It was a strange scene outside city hall last night, as about 50 people gathered to join activist Cameron Whitten for a "slumber party" on day 30 of his hunger strike for housing justice. Whitten, 21, moved to Portland from Virginia in 2009 and camped at Occupy Portland for weeks before couchsurfing through a mayoral campaign. He says he has lost twenty pounds while sitting outside city hall during the past thirty days, consuming only juice, water, and vitamins.
At the slumber party last night, Whitten announced he's taking the strike up a (potentially rather dangerous) notch, switching to water only until city council meets his demands and some new ones: Creating a citizen group to find a temporary camping site for up to 300 people and ending the camping ban. As we talked last night, strangers and supporters milled around us, grilling hot dogs on a tiny sidewalk BBQ, and—in the case of a man wearing tiny jean shorts and pink knee socks—screaming Beatles lyrics through a megaphone.
MERCURY: What's been the hardest day or night so far?
CAMERON WHITTEN: Any night that it rains. I have to be honest, I think yesterday, I cried a little bit as I woke up. I started singing "Mad World": "All around me are familiar faces, worn out places, worn out faces." I feel like that's my anthem right now. We're facing so many problems and our culture is all about apathy and distraction. Last night was bad. It was raining hard. I had to go take a shower.
What's surprised you about your campaign? I was really surprised that it took 30 days to talk to all the city commissioners. I thought after, like, 10 days, they would all at least come say hi. Amanda came up day seven, Randy came day 17, Sam I just talked to him a few days ago, and then Nick, and then just yesterday, day 29, I talked to Saltzman.
Who was the most awkward?
Saltzman. Nick Fish is all like, "Hey! I'm Nick Fish! Let's talk!" And Sam's a real social guy, he says hi to everyone. Saltzman just kind of looks off-set.
What have you seen happen outside city hall in the middle of the night?
There's a lot of mentally affected people who are out here who get the police called on them, then there are other people who fight, there are other people who are up all night. It's a variety. We've had Pedalpalooza, the naked bike ride, Fleet Week, the Rose Festival, I've seen fireworks, I got to see the
police fire chief sworn in, Chinese dragons... The night of the Starlight Parade, there was this guy who was just shouting, running around, no one could tell what he was saying. He ran down here, there were police running down the street saying, "This guy: tall, black, shirtless!" Stuff like that is happening all the time, I see it when I get up to use the bathroom.
Where do you go?
We have bottles for that.
What food do you miss the most?
Probably avocado. That was the main thing I was eating as I was transitioning into the hunger strike. I had it really simple, I was eating completely raw, so I would eat an avocado with some sea salt, some diced tomato, some really dank vinegar. You simplify to prepare your body for starvation mode and no eating complex foods. It probably helped that I've been vegan for two years.
So how worried are you about doing damage to yourself?
I tried to do as much research as possible on the safest way to do a hunger strike. I've been putting salt in my water and on my tongue sometimes, but I've had to cut it out recently because I've been feeling tightness in my chest. I drink about three cans of coconut water a day and a bottle of juice everyday, I take a daily vitamin in water, and every three days I take a tablespoon of a protein mix to preserve my heart muscle. When I look at myself in the mirror, I feel like I look like a rock star who has done too much cocaine.
Do you remember how you first became politically active?
I always thought I just took my small chunk of the world but couldn't really worry about bigger things. Then Occupy started and I saw this community of people who were inspired and pissed off and I decided: This is my time, I can give up everything else I'm working on and contribute to this social movement. That's what really got me politicized. Down in the park, people were talking a lot about national issues: Citizens United, Taft-Hartley act, the 99 percent, and I just got focused on local issues. We were a block away here from city hall and we've got issues with the PBA, the PPB, the PDC, all the acronyms have their little issues and a lot of the people who use their services don't have much of a voice.
Why are you doing a hunger strike instead of some other form of protest?
In the past seven months, I've used an array of tactics to connect with the general public and inspire a shift in our culture. During Occupy, I helped organize marches. I got arrested four times. I did PR for the movement, I organized workshops. Then I ran for mayor. I tried to work outside the system, I tried to advocate for a better method within the system. And still people don't care, they're apathetic. This is honoring people who have made social change this way before, like Gandhi and MLK. I'm saying, "This is a big enough thing to die for." My hero right now is [self-immolating Arab Spring martyr] Mohamed Bouazizi. Through that one act, he was able to inspire a world of revolution. I feel like, as a person, I can self-immolate my ego. Having to eat, sleep, have sex, date—I can burn that all away and start to impact this world. Every day, I've been out there trying to educate and empower people. I've just been an Energizer bunny.
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!