Lombard Street is the main drag of North Portland. Its bridge passes over the railroad cut carrying the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad from the bank of the Willamette River, which bisects Portland, to that of the Columbia. And that’s where the opponents of the demands by Ambre, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy to send trainloads of coal to new terminals on the Oregon and Washington coast held a demonstration last Saturday at noon.
I won’t review the economic or environmental arguments against the coal shipments; I’d just like to tell you how it went for me to join the protesters against it that day. I could see about 100 people on the left- and right-hand sidewalks of the bridge as I parked my bicycle after a four-mile pedal, mostly uphill, from my home in the Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood, one which also contains a spur of UP lines.
A card table at the west end of the bridge held a few pieces of literature and a woman with an apron and flaming red hair. In the relatively cool weather, the first day after three successive near-100-degree days, I found all sorts of folks out. From where we stood I could see the cupola of the school, Roosevelt High, where I had taught for seven years a couple of decades ago.
When I ran for US Congress on the Green Party ticket in 2008 I joined an already-formed group that picketed weekly in front of the offices of the Democratic incumbent Earl Blumenauer. The first person I talked with was unwilling to continue the conversation after I mentioned that, since she felt uncomfortable with anyone critical of that bicycle-riding, bow-tie-wearing, deeply compromised supporter of the war-criminal Obama Administration. But the second person hailed me: she was Ineke DeRuyter, a member of that very group, Individuals for Justice, who protested Blumenauer’s refusal even to consider submitting impeachment articles against George W. Bush, long after the revelation of the non-existence of any Iraqi program to produce nuclear weapons.
The next person I spoke with was explaining the sorry history of the efforts by the riverine community to get genuine action on the long-proposed cleanup of the toxic wastes polluting the Willamette River. I listened to her speak for 5 minutes, introducing one circumstantial detail after another, before I took the chance to ask her name. She was Darise Weller, and she advised me of an effort under way to get the Environmental Protection Agency even to acknowledge the applicability of proposed means of permanently disposing of polychloral biphenyls, strongly carcinogenic liquids once widely used as lubricants and distributed in large amounts on the Willamette River bed. A Bio-Tech firm in Pennsylvania has developed a form of bioredmediation, in which bacteria metabolize PCBs, adding methyl groups to the molecule, reducing by orders of magnitude their toxicity (which in the absence of any such action can be considered permanent). She urged me to attend the meetings, every second Wednesday of the month, of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, held at the Bureau of Environmental Services building underneath the St. Johns Bridge from 6 to 9 in the evening.
When I spoke with Stacy (she told me her last name but I forgot) I found her unreceptive to joining the Green Party, whose banner I was wearing all this time, hanging from my neck, even though agreeing with all the Ten Key Values. A fellow Massachusetts native — from “Noo Bedfuhd” (spelled New Bedford) — she spoke of the emotional dangers she has experienced when taking politics seriously. I sympathized, advising her that after serving time in federal penitentiary for draft refusal during Vietnam, I myself went through a long period of “industrial-strength depression,” but no effort of mine could shake her doubt of the viability of Green politics.
Woody Broadnax came by, accompanied by his campaign manager Denise Hall. He was dressed in a suit and an American-flag tie, marking him as quite an anomaly among the pretty scruffy group on the bridge. He’s the Green Party nominee for the same Congressional seat for which I stood during the last two elections, in 2008 and 2010. He promised me he’ll drop by the Bipartisan Cafe soon at our Cascadia Chapter’s Thursday night meeting time, so we can work together to forward his candidacy.
Another politician on the bridge was Jefferson Smith, whose fitness for Mayor of Portland had been questioned just that morning by an editorial in the Oregonian, on account of his having his license to drive repeatedly suspended for failure to keep his automobile insurance up to date. I shook hands with him and told him I supported him (his opponent was conspicuous by his absence). He moved on.
I was able to hail the next person I met, Barbara Ellis, by name before she’d seen me. I knew about this demonstration in the first place because Barbara, retired instructor of journalism at Oregon State University, told me about it when I met her at a demonstration in support of Cameron Whitten’s hunger strike in front of City hall last month. Oh yeah, Cameron was at the bridge, too.
Barbara was gloomy when she saw me. “Michael Meo, why didn’t you run for Treasurer?” It was a surprise of a greeting; others had told me to run for state treasurer on behalf of the Progressive Party, but not she. She was short with me, too after I explained about building the Green Party into a genuine grass-roots democratic power-sharing movement. “Peace be with you.” A pained smile.
Nancy, another veteran of Individuals for Justice, called me over to say hello to Rob, with whom I’ve stood at Pioneer Courthouse Square as part of the Portland Peaceful Response Coalition on 20? 30? Friday afternoons over the past 3 years. I told Nancy that Rob and I were “the lungs of the PPRC,” because our chants are by far the loudest.
Brian, who was proselytizing on behalf of the Freedom Socialist Party got into a shouting match with a counter-demonstrator, who condemned the whole lot of us at the Bridge for threatening “living-wage jobs.” The counter-demonstrator had a loud voice, was insistent that China was going to pollute even more if we didn’t export our Powder River Basin coal to it, and rejected constriction of corporate enterprise, since they offered jobs and we demonstrators didn’t. He did not believe our scientific evidence of the dangers of toxic poisoning of our air and water, and he repeated that the real issue was “Jobs.”
Brian was unable to cope with someone who questioned the truth of scientific claims. “You’re just a stinking pile of shit!” he shouted at the counter-demonstrator. I was nearby and moved over to see whether I could calm a growing confrontation. I got the counter-demonstrator’s attention by admitting that we Greens wanted to suppress those half-dozen jobs at the port facilities which would be available if the export terminals were built, but that we also opposed a whole lot more.
We wanted, I told him, to stop coal mining altogether. In addition, we wanted no logging at all on federal lands. Leave it all to become Old-growth. Worst, I added, we wanted to abolish all automobiles for private transportation. I could see that took his breath away. He asked if he could document me saying this, and got out his cellphone to take a video. Sure, said I, and repeated my affiliation with the Pacific Green Party. His cell phone didn’t work.
At this point the red-haired lady i’d seen an hour before came by, telling me not to waste my time talking to the counter-demonstrator. After she left I told him that, no matter what anyone said, his worth was equal to mine, his opinions had merit enough to be heard and answered, and I rejected utterly the idea that some people were “worth” talking to and others were not. From then on we exchanged ideas in quite friendly fashion. Abraham (that was his name) and his brother Boaz wanted to come out in witness to the fact that the Lombard Bridge demonstration was not without its opposition within the community; the opposition in his case was based on the beliefs of Adam Smith, that constraint of trade restricted the growth of the economy. I replied that the minimum wage, a measure which contradicted Smithian doctrine, had been in place for 50 years in the US and had not resulted in any restraint of enterprise. His was, I told him, an ideological position rather than one founded on historical experience.
Not that I am opposed to all ideological positions. The Pacific Green Party is ideologically committed to sustainable economic activity. But, as Lionel Robbins put it on pp. 56-57 of his book The Theory of Economic Policy in English Classical Political Economy (London: 1952):
Adam Smith’s invisible hand is not the hand of some god or of some natural agency independent of human effort; it is the hand of the law-giver, the hand which withdraws from the sphere of the pursuit of self-interest those possibilities which do not harmonize with the public good.
But this is just in the way of thinking of a good reply after the conversation has ended: what the French call the Spirit of the Staircase [leading down to the street from the salon on the second floor], l’esprit de l’escalier. In the event I just got on my bike and cycled home, through a light, but welcome, sprinkle.