Middle-class ‘Occupy Portland’ protestors should harness power of education

Elizabeth Cole

I arrived in Portland over four-day on a Friday night. The air was biting yet alive with the bustle of a city whose bedtime is long past Walla Walla’s. The streets were filled with activity, and as my friend and I forged through the night in the quest for a dining facility that was open to minors at this hour, we drove past the small metropolis that is the Occupy Portland site. The grounds of the park they occupied were blistered with tents, as if a modern-day Hooverville had sprung up in the midst of the city: only this one was full of nylon tents, electric generators and a vibrancy that its inhabitants exuded. Most importantly, they were there by choice, not necessity.

When discussing the clean-cut nature of the Whitman campus, the friend whose company brought me to Portland that weekend told me, “that’s not real.” Indeed, after returning to Whitman that Tuesday I was struck by the seemingly artificial nature of the campus. Its manicured lawns and prodigious brick buildings, the deciduous trees aflame with color that dot Ankeny Field and whose leaves are sprinkled in strategically placed circles around their bases: it is a scene that is often nauseatingly picturesque. But picturesque need not always mean artificial. In fact, it was the community of pseudo-poverty enveloping the streets of Portland that struck me most with a sense of artificiality.

Later that weekend we encountered the protesters again, and the clamor of their community was even more exuberant in the daylight. While sitting on the edge of Pioneer Square waiting to catch the Max, our heads were drawn up the street by the rhythm of beating drums and the dogmatic chants of the Occupy Portland brigade.

While I have no qualms about the integrity of the movement at large, Portland seems to be a city where the aim of the protest has missed its mark. On this particular afternoon a crowd of hundreds descended upon the square, signs and megaphones in tow, chanting their mantra “Whose street? Our street!” But a quick scan of the homemade signage revealed a great lack of direction. The signs ranged from berating Wall Street to raising support for action against climate change, bringing in organizations like 350.org that certainly have little to do with the current political state of the middle class.

Looking down upon the assembly from the top of the square, it was hard to see anything but a group of young middle-class Americans who were protesting for the sake of protest.

I find myself lending much more respect to the reform efforts of my fellow classmates than to those of the students bunking down in tents, a cloudy haze of dirt, cigarette smoke and zeal for progress enveloping their bodies. Students who are taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to them at places like Whitman. Students who, rather than reverting to a state of squalor in a quest for romantic rebellion, are establishing voices through clubs and organizations and empowering themselves through their education to make a difference in the world. For, far from enacting a selfless act of protest, these students who choose to resort to life in tents with a ragtag community of protesters when they have the resources afforded to middle-class Americans at their disposal are doing a great disservice to themselves and their community.

The environment provided to us at Whitman may be a far cry from the realities of life present in large cities such as Portland, but what the campus offers us is a sense of integrity, a sense of integrity that is lacking in the young people involved in the Occupy Portland movement and that emanates from a community of students using their education to affect the future of our country. And I find this to be an entirely more noble pursuit than the efforts of students lending their lives to the jungle of tents in the heart of Portland.