Eugene Rising, Part V

From Occupy Eugene to Donald Trump in Four Short Years

This is the fifth of a seven-part series on the history of activism and protest in Eugene, Oregon. To start from the beginning, click here.

We’re doing something different with this story, because that’s what we’re all about – trying new things.

As you read through this story, you’ll notice a series of formatting choices that, at first, may appear really obnoxious. But don’t worry: this is intentional, and will help you understand the way we’re approaching it.

Here in the middle, where there’s no formatting at all, is where you’ll find the neutral narrative that we’re engaging with throughout the story. 

A savvy reader might consider this the closest approximation we, as journalists obsessed with historical documents and public records, could find to an objective truth.

When you see this toxic green color, you’ll be reading the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-in-Chief MG Belka.

And when you see this pink color that happens to match his protest helmet and nails, you’ll have the thoughts, musings, and analysis by Editor-at-Large James Croxton.

We did this because we believe that it is important to engage with history as we uncover it, and that engaging with history means constantly critiquing it, challenging it, and–when deserved–making fun of it, too.

But we don’t want to make the mistake of passing off those critiques and analyses as objective, since so many people still seem to believe that such a thing exists, and we don’t want to mix our own biases and perspectives with the hard research that we used to put this story together.

Oh, and, Black Lives Matter.

The Otherside of America:
The Occupied 2010’s and the Movement for Black Lives

New York’s Occupy Wall Street began on Sept. 17, 2011 and gained international attention. Due to that exposure, movements in an identical vein popped-up not only around the country, but around the world — and Eugene wasn’t exempt. 

MG Belka:
Neither was Savannah, Georgia, where a 19-year-old high school dropout named Marek set up a tent in a small park alongside maybe 30 other people.

In Eugene, it began on Oct. 15 of that year at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza with a march of over 1,500 people across the Ferry Street Bridge. This was also the day that Occupy Medical began, offering medical help to the community. It would last for years. There was even a free hair-cutting service.

Color photograph of a yellow and blue tent with a cardboard sign that reads "free haircuts" with an arrow pointing to the tent. The tent is set among the trees around the park blocks, which have signs that read "caring equals justice, justice equals peace" and "we are the 99 percent, occupy eugene!"
If one was in the Park blocks on Oct. 7, 2011, this is where one would get those free haircuts, had they wanted one. (Photographer unknown, via Wikimedia Commons)

The occupiers remained camped at the Free Speech Plaza until around Oct. 22 when it was allowed to relocate to Alton Baker Park as long as the protest continued “in a respectful and peaceful manner” after consulting with both City Manager Jon Ruiz and Chief-of-Police Pete Kerns.

MG Belka:
Big mistake. 

Of course, I wasn’t there, and I can only determine what happened based on contemporary reporting, but making the decision to move an occupying camp at the request of city and police officials had the effect of immediately invalidating the strength of the occupiers. Once they agreed to move once, they could be forced to move over and over again.

Which is exactly what happened.

After being forced to leave the park and then occupying UO, the University and Occupy Eugene agreed to relocate near the Millrace at Franklin and Onyx. However, the University only allowed them to stay until the next morning. 

By Nov. 6, OE had relocated to the Whiteaker neigborhood’s Washington-Jefferson Park. Following the death of a man from injuries sustained during a fight within the occupation and the subsequent City Council vote to terminate an camping exemption for them, OE left after six weeks on Dec. 27. Their Christmas occupation of then-councilmember George Poling’s front lawn probably didn’t help either. 

Through the end of the year and into the next, OE remained active. 

The Occupy Eugene encampment in Washington-Jefferson Park on Nov. 6, 2011. (Photographer Unknown, via Wikimedia Commons)

On March 26, 2012, approximately 30 members of OE dressed in hoodies and gathered in front of the Federal Building to call attention to the Trayvon Martin shooting. On April 2, a walk and rally for Trayvon Martin attracted over 150 people.

Later that month, members of OE and Cascadia Forest Defenders took to the trees—literally—in solidarity with worldwide protests that week over the destruction of our planet. By May 1, OE had occupied the courtyard of the old Federal Building at 7th and Pearl.

However, the City only allowed for them to stay until July 11 at 3 p.m. and, so, OE planned for only one protester to remain behind and get arrested ahead of a likely lawsuit for infringement of their First Amendment rights. 

MG Belka:
“Brave Beatrice” was the pseudonym used by Emily Semple, who would use the protest-to-politics pipeline to win a seat on the Eugene City Council in 2016.

Over the next months, members of OE occupied the front lawn of 1191 Lawrence Street, named Outpost A, which was then being foreclosed. The owner, when asked by EPD for permission to evict, allowed them to stay until it was sold. 

