Everything decided during the sit-in at then-U.S. Rep. John McKernan’s Monument Square office was by discussion and consensus, no small feat for 54 people participating together in a public act of civil disobedience. We’d taken to heart what the “Our Lady of Victories” statue, only a short walk across the square from his office, represents.

Also known as Portland’s Soldiers & Sailors Monument, she stands strongly in bronze flowing robes, furled flag in one hand, mace and shield in the other, celebrating a balance, we can even say “marriage,” of feminine and masculine energies.

Still, our action was illegal. Still, sit-ins, regardless how disruptive some may be, are meant to be peaceful and often are. Our protest of 54 was supported by hundreds of Portlanders Against U.S. Intervention in Central America, whose members were a vital and varied segment of the city’s working and cultural life opposed to McKernan’s June 12, 1985, vote in Congress in favor of $27 million in aid for the Contras, an exiled rebel group made up mostly of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s military and police forces.

McKernan wanted us out. We were staying.

At one moment, I felt hopeful we might succeed in communicating meaningfully with the congressman, listening from where I sat on the office carpet to what sounded like progress in negotiations during a phone conversation between one of us and a spokesperson for him. We were calm, soft spoken, peaceful – not even a verse of the Pete Seeger song “We Shall Overcome” out of us – allowing bodies, their vulnerable but determined presence to speak for us against more U.S. dollars invested in havoc and killing among the Nicaraguan people, who had only recently liberated their country from a brutal dictatorship long supported by our government.

What was intolerable to conservative politicians in the U.S. was the liberated Nicaragua’s demand of sovereignty, which meant taking back control from U.S. corporations Nicaraguan coffee and banana resources, among others, part of a larger tragic story of U.S. hegemony throughout Central America. It was past time for a change.

Suddenly the police were coming through McKernan’s office door, while his spokesperson was still on the phone negotiating with us. Two Portland Police officers carried me out, taking obvious care to do no harm. I couldn’t help feeling like a sack of potatoes between them, regretting their burden, heavy enough for them to resent having to carry me the distance from office to waiting patrol wagons. No joke, this. Still, neither officer even wisecracked at our expense, as one by one they carried us out to be driven off to jail. There was a certain ludicrousness to the situation, and still the officers suffered me like men who know the hard-won value in a sack of Maine potatoes.

Criminal trespass charges against the 54 sit-in participants were subsequently dropped; the prosecution determined they were unwarranted because of “the peaceful and orderly nature of the demonstration,” then-District Attorney Paul Aranson told the Portland Evening Express for its June 20, 1985, edition, and commended the Portland Police “for their professionalism and patience.”

Thinking about all this 36 years later, I am still protesting. Then, it was against one of that era’s corporate juggernauts of national greed to control markets in Central America, today, it has become an ongoing struggle against a curving spine and becoming a bent old man. I’m working on it.

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