The Debate Over Symbols At Occupy Portland

Two debates at the general assembly on October 9th stood out to me as possibly being thematically linked: the issue of whether or not to adopt the US flag as an official symbol of Occupy Portland and the issue of occupying or ceding Main Street, the bit of road between our twin encampments.

I saw Lindsay make a quick presentation about her flag proposal maybe half an hour before the general assembly got underway, and I had a chance to have a few words with her afterward, though I wasn’t the only one trying to clarify what she meant. Here is my understanding of the issue: Someone gave a speech during the march early that Sunday wherein it was suggested the Occupy movement “reclaim” the US flag as a symbol of the 99%. My understanding of Lindsay’s perspective (and I stress that it is my understanding, as I have no desire to put words in her mouth) is that she believes the flag has been soiled as a symbol—that the violence and oppression she alleges has been done under that banner make it ill-suited as a symbol for the movement.

It is not my intention at this time to support or deny that claim. Rather, I wanted to point to her contention, and the ensuing debate at that night’s GA, as an example of our infant community clashing over the proposed adoption and use of symbols.

It seems to me that the debate over the occupation of Main Street—“Streets or no streets?” as I heard one facilitator put it that same night—tied into the same issue. There were of course legitimate concerns raised in support of the Occupation ceding Main Street back to the city government; I heard speakers raise the issue of emergency vehicle access, for example. On the philosophical level, there seemed to be many who didn’t want to antagonize the city. “Right now,” I heard another speaker say, “we need to think about the longevity and long-term sustainability of this.”

All the same, the popular consensus wound up being continued occupation of the street and fountain. There was an issue of safety raised—did we really want vehicles traveling between the parks with so much foot traffic constantly moving between them as well?—yet I got the (admittedly subjective) sense that our occupation of Main Street had become a symbol—that this was our street, as the popular refrain goes, and to cede it back to the city, even in the face of what may seem sound arguments to do so, could be viewed as a symbolic defeat that could cascade into real losses to the movement in the future.

Yet a week later, the street is clear, and resistance to its reclamation by the city government on October 13th was minimal, with only eight Occupiers arrested, most having peacefully surrendered to the police despite refusing to comply with the order to disperse. So I have to wonder—what was the value of the Main Street occupation as a symbol? After the loss of Main Street and the fountain as a place to organize, the general assembly has been moved to an amphitheater in a federal park, where the meetings must end before a strict curfew, after which anyone in the park could be subject to arrest for trespassing on federal land. Is this a symbolic defeat? After all, despite the consensus at the GA being that Main Street should be occupied, the majority of the actual Occupiers didn’t seem too worried about holding onto the street—indeed, many in the camp seemed against the idea as the days wore on and the issue came more and more to the forefront. Then is this simply a sign of the movement maturing, learning to operate within the bounds of the existing American political landscape and practice good public relations? There is certainly an argument to be made there, though for some Occupiers who are fed up with the status quo, the loss of Main Street and the “good behavior” of fellow Occupiers in the face of that loss may suggest the same mouths who shout for justice and equality lack teeth.

Symbols are going to be of vital importance to this movement; the average person still sitting at home, perhaps hearing about the Occupation movement on the news but unmoved to join it, is going to be motivated to act in large part through the use of symbols if by anything. The debate over what symbols we adopt—if any—is going to continue to be a part of the debate over what this movement stands for—if anything specific.

2 thoughts on “The Debate Over Symbols At Occupy Portland

  1. Overheard at the checkout counter at the dollar store, where there were little american flag pins among the impulse iems: “I’d get one of these…but they just remind me of George Bush and all that shit.”

    I think your friend may have a point. 😛 


    • Just for the record, I don’t particularly know Lindsay personally; she’s more of a friend-of-an-acquaintance that I just talked to the once.

      And I’d have to agree on the broad point that the US flag has probably been tainted as a symbol. Whether I’d say that for the same reasons she did is another matter. But I don’t think she was wrong by any measure.


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