Hunger striker Cameron Whitten declares victory in 55-day City Hall protest

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Cameron Whitten, 21, lost nearly 35 pounds in a hunger strike for homeless issues. As he removed his shirt for a photo, he said, 'This is what Ghandhi did. He showed off the skin.'Cameron Whitten was willing to die.

But after 55 days of not eating solid food as a protest to call attention to the plight of Portland’s homeless, the 21-year-old said he plans to end his fast Thursday morning.

On Tuesday, Whitten tweeted that he was “negotiating” his demands with city officials. He had decided to expand his diet to fruit juice and vegetable broth to avoid starvation.

By Wednesday morning, Whitten said the city had informally agreed to a compromise that would allow him to “declare victory” and end the hunger strike.

“Day 55. Feeling like a million Bavarian creme donuts,” Whitten tweeted Wednesday morning.

According to Whitten, Mayor Sam Adams will announce creation of an annual regional housing forum that will include representatives from four Portland-area counties.

by: ADAM WICKHAM/PORTLAND TRIBUNE - Cameron Whitten smiles as he chews his first bite of the custom-made vegan donut from Voodoo Donuts.Whitten says that homeless advocates will “most likely” be included in the forum, though “it has not all been worked out yet.”

“The hunger strike was successful,” Whitten says.

Thursday morning, Whitten took a bite of a custom vegan banana-chocolate chip treat from Voodoo Doughnut to mark the end of his fast.

Stick to his guns

Camping in front of City Hall since June 2, the activist who made waves last spring with an unsuccessful run for mayor in the May primary election, demanded the absolution of fines on Right 2 Dream Too, an Old Town camp for homeless people; a housing levy measure for November’s ballot; and a moratorium on home foreclosures.

After 30 days, Whitten reduced his demands, asking that the city drop fines for the Right 2 Dream Too camp and to set up a citizen’s panel to address the creation of more such campgrounds for homeless people.

Each day he sat near the Southwest Fourth Avenue courtyard in front of City Hall, a small, cluttered camp set up near a row of newspaper boxes.

Whitten sleeps in a sleeping bag and spends his days sitting in a chair. When it rains, he huddles under a tarp.

His hunger strike has drawn a lot of media attention in the past few weeks. About 200 people showed up on July 20 to mark Whitten’s 50th day without food during a rally at Terry Schrunk Plaza, just across Southwest Fourth Avenue from City Hall. Both mayoral candidates — Charlie Hales and Jefferson Smith — offered words of encouragement and a little political rhetoric.

How far was Whitten willing to go on his protest?

“I think theoretically this cause is one to die for,” he says. “I’m not going to guarantee that this demonstration will be the one that kills me.”by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Whitten was homeless for two months after arriving in Portland and he gave up his house in 2011 to join the Occupy Portland protests. Now, he has stable housing, but he was sleeping outside City Hall. He was regularly joined by a small group of supporters, many of them homeless.

The hunger strike is risky.

“I think that if he sticks to his guns he’ll starve to death before the city will remove any fines,” says Michael Wright, the owner of the Old Town lot on which the Right 2 Dream Too camp is located.

For a few weeks, several City Hall officials, including Mayor Sam Adams, talked with Whitten about his cause, but made no promises. After 30 days, when Whitten said he would only drink liquids during his protest, some city officials stopped talking with him.

Only City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, a nurse, regularly checked on Whitten’s health and talked about his protest.

Ironic twist

The two demands would be just a first step to fix the problem of homelessness in Portland, Whitten says. The goal of his protest is to address what he calls America’s “culture of apathy.”

“Changing people’s perceptions, changing our culture is by far the most important thing,” he says.

Why is Whitten putting his life on the line? It’s because of his so-called “Atlas complex,” and he feels the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“Cameron simply cannot abide not acting,” says Mike Ingrassia, Whitten’s roommate.

Whitten has lost almost 35 pounds, dropping from 193 to 159 pounds. He is low on energy and his handshake is weak. He has to wear a blanket even in warm weather to maintain his body temperature.

Though he began the strike drinking juice, even that was cut out after 30 days. His diet consisted of only water, honey and supplements, less than 100 calories a day.

But Whitten keeps a smile on his face, and tops off the situation with an ironic touch: A trucker cap of the punk band Suicidal Tendencies.

Devotion to causes

Whitten grew up in Manassas, Va., the youngest in a family of four children. He frequently stayed at friends’ houses because of tension with his family. His father left home when Whitten was in eighth grade, and his relationship with his mother was strained.

Whitten graduated high school in 2009 with honors and a $1,500 community college Rotary Club scholarship. When his mother kicked him out of her house (though, Whitten adds, “she later said she didn’t mean it”), he decided to move on.

He had little money and few prospects. When Whitten thinks about the time, he says, “I had so much opportunity.”

Whitten took his last paycheck and boarded a bus for California. After a rambling trip fraught with racism, drug dealers and strained friendships, Whitten says, he arrived in Portland in October 2009.

He originally stayed at New Avenues for Youth, a homelessness advocacy group. Staff there set him up to live in the Ace Hotel, where he stayed for two months and first encountered the realities of homelessness.

“A lot of youth who go through the shelter system, they really have a reason for being there,” he says.

