Even as Portland city officials continue to pressure OccupyMaine to leave Lincoln Park, they have done the Occupation a great favor, perhaps unintentionally. By extending the deadline for the encampment to end until Friday from its previous Monday-night limit, they have given the Occupiers a chance to retake the media narrative of their departure.
Had Monday been the final day, the lasting image of the encampment would have been of one man's decision to burn an American flag. Unless he repeats the deed later in the week, that will no longer be the final scene, striking though it was.
As some Occupiers packed up their tents and other belongings, and others stood around in the morning chill talking about Citizens United, austerity measures, the poverty level, and other issues of economic injustice, Harry Brown — one of the four individual plaintiffs suing the city of Portland for the right to stay in Lincoln Park — drew the lens on himself, announcing that while "it might not catch like I'd like," he was going to try to "dispose of" an American flag.
He affixed the flag to the flagpole in the center of the encampment, and after several tries managed to ignite it with his cigarette lighter. The flames burned brightly as photographers converged on the scene, jockeying for position.
As it happened, and even afterward, other Occupiers present were careful in discussing the matter. The flag-burning was Brown's "autonomous act," came the common refrain, and while others said they might or might not have done the same thing or support his choice, they all defended his right to express himself in that way. (A discussion on the OccupyMaine Facebook page was less restrained, but included several impassioned defenses as well as some strident attacks on the action; a woman who stopped by Monday night's General Assembly was extremely upset by the action, but paused her tears long enough to hear Brown's defense, which amounted to him saying he thought he was doing the right thing by the flag.)
Respect for individual differences has been the hallmark of OccupyMaine — and the Occupy movement as a whole — since its inception. People of wildly divergent belief systems and political views have come together and engaged with each other, civilly, thoughtfully, and passionately. And they have often come to consensus on what to do in response to the economic, social, and political injustices that pervade American society today.
That has only happened when people of differing views have come together in good faith, though the Occupiers are resolved to give everyone a chance to truly engage — even detractors.
A passerby in Lincoln Park on Monday afternoon scolded the protesters for breaking laws and told them "the way to protest" is to walk around with signs, and then told them to "stop protesting; start doing something that makes sense." Occupier Evan McVeigh walked along with him, offering to involve him in the conversation the man had interrupted with his crankiness, and responding to his criticism with thoughtful — and passionate — rejoinders. The man wouldn't give his name, and only after several questions did it become clear that he disagreed with Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren's ruling last week that the encampment was in fact free expression.