Oregon is a painfully polite state. We don’t really do aggressive displays of pride. Drivers agree that honking is a bit rude. We don’t really like people making a scene.
I met up with a bunch of people to make a scene, and I was still a bit surprised when nobody seemed to like it.
Portland Tenants United met at 6:45 am in front of the Multnomah Athletic Club. For those unfamiliar with the ancient and highest-class establishments of the city, the MAC is the largest indoor athletic club in the world, a five-star platinum club that boasts an incredibly prominent chef, state of the art workout facilities and, until recently, a nine-year waiting list for membership. It’s been here since 1891 and costs $5,500 to join, plus monthly dues higher than my rent. In mid-April, a conference of local landlords gathered there for a bunch meeting to discuss upcoming legislative efforts and developments in the industry. They arrived by taxi and by car. I've never seen so many people wearing suits in Oregon, not even at a funeral.
Right in front of the security guards, we unfolded tables and laid out the breakfast pastries and coffee. Some people unrolled the huge banner with the PTU logo. I helped Soto, the anarchist son of immigrant farmworkers, into the Big Bad Landlord costume. He needed a second pair of hands to hang the gold chain around his neck. After we were introduced, he leaned in conspiratorially to say "Y'know, last time I drove down this road my trunk was full of gas and I was gonna go burn down a bank."
At my look of surprise, he clarified. "I didn't, I parked outside one and decided I'd rather go get tacos." He turned to the breakfast table and handed me a croissant. "You seem cool, thanks for coming out ass-early."
I quickly realized that however technically legal our presence was, the intrusion on the lives of the upper class was far from welcomed. Some of the protesters slung signs over their shoulders and took advantage of the incredibly safe, well-lit sidewalk with its flashing yellow lights to make sure that every car that drove by saw why we were there. I heard more irritated honks that morning that in all my years driving in Oregon.
I held the middle part of the banner, conspicuously placed so every landlord attending the conference would need to pass right by us. They did so while making the sort of face I usually reserve for picking up dog shit. Whenever part of our formation drifted onto private property, the security guards would mutter into their radios and shoo us off. Some of the landlords were more testy. Sheenah, the woman who'd invited me here and who wielded the bullhorn, fell to the pavement when a bald-headed man in an egg-shaped suit brushed past her. Some of our number, Sammy and Soto, yelled after him, only to be blocked by security guards who held up their hands placatingly and shook their heads. Landlords watched and laughed from near the door. Some mockingly joined in the chants. Others watched from the parking garage across the street and took pictures.
One man tried to push through the banner. He must have assumed it was painted on paper that he could tear through, but the durable Tyvek just folded around him and left him stuck until we unrolled him, cursing and sputtering. Surprisingly, he declined to be interviewed.
One passerby, not even a landlord, kicked over all the coffee cups that weren't in someone's hand. Though we were only tangentially in anyone's way, I was jostled, yelled at, and, in one instance, spat upon. The act of taking up space and drawing attention to yourself is so impolite, so transgressive, that the rules of behavior no longer apply. Even the gentle-mannered Oregonian will drive through puddles and splash. It's as if you turn from person to scenery. Another morning in Portland, there's the students, there's the homeless people, there's the obnoxious inconvenient protesters.
Perhaps that's to be expected, when your tactics of political action are to be obtrusive and annoying. Housing and rent control is about as sexy as toothpaste, so even in the midst of a crisis it's still difficult to attract attention. In my conversations with the PTU I had the feeling that these people were the first over the wall. They were laying their bodies along barbed wire, taking the brunt of the yelling and casual abuse and vilification so that someday, hopefully soon, the same agenda from their signs would be discussed in the city council chambers. What they've found is that if you're loud enough and can handle the abuse, the rest doesn't take long at all.
Over the last four years, Portland’s rents have increased more than thirty percent, while wages have grown slower than the rate on inflation. Furthermore, Oregon has remarkably few of the renter’s protections that other states enjoy. It was only this year that no-cause evictions were restricted (they’re now illegal within the first six months of residence) and rent control made a legal option for cities to even consider. These recent successes have given the PTU a new battle cry: “When we fight, we win!”
Today, their agenda is centered around their Tenant's Bill of Rights and the Points of Unity that allow a deeply diverse group to focus on what unites them. Just within the group that gathered for the direct action, there were high schoolers, math professors, folks without housing and a Vietnam veteran.