In Mud of Occupy Portland, Looking for a Seed

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The Oregonian

In Mud of Occupy Portland, Looking for a Seed

"Thank you for coming to visit what we're doing," beams the cheerful, curly headed 20-something standing at one of the corners of the Occupy Portland encampment Friday morning.

"We're glad you're doing it," says Marian Wright Edelman, founder and head of the Children's Defense Fund.

"Thank you for raising your voice."

Edelman knows about raising your voice. For almost four decades, she's been the leading advocate for children in American politics, a role that to attract any attention at all needs to be permanently set at "holler."

She also knows something about protest encampments. Long ago, she worked with Martin Luther King Jr. on his final project, the Poor People's Campaign, which set up a tent city in Washington, D.C., in 1968 to bring poverty in front of the U.S. government. King was murdered before Resurrection City was set up, and it lasted about a month before being taken down after Robert Kennedy's assassination. She remembers the hearse stopping by the camp so people could say goodbye.

Occupy Portland seems something like it, but not exactly.

"They were really all poor people," she remembers about Resurrection City. "The rain just wouldn't stop. For the first time, there were whites, blacks, Native Americans and Latinos together. It was a huge experiment."

It was an experiment that, after the D.C. police cleaned away the mess and Richard Nixon was elected president, was pretty much considered a failure, which isn't how Edelman remembers it.

"All of the 40 million people today on food stamps, the only thing that's keeping the wolf from their door," she argues, "should thank those people sitting in the mud in Resurrection City."

The encampment, says Edelman, made a central issue of the reality of how many Americans didn't have enough to eat, with demonstrators testifying before Congress and holding press conferences. The campaign didn't end poverty, but over the next few years, food stamps and the WIC nutritional program were strengthened considerably.

It's just one example, to Edelman, of how political change can get started, and how outcomes can be hard to predict.

"There's the miracle that happened when the four Greensboro (N.C.) students sat down at the (segregated) lunch counter (in 1960)," she recalls. "I was 20 years old in Atlanta, and we started planning our sit-in the next day. In three or four years, that opened up every lunch counter in the country.

"It's the miracle of ordinary people saying, 'I have had enough.' You have to keep planting seeds. Some will dry up in the sun; that's in Matthew (13). You never know what's going to grow."

There are, Edelman feels, lots of reason for people to say they've had enough.

"It's a terrible time for children," she points out. "The new poverty data is miserable, 16 million poor children. There are more poor children in this country than the combined population of Haiti and Liberia, and it drives people crazy when you say that. We've normalized child poverty.

"Citizens need to find their voice, so you don't cut babies to help billionaires."

Walking around Occupy Portland Friday morning, Edelman looks for that voice. Drawn almost magnetically to the children's activities tent, she chats with Kate Sherman, a Cleveland High School graduate who's been here with her toddler for nine days.

"We're here as a symbol," explains Sherman. "We planted a seed."

Edelman looks at the handmade cardboard signs that punctuate Occupy Portland with a specialist's eye. "'Help the rich recover their humanity,'" she quotes. "I like that. 'We chase our freedom,'" she reads. "Well, it's running pretty fast."

"It feels sweet," she concludes about Occupy Portland. "They're not doing any harm. There are a number of Jesus quotes up. It's more like the flower children part of the '60s."

There's another evident difference with Resurrection City: "I don't think it's very diverse."

Then she thinks of something else, and smiles a small smile.

"The tea party," points out Marian Wright Edelman, "isn't very diverse, either."

David Sarasohn

David Sarasohn is a columnist and managing editor for the Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Oregon.

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