a Maine winter sets in. 

"I’m going to stick it out as long as I have to, or as long as I can,” he says. “But I don’t want to think about it now. I’m just worried about the rain.”

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com

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