Whitten enrolled in Portland Community College in spring 2010, where he is majoring in liberal arts. Even as he continues his hunger strike, he goes to class on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He’s taking advanced creative writing and science fiction literature.

Whitten says that “down to the bone,” he would most like to be a fantasy writer. His latest dystopian short stories are complex and “highlight the divisive and competitive nature of humanity,” most of which he says have “melancholy” endings.

As he began studying, he also began volunteering. His volunteer resumé includes Meals on Wheels, Free Geek, Goose Hollow Family Shelter, Portland Family Solutions and Food not Bombs.

For a while, Whitten imagined he would go to Chicago after getting his degree to study improv comedy. He planned to return to Portland to teach improv to marginalized groups “to help them get past their anxiety, depression, trauma, (and) whatever else.” But he gave up on that because “I have a much bigger vision of how I want to help people.”

Brandi Tuck, executive director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions, remembers Whitten as a dedicated worker who was always “positive and outgoing.”

Tuck says she was “not surprised at all” to learn Whitten is on a hunger strike.

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTOS - About 200 people attended a rally on July 20 to mark Whitten's 50th day without solid food. Among the rally's speakers were mayoral candidates Jefferson Smith and Charlie Hales.

Running for mayor

In 2011, Whitten temporarily left college and moved out of his house — making him once again homeless — to join the Occupy Portland protests. While at Occupy, Whitten chained himself to a concrete barrel outside City Hall, and says he was primarily responsible for Occupy the Pearl District, a protest that sparked some of the first clashes in Occupy Portland.

Shortly before Occupy Portland protesters were forced out of two downtown parks in mid-November, Whitten decided to run for mayor.

Whitten secured nominations from the Green Party and the Progressive Party and campaigned on a platform of radical change to the political system, with more focus on the exercise of politics itself than on any concrete policy aims.

Whitten came in fifth in the May primary election with 1,086 votes, about 1 percent.

Darkness at the heart

Whitten conceived the idea of his hunger strike a week after the primary election.

“I’m trying really hard to prove by example that we are facing a crisis,” he says. “I just decided to kind of blend a lot of my experiences together with this and honor civil rights leaders before me like (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and Gandhi.”

Whitten’s drive comes from a deep unease with the world around him. He says he had a difficult childhood, “and not all of it’s because of my family.” He also notes the impact of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which occurred when he was 10.

Before the attacks, he had been very sheltered, but “they couldn’t hide it from you once there (were) two burning towers in the middle of New York City,” he says. “People really need to come to terms with the truth that people might disappear for no reason and you’ll never see them again.”

To be a “person of such innocence, and to be exposed to such hatred and mistrust and vileness,” he says, was the first time in his childhood he saw “what the world is.”

From that point, Whitten’s thoughts move quickly to a discussion of economic injustice. From economic injustice, he rattles off a sprawling list of issues that he wants to tackle, including drug reform, foreign policy, genetically modified organisms and immigration.

“I want to be involved in all of it,” he says. “I feel like there’s a darkness in the heart of our society that I don’t want to see consume us.”

Whitten calls himself a realist rather than an optimist, because “optimists think that the world is good and things are going to get better.”

However, Whitten says he stays happy by focusing on his own actions rather than on the world’s darkness.

For Whitten, tireless protest is a way of living with this darkness — it fulfills a need in his soul to believe in the world’s goodness. He gets the most satisfaction from a protest when many people come together to put energy toward a common ideal.

“I feel like at least in that moment, there is some sort of dedication to a higher cause,” Whitten says.

However, he says, these highs bring with them inevitable lows, and the belief Whitten finds in the world’s goodness is fleeting. Whitten describes a scene he with which he became familiar during his time at Occupy: protesters leave an event, while organizers are left to take stock.

“To me, after a protest is over, it does become a disheartening situation because organizers are alone,” Whitten says. “I’ve personally felt alone.”

In a world that, for him, is filled with darkness and negativity, Whitten says, “I’m just positive in knowing that I’m trying to be positive. I just have to take my role.

“(This outlook) has allowed me not to be disheartened when people don’t care,” he says. “Because people don’t care. I’m content.”

‘I’m exhausted’

At last week’s rally, Whitten spoke last, after several others took a turn at the microphone.

“I can see the light inside all of you right now,” he told the crowd. “Never surrender that power.”

After the applause for Whitten’s speech, a performer sang a song and people started to file out of the plaza. Whitten gave an interview to a television news crew and shook hands with the many people who came to greet him and offer support.

Finally, the plaza was empty. The speeches were done, banners were folded and a majority of the protesters were on their way home. Whitten leaned against a low wall, physically and emotionally drained.

“I’m devastated and exhausted,” he said.

Since his strike is ending, Whitten won’t comment on his next endeavor. He is considering a run for state treasurer, which he says would not be a serious effort to win the office but instead a single-issue candidacy to gain attention for the issue of creating a state bank.

He says a state bank modeled on one in North Dakota would bring “accountability” to banks in Oregon.

Whatever he does next, Whitten guarantees that he will give it his all. In pursuit of the hope he finds when protesters come together, Whitten will again throw himself into his cause, chasing the moment.

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