The Powers that be had met and decided that this was no longer tolerable: everywhere the commune was irrupting and this experiment in urban autonomy spreading, in Oakland and New York, Portland and Seattle, in towns small and large. So calls were made and reasons were marshaled, the general command would be articulated through a local idiom, to shroud the unity of the operation.
For us in Portland, the puppet of Power was Sam Adams who told us he was sympathetic (one of us even!) but this had gone on too long, it was costing his police too much, it was unclean and a threat to public safety. Be reasonable, he told us, this eviction will pave the ways for a healthier Portland and don't forget: there are more responsible, respectable and established channels to voice our complaints.
And the order was given: our commune in Lownsdale and Chapman Squares was to be cleared by 12:01 AM on the 13th. This reclaimed space we had made our home amidst the alienation of the city, where we had assembled, cared for one another, talked long into the night in the interminable general assembly, plotted, schemed, made friends, entangled bodies in tents, consumed substance to alter perception and otherwise transformed the existent into an elsewhere was to be evacuated.
That day four years ago, thousands of us showed up the day before the eviction. The drama of the looming deadline and ensuing show-down with the forces of the state hung nervously in the air. The atmosphere was one of planning, bravado, speculation and nervous conversation, intensified by the incessant beat of the encircling police and media helicopters. As the sun set, the police set up large electric floodlights, seeking to render us visible, to cast light on this zone of opacity we had created. We responded by masking up, covering our faces with cheap plastic visages of Guy Fawkes or with bandannas soaked in vinegar, a prophylactic measure taken against suspected teargas. Many did not take this precaution, attached as they were to some belief in the moral power of being legible to the state or in some misguided conception that measures of safety were a form of violence.
It is worth noting that Occupy Portland was not just an occupation but a territorial project, a spacial intervention into the logic of the city. Though the world of the occupation was governed by separate, impromptu agreement and relations rather than any fixed rules, the occupation was not a space apart from the city. Rather, for many of us, it was a space that exceeded the confines of public and private, a space where we could gather and encounter each other, a place to go to meet like minded people, get a free meal or share some coffee (shout out to the free coffee people, you were the beating heart of the commune). It functioned as a site of concentration and dispersion, a place to gather to act in concert, an indeterminate space of contamination in which bodies entangled and messages spread.
As people with lives and worlds outside of Occupy, this mode of concentration and dispersion was our relation to Occupy: there for an evening at the start of the march or an assembly, for a reading group or a meal and then back into the city and to our separate lives. But, that night, breathing vinegar fumes, frenetically mingling and talking over the sounds of the helicopters, we were together.
There were so many friends: forest-defenders and students, folks from jobs with justice and PCASC, those guys who were always talking about the right to the city, people who were at that one march where we ran through the streets and that guy who did that really great art event. There was a recognition born of shared activity, a type of recognition that differs from that of state legibility, a recognition that sees behind the mask and captures the unique timber of the voice, the slouch of the shoulders, the gait.
As the night wore on, the intensity grew. The lines of police at the perimeter thickened and they donned their riot suits. The hoods of their helmets down, we could still see their faces, still talk and relate to them as people, all the while knowing the order would come and they would not hesitate to be the vehicles of force.
I lent my pocket-knife to a stranger who then proceeded to cut the electrical lines of some of the flood lights. We mingled more, now in slightly more darkness, feeling impotent. Someone had the idea to build barricades and the atmosphere transformed again to one of excitement. Soon a large number of us set about breaking apart chairs, moving traffic fences and otherwise taking the refuse, rubble and debris around the camp and transforming it into a large wall. At this time, I have a distinct memory of someone from the International Socialist Organization handing me a flyer about a conference on Marx that weekend: as if building their party of tomorrow had more urgency that the task of defending the commune. When will the orthodox Marxists stop deferring revolutionary time?
Barricades built, a sense of hopelessness descended upon us once again: this would not be a night where we would be victorious, the police would move in and some of us would be arrested. Something was ending, a possibility that had opened felt like it was about to be closed. And it was at this point that a small group of people started a spiral dance.
I recognized some of them: organizers from the ecological defense movements, anarchists and older Portland radicals. I was 19 and whatever airs I put on, the sides of my heads shaved or the patches on my clothes, these were people I looked up to and admired, often from afar. I joined hands and my body became a constitutive part of the line, a gigantic thread moving in a spiral. Joined together in movement and shared activity, our bodies were entangled and in our dancing we wove a web, joyously celebrating our entanglement. Our voices too joined together and we sang that magical incantation born of the feminist pagan anti-nuke and forest defense movements:
We are the rising of the moon
We are the shifting of the ground
We are the seeds that take root
As we bring the fortress down
Soon their were hundreds of us, united by this ritual, dancing together, coordinating our bodies and voices, taking part in an indeterminate dance of joyous rebellion. This memory, this sense of shared being and power, is one of the strongest from my time in those squares. When I hear about insurrectionary joy or the power of ritual, I think of that moment.
Unlike the member of the ISO, forever wedded to their endless deferral of the time of revolution, this ritual of dancing and singing speaks to a revolution that endlessly irrupts throughout history. It is neither the past or future of linear time, but a relation that speaks to eternal return and the calling into being of the messianic. Not the messianic of the utopic future, the no-place at the end of history, but the messianic called forth through activity, the Wobbly's project of constructing a new world in the shell of the old. This messianic temporality is a renunciation of hope and its futurity in favor of the insurrectionary possibility and immanence of the Commune, realized through collective struggle and activity.
And here is how the dance is more than a dance but a reflection of the Commune itself, the unquenchable possibility of realized briefly by Occupy. This eruptive acting together in concert is a form of activity where there is no separation between ideology and action, where the very action itself is governed by the rules of the world to come that is also that is also always and already there. It is an action that makes possible another world through living it. Paths are made by walking and revolutions by dancing together.
I don't remember much more of that night but with the spiral dance in my heart, I knew that dispersion was not defeat, that other concentrations would be possible. Indeed, in the coming months and years, we gather again: dates of mobilizations transformed into hashtags (#F29 and #N5), the long nights we spent camped out to stop an eviction or the mobile blockades, in the streets and forests of Oregon.
As we danced that spiral dance, our time became that of countless other people who joined together in joyous struggle. One of those was August Spies, the Haymarket Martyr who was guided by the light and unextinguisible flame of the Commune. It are his words to the judge, the conduit of capital and power who sentenced him to death, that come back to me as I think about the eviction of Occupy four years later:
Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.
They said after occupy that "you cannot evict an idea whose time has come". But really, what couldn't be evicted was an idea whose time was messianic, forever erupting into the present whenever people joined hands and danced.
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