On Jan. 7, 2013, EPD arrested 21 people at Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza for defying an 11 p.m. curfew placed by the-County Administrator Liane Richardon in response to protests by activists with both OE and SLEEPS — Safe Legally Entitled Emergency Places to Sleep.

Municipal Court Judge Karen Stenard—who is currently still on the bench—later issued a ruling that upheld the protestors rights to hold 24-hour protests there.

By spring, the OE movement began to diversify their actions, incorporating tried-and-true local concerns about the environment to attract more protesters. On May 25, 2013, over 1,500 Eugenians—including OE—participated in the March Against Monsanto. 

When August came around, OE again occupied the Free Speech Plaza, this time protesting the potential intervention of U.S. troops in the Syrian Civil War. The SLEEPS encampment there lasted for four weeks until evicted on Sept. 4 “for cleaning,” however, after it reopened, would only be so from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. 

This proved to be the end of major OE occupations.

MG Belka:
It’s easy for me to look back at the Occupy movement and highlight all the ways it went wrong, all the mistakes that those activists made. But instead, it feels more prudent to share this passage from an editorial written by someone named Reid Kimball after the demise of Occupy Eugene.

“With each failure we grow stronger. We learn something new about ourselves, our community, the Eugene police, the city council, and more. 

But we won’t be able to grow unless we can accept failure, and we won’t be able to do that if we continue to attack each other for our well intentioned efforts. The story of our hopefully future triumph will include all the obstacles and adversity we faced along the way.

Each failure will enrich the tapestry of our collective experience. Let’s not knock people who have fallen down, but help them to their feet when in need. Their failure should be seen as a success to be celebrated.

If we all knock each other down, who will be left standing to help us up when we fall?”

Reid Kimball

MG Belka:
Maybe that’s true. It’s certainly a nice sentiment. But how many failures do people need to endure before they change their approach altogether?

Still, OE managed to leave a lasting impression on Eugene. Their focus on houselessness and public health initiatives for Eugene’s most vulnerable population would prove influential, and Occupy Medical’s ongoing work with the unhoused community has proven both invaluable and extremely popular among the community. 

Their success has encouraged others to follow suit and form their own mutual aid groups, which have almost certainly saved many lives over the past few years. 

These mutual aid groups and their experience of Occupy veterans would prove valuable, since the pause between the Occupy movement and Eugene’s next wave of unrest would be very brief.

But Eugene still managed to show up late.

On Nov. 12, 2015, approximately 500 people gathered at UO for a Black Lives Matter march following the police shooting of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis. 

Following the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of law enforcement, approximately 300 community members took to the streets in protest on July 8, 2016.

MG Belka:
Fun fact: I was one of those 300 people. That was the first protest I ever attended as a resident of Eugene. 

I remember being immediately smitten by the sight of people taking to the streets. I remember making a friend that day. I remember feeling like I had finally found myself in a place where people gave a shit.

A couple of weeks later, over 200 people gathered at the Lane County Jail for the “Movement for Black Lives Rally” and subsequently marched to Kesey Square. 

On Oct. 26, 2016, approximately 50 people surrounded officers as they made an arrest—after deploying both a Taser and pepper spray—near the Park blocks. A protest in response to what many considered to be police brutality took place at the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza the following Monday.

MG Belka:
Tensions were again on the rise in Eugene, and the city was beginning to fracture along partisan and ideological lines. There was a growing sense that Eugene’s existing power structures could not address perennial problems that led to thousands of unhoused people living on the streets, and the contentious election of 2016 showed some very clear cracks in Eugene’s image of itself.

Then, Donald Trump was elected president, and Eugene finally broke.

The Trump Administration Polarizes Eugene

The election of Donald Trump angered the people of Eugene, and they immediately made moves to let people know their feelings. Protests at his campaign rallies ahead of the election had mobilized thousands of people, and that trend continued into 2017.

After a Donald Trump rally at the Lane Events Center on May 7, 2016, protesters confronted Trump supporters and blocked a gate to prevent cars from entering or exiting the fairgrounds.

The night of the election, hundreds of students poured onto campus to protest Trump’s election, which was deemed a riot by local news outlets despite being entirely peaceful. A second protest was held on campus a few days later.

But once these initial flashes of anger subsided, consistent organized resistance against the Trump administration slowly materialized in Eugene. The Women’s March on January 20 brought some 7,000 people into the streets on a cold and rainy day in Eugene, but these protests were rarely followed by notable actions.

