PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — With two parks outside his office cleared of Occupy Portland demonstrators for the first time in more than five weeks, Mayor Sam Adams has a message for the protesters: Evolve.
The Occupy movement is “bigger than camps,” Adams tweeted this week, shortly after officers enforced his eviction order on one of the nation’s largest Occupy encampments. He says he’s deeply distressed to watch the demonstrators be forced to talk more about portable toilets and freedom of speech than their original messages of income inequality, alleged Wall Street cronyism and economic injustice.
“I feel frustrated because it really finally has sunk in for me the opportunity that’s about to be lost if this movement doesn’t evolve,” Adams told The Associated Press. “And I know the day after an enforcement of an eviction that I’m probably one of the worst messengers to deliver this message.”
Adams ordered police to clear out the Occupy Portland camp because it had become, in his view, unsanitary, unsafe and a haven for people not associated with the movement.
But Adams is a staunch supporter of the Occupy message. So his decision to close the camp was made with a great deal of deliberation, and with some sadness.
“In the end, I had to conclude it wasn’t ever going to get better,” he said. “I knew it was the right decision, but it was a very hard decision.”
Adams, 48, has been Portland’s mayor for almost three years. Previously a city commissioner, he has long been an advocate of social causes. When he was elected, he was the first openly gay mayor of a major U.S. city. But what’s often lost, he says, is that he is “probably also one of the few mayors who was raised on food stamps in subsidized housing with a high school dropout teenage mom.”
“I got into government in part because of the same issues that are being raised by Occupy Portland,” he said.
He hasn’t been shy about offering protesters his unsolicited advice, telling them to keep their movement alive while they still can and harness the energy to influence public policy on the issues they care about instead of focusing on an urban camp.
As mayor, he says, he could really use the movement’s pressure on national and international leaders to put more of a priority on helping average Americans, people who aren’t wealthy or well-connected — what Occupy protesters call the “99 percent.”
Still, the mayor’s advice isn’t particularly welcome for demonstrators, who say he caved to the interests of businesses and could’ve best supported the movement by devoting more resources to helping them deal with homelessness and mental illness within the camp so they could refocus their attention to their mission.
In an open letter to Adams on Tuesday, a group of key organizers said the mayor’s endorsement of their message “amounts to a conveniently timed attempt to restore your declining reputation among members of the progressive left.”
Adams’ decision to evict demonstrators followed weeks of rising tensions and increasing pressure on the mayor to put his foot down. A downtown business group said the demonstrators were scaring off customers before the crucial holiday shopping season. Daryl Turner, head of the police union, said officers’ resources were being overtaxed and that city leaders were sending “mixed messages” about the protests.
As Adams tensely watched and tweeted from city hall, police came out in force last weekend, deploying at times more than 300 officers in what the mayor says was a deliberate strategy to spend liberally on police resources. Commanders hoped that more manpower would negate the need for force, including tear gas, pepper spray and beanbag guns, Adams said.
So far, police estimate they’ve spent more than $750,000 on overtime costs related to patrolling the Occupy Portland encampments, frequent marches and the eviction — including $450,000 over eviction weekend alone.
Adams credits the all-in strategy for helping to avoid the widespread use of chemicals and other non-lethal weapons despite evidence that a small contingent of protesters was bent on provoking a confrontation. But he acknowledges the strategy is not sustainable if city officials continue to clash with demonstrators over where they can camp.
Demonstrators have complained that some officers used excessive force in the police raid and injured one demonstrator, but Adams says it went as peacefully as it could have.
“I certainly don’t want the movement to be over,” Adams said. “And I know the movement is probably very angry with me. I want them to succeed, but it can’t be at any cost. It can’t be at the cost of basic safety.”