My name is Justin Kertson, and I am the former History Advisor for the National Atheist Party Advisory Council. For the last two months, I have been absent from my duties and have virtually disappeared from the online Atheist community. Rest assured this is not from any lack of passion or support for the National Atheist Party. I am very excited to see us grow, and I fully intend to be a part of that growth.
For the last two months, however, my entire life has been turned upside down and transformed completely by the Occupy Movement. On October 6, 2011 roughly 10,000 people marched through the streets of downtown Portland and took Chapman Park, Lownsdale Park, and Main St. We held Main St. for almost two weeks and were holding our General Assembly meetings there in what was a highly symbolic gesture. We held the two parks for five weeks.
During those five weeks, I spent much of my time at the protest “camp.” I volunteered working in the kitchen feeding hungry people who had nowhere else to go for a hot meal. Now, they had hot meals three times per day and other food at any time, day or night. I rode exercise bikes attached to car batteries to help supply the camp with power. I cleaned up trash and attended General Assembly meetings. It consumed me. People were finally coming together to live, to work, to take care of each other, to discuss and to actually implement solutions to social problems, all right under the nose of City Hall and the Justice Center. At its peak, before the eviction, our camp had over 500 people living in two parks, with a third federal park, also being lightly occupied for General Assembly meetings after we gave Main St. back. When Michael Moore came to Portland and spoke at our camp a week before we were violently evicted, he said that he had been to many occupations around the country, from New York to Oakland, but Portland by far had the largest and most impressive camp in the nation. We were proud, but within a week, we would be accused of harboring drug dens, stock piling weapons, constituting a health and safety hazard for which there were never any official complaints or citations filed. As a result, we faced eviction.
We eventually received notice that we were to be evicted at 12 a.m. on November 13, 2011. Nearly 6,000 people came from all over Oregon and Washington State to stand in solidarity with us that night. Riot police showed up in massive force and ordered us to vacate the area or be subject to arrest. Instead of leaving, we retook Main St. as well as 3rd St. and Madison Ave, right in front of the “Justice Center.” Riot cops took formation and used cavalry to try and force their way into the parks, but we held our line. We pushed them back: they were outnumbered, and they retreated. At 5 a.m., they told us that they needed to reopen the streets for commuter traffic, and if we cleared the streets, we could keep the parks. We made the mistake of clearing the streets. Most people left, save a couple hundred. By noon, the camp was all but gone, and during a last stand at the Relax Box, riot police beat people, arrested dozens, and sent three people to the hospital in ambulances. There was not one case of physical aggression or violence on the part of the hundred or so of us who were left and were a part of this confrontation with the gestapo of the 1%.
Of course, that isn’t the story you will read in the mainstream media.
Since the eviction, Occupy Portland has been, in many ways, on the run. We have continued holding General Assembly meetings, at different times and different locations, but many of us have grown weary of meetings that accomplish nothing and wary of GA “facilitators” who control too much and hide behind a thin facade of objectivity. During the month since the eviction, we have continued to hold large protests and other events. On December 17th, a few thousand people took to the streets in a nation-wide action against Wall St. banks. In Portland, we effectively blocked the entrances to the large Wells Fargo and Chase Bank buildings downtown. Although we were engaged in civil disobedience, we were non-violent and non-threatening. We were met with pepper spray and truncheons.
On December 3rd, we took another park, Shemanski Park, in downtown Portland. While helping someone set up a tent, a cop approached me and told me I was being detained for illegally erecting a structure in a public park. He asked to see my ID. I refused. All the while, others had gathered around us and started chanting: “You have a choice”. The officer asked me to leave the park with him because at that moment he did not feel comfortable where we were. I replied: “No”, and stated that I felt very comfortable where we were and that I was surrounded by people who care about me. Someone with a bullhorn started calling the cop a traitor. The cop then chose to leave. I didn’t get arrested. It was a great moment.
About two hours later, with about 20 tents set up and a few hundred people in the park, riot police showed up in force. They declared an “emergency” for “safety reasons” and announced that the park was closed a half hour before the normal and typically unenforced 9 p.m. park curfew, and anyone who stayed was subject to arrest. I sat in a circle around the fountain in the center of the park with about 20 other people and watched as cops ruthlessly beat my friends and family. A 15 year old was hit repeatedly in the face with a truncheon. Many others were hit in the arms, back and legs. Those of us who sat in the center were arrested. Though none of us resisted in a violent way, we were treated harshly and thrown around like dolls. The rest of the camp marched to City Hall, and later returned unimpeded to the park and remained there undisturbed by police for the whole night. The next morning they beat up a young girl in the park for not showing them her ID.
That night wasn’t the first time I had been roughed up. I was hit on eviction day standing up with those barricaded in the Relax Box. I had been jabbed in the ribs a number of times in Jameison Park, which is the third park (in an upscale neighborhood) that we had attempted to take a couple weeks prior to our eviction. It was at that particular incident that my wife was arrested for simply sitting quietly and calmly in a public park.
The most recent “conflict” with police came on Saturday December 17th. We were marching against the National Defense Authorization Act and the obliteration of habeas corpus (and thus all other rights afforded to us in the Constitution that are enshrined from that great writ). There was a heavy police presence despite the fact that every unescorted march we had engaged in up to that point remained completely peaceful and orderly. After about an hour of aimlessly marching around downtown informing people about the NDAA, the police began blocking us from legally crossing streets at intersections on green lights. In response, we moved off the sidewalks and into the streets. Police officers proceeded to use their bicycles as weapons with which to attack us. I got hit in the legs with a bike and was also shoved to the ground by an officer all to have my foot purposefully smashed by a bike tire. My wife was shoved to the ground with serious force four times in a row by the same cop. She got up every time and went back to stand in his face, clearly yet silently challenging him to shove her to the ground again. I couldn’t have been more proud. The most interesting, if not disturbing thing, is almost every time I have ever been hit by cop, I was hit while doing exactly what the cop had asked me to do.
I am writing this account for this particular audience because the Occupy movement is not separate from the concerns of the National Atheist Party. Most of this Party’s members do not fall into the top 1% of wealthy Americans. Many of us in the N.A.P are struggling to find and keep jobs. We live paycheck to paycheck, only one move on the chess board away from actually being homeless ourselves. We work hard. We care about people. We educate ourselves. Sometimes it is all we can do to keep food on our tables, yet all the while, many CEOs and other corporate giants make tens or hundreds of millions of dollars per year, just to evade taxes, and live in wealth so unnecessary as to be literally filthy. Like “the 99%” of which we are a part, Atheists still struggle in this country. We have been outcast and ostracized. We have been told that we are not real Americans. We have been told that we cannot hold political office. We have been called every foul name in the book and have been politically disenfranchised since the inception of this nation and even before. The corruption that keeps Atheists in this country politically oppressed is part and parcel of that which holds down the vast majority of Americans both politically and economically. The struggles of Atheists in America and the fight of the Occupy movement are in fact one and the same. It is a struggle for recognition. For respect. And for an end to the political corruption that holds us down and keeps us all struggling and bickering amongst ourselves.
It is a cry for Unity and Community.
It is a struggle that all of us, no matter what our background, now seem to have in common.
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