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."

Soto, donning his disguise

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.

Austin, left, and Sammy, right, bearing signs.

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.

After the picketing and chanting, I was invited to come hang out with the group. They'd got a cheap motel room a dozen blocks away for a staging area, and weren't going to be kicked out until noon. I'd been up at 5 am to catch the bus in, and most of the team had been up all night getting ready.

During the walk, I pried a bit into the politics that brought everyone together. "Would you call yourself a leftist organization?" I asked.

Sheenah squinted a bit. She's tall, with a long curly blonde mane, and splits her time between housing activism, beauty school and working as an au pair. Her leisure reading is some of the densest Marxist theory I've ever come across. Her strides were long enough to keep me trotting. "Well, no. Most of the core group, the people here today, are gonna be some sort of leftist but we keep the union apolitical aside from our specific policy. We'll take in anyone if they can agree to our points of unity, that's kind of the point. It lets Marxists and Democrats and moderates come together and get shit done."

Hannah answered my next question before I could ask it. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a Republican who's down for that, though. Point 4 is as far as we get with most of them." The point in question calls for housing to be treated as necessary infrastructure for a healthy community, not a vehicle for extracting wealth from tenants who have limited options. I found myself turning to Hannah often. She's the one who types up the chants and make sure they get printed out, not the one leading them with a megaphone.

The room itself was a tiny one-bed affair, covered in the wreckage of a bunch of young people. The recycling was full of wine bottles, PBR cans and some sort of expensive cider. Sheenah unrolled her yoga mat and laid down to straighten her spine. Soto collapsed on the bed and sleepily crunched an apple. Sammy and Hannah took seats and blinked over their cups of coffee.

I'd prepared questions on the predawn bus ride. "To what extend do you guys seek to manage your own respectability?" The PTU has been lumped in with the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter in the minds of most white suburban folks, a group of noisy troublemakers one can safely disregard, even while - or perhaps because - one agrees with their basic policies.

Soto: "Basically we like... we don't give a fuck."

Sheenah: "We're here to support tenants and form stable collective bargaining groups."

Sammy: "That's what stopped the CAT (Community Association of Tenants) from getting anything done, they're so respectable they spend all day writing grants for their own salaries."

Hannah: "We're not here to start careers, we're here to win. Winning means helping people in need and getting the legislation in place to let our unions and co-ops run themselves and have a decent chance."

Most of the PTU's work is in building renter's unions. They canvass buildings and do trainings with veteran union organizers to help residents protect each other from no-cause evictions, unreasonable rent hikes and the like. "Why the union structure? Why not a party?"

Sheenah: "Look, do you do much activism? Stuff like this? These sorts of groups have pretty short half-life. It's not smart to build your cause on the assumption that everyone's gonna stick with it. People get burned out, move away, settle down. It's better to build something that can outlive you."

I got the sense that they hadn't spoken much about this, about how fragile everything was. On my first day, a man had growled "dirty fuckin hippies" and pushed me aside while I tried to take pictures. These folks had been doing this for a year. You could see traces of it on them, how quick Sammy was to leap to his feet when one of his group was hurt, how Sheenah yelled with indignation but also something older and more tired when someone splashed coffee on her. That sense of looming mortality isn't uncommon among my generation, people who've grown up with climate change and eternal, unceasing war as a perfectly organic yet somehow still alienating backdrop for our lives. That feeling is extremely prevalent among the more politically involved. The PTU had read their books and talked to their elders and found a way to work around that.

Soto didn't open his eyes, but he raised a finger and said "Put down like, diversity of tactics, but with an asterix, because we're kinda different."

I did. I looked around the room for someone who could clarify.

Hannah: "A lot of groups use that as code for like, 'we're willing to break shit'. With us it's more like, we're willing to break shit, but we're also willing to sit down at a city council meeting, or talk to county commissioners. Margot Black, one of our founding members, she's met with the mayor and landlords about this."

Sammy: "Bunch of activists act like it's compromising something about them to sit down at a table and negotiate and that's where we differ. We're gonna win. If that has to happen in a boardroom at the MAC, fine. If that means we march on city hall with signs and the media and shit and sit down till we get a rent freeze or rent control or an end to no-cause evictions, then so fuckin be it. There's no pride here, just goals. When we fight, we win."

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