Photograph of hundreds of people filling Eighth Avenue during the first Women's March in downtown Eugene. There are all kinds of signs in the air, but they're too blurry to read out what they say. There is a tree blocking the bottom left quarter of the photo.
Look at all those pink pussy hats. Remember those? (Jan. 20, 2017, photo by David Geitgey Sierralupe, via Wikimedia Commons)

Minor scuffles between Trump supporters and left-wing protesters were making headlines in the city by the end of January 2017, but Eugene did not immediately leap to full-on unrest. Instead, the city fell into a predictable pattern of channeling most of their dissent into peaceful protest.

The people of Eugene loved to participate in those big, attention-grabbing marches. After the Parkland school shooting, thousands again filled the streets in front of the Federal Courthouse for the so-called  “March for Our Lives” protest against gun violence in schools. The annual NAACP-led Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches saw their numbers swell. By 2019, there were even more marches, like the Indigenous Peoples’ March that brought out a few dozen people on a cold and rainy day and other protests against family separations and deportations being conducted by ICE agents.

There were a few marches and rallies led by teachers’ unions as the Oregon legislature threatened to reduce school funding, too, but liberal activism in Eugene remained focused on the big picture through the first few years of the Trump administration.

MG Belka:
These big attention-grabbing protests are where I cut my teeth as a street journalist. 

The “March for Our Lives” was one of my first assignments as a student reporter, and I remember feeling awed by the sheer number of people that had poured into the streets and the emotion pouring from the gathered speakers that day. It felt good to see all those people take to the streets and make their voices heard. I felt good about being in Eugene, in a place where such demonstrations were relatively commonplace.

Photograph of two agents of the United States Department of Homeland Security in full uniform, watching people leave the federal courthouse during the March for Our Lives Protest on March 24, 2018)
This photo, taken at the March for Our Lives rally on March 24, 2018, reminds me of the good old days, when federal law enforcement officers were clearly marked and easily identifiable at protests. (MG Belka // DSM)

But, while all these events looked and felt good, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of emptiness after the marches ended with dance parties and drum circles.

That day, I remember asking a woman about her reasons for marching and what she believed could be done about gun violence in schools. I didn’t use this quote in my story, but I’ll always remember her answer.. 

“I’m a mom, and my kids are in school, and so I don’t usually have time to care about what’s happening in the world,” she told me. “But being here today makes me feel like I care about their future.”

While Eugene’s liberals were marching around and dancing in drum circles, battle lines were being drawn on the streets. 

Though Eugene had bolstered its left-wing reputation by 2016, the newly emboldened far-right and fascist elements surrounding the city began to make sporadic appearances in the city. As street battles in Portland between fascists and antifascists began to shine a spotlight on the Northwest, some of the light reached Eugene. 

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, hate crimes increased in Eugene and Lane County, including several instances of fascist vandalism. Jacob Laskey, who’d been involved in a synagogue attack and other white supremacist activities since at least 2002, once again made headlines in 2018 when he was arrested for stabbing another fascist during a fight. His family’s gun store in Cottage Grove was supposedly a base of operations for Laskey’s attempt to revive a local chapter of the white supremacist American Front organization.

The growing threat of far-right groups making incursions into Eugene led to an increased public interest in antifascist activity in the city. In 2017, antifascists exposed the owners of a marijuana business as neo-Nazi sympathizers, while another group allegedly hospitalized Springfield’s most famous white supremacist, Jimmy Marr, after a fight in Corvallis. Antifascists continued to monitor and expose local fascists throughout Trump’s first term, demonstrating that far-right activity was on the rise in the area. Many of the names they eventually exposed would go on to become notable figures in the local fascist scene.

By the summer of 2019, sporadic fights began breaking out between antifascists and groups like the Proud Boys, including one notable confrontation on an overpass spanning Interstate 5 that led to an arrest of an antifascist. 

MG Belka:
This was the scene in Eugene at the start of 2020. Tensions between left and right had been building for years, but had largely failed to boil over into serious street violence. In the meantime, liberals who were vehemently opposed to the idea of Donald Trump continued to oppose his administration’s policies in the streets but failed to transform their anger into meaningful policy change.

The left hates the right. The right hates the left. The liberals and centrists hate the left and right because they’re the ones furiously rocking the boat and making a mess of their idea of civil discourse. All three are sitting on a powder keg–a town struggling with the consequences of neoliberal economic policy with a rapidly rising cost of living and, with the rise of Donald Trump, little sign that positive change would come any time soon.

There was a whole lot of talking going on in Eugene. But when the time came, who would shut up and fight?

Thanks for reading–we wouldn’t have attempted such an expansive project if we didn’t believe that there was some merit to learning about the history of a place, both good and bad.

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