The first Cacophony event in Portland took place in a gigantic abandoned Greyhound bus repair facility. People dressed in costume and did theatrical things.
Chuck Palahnuiak joined in ’94 and became good friends with Chuck Linville and Marcy McFarland, some of the Portland Cacophony organizers. I met him when we did the third Santa Claus event, which was in Portland. The first was in ’94 in San Francisco, the second one was in ’95 and turned into a mob scene—several Santas were arrested—so we decided we wouldn’t do it again. (The thing about ‘annual’ events is that they tend to become too predictable and encrusted; often there’s not a lot of creativity the second or third time you do something, and certainly not by the fourth or fifth.)
The third Santa event in 1996 took place in Portland—that seemed like such a nice, quiet town. We advertised this in the S.F. Cacophony newsletter and Reverend Al, the Cacophony avatar of the Los Angeles group, put the word out. We ended up with a planeload of seventy Santas leaving San Francisco. One of the Cacophony members was a travel agent, Nancy Freiburg, who was also a member of the Bolt Action Rifle Club. Thirty more came up from San Francisco in Chicken John’s bus, there were thirty from L.A., and easily a hundred from Portland. So there were more than two hundred Santas altogether.
Somebody ratted us out. The Portland police contacted the San Francisco police and got the police incident report from our Santa event the year before. So they were prepared for us. They sent flyers to local merchants saying that Santanarchists were planning to trash the town, and the police may have even tapped our phones or were monitoring our emails. We got off the plane and were met at the airport by three officers of the Portland Police Intelligence Bureau. We said, ‘Look, we’re like the Elks Club. We’re gonna spend money in Portland. We’re not here to trash businesses. It’s just a fun event. We’re just a bunch of morons in red suits; give us a break!’ They ended up following us around for the entire weekend. There are a lot of stories because some of the groups split off and did different things. My group, which had about thirty people, decided to take a public bus to a roller skating rink near outer Portland, and there were two cop cars following the bus. There were cop cars following each group; they must have deployed fifty to sixty cops following Santas this weekend.
Then we took the bus to Chuck Linville’s house, who’s one of the main Portland organizers. He’s also an Art Car guy, and works for the Post Office. We decided to see if we could ditch the cops. So the bus stops a couple blocks before Chuck’s house, and as soon as the door opens, everyone runs like hell and hides behind a wall. The cop car squeals around the corner, doesn’t see thirty Santas, and starts going two miles an hour, looking for us. Then we all jump out from behind the wall and go, ‘Surprise!’
All these Santas convene on Chuck’s suburban lawn, while four cop cars are parked at surrounding intersections, watching us. Finally, the cops start to realize that we’re just partying; we’re not some hardcore black bag anarchists. Some Santa girls are going up to them, asking, ‘Have you been naughty or nice?’ The beat cops are thinking, ‘This is a waste of time; why are we following these Santas?’
The culmination came at sunset, when all the Santas were going to meet at the giant Lloyds Center mall in downtown Portland, with this ice skating rink where Tonya Harding skated. By this time the police had been following all of us for a day and a half, and now there was a line of police cars parked, completely blocking our entrance to the mall. We tell the cops, ‘Look, we want to go into the mall and sing Christmas carols. Think of the wonderful image of all these Santas in your mall.’
They said, ‘The mall is private property. We don’t care if there’s two hundred of you; if you go in, we’ll have to arrest all of you.’ So all the Santas were despondent: ‘What are we gonna do? We gotta do something.’ There was a line of cops standing there in body armor and truncheons, so we formed a line and started singing ‘Jingle Bells’ to them. Then we yelled, ‘Merry Christmas!’ and turned around and took the train downtown.
To me, the Santa event in Portland was the greatest thing Cacophony ever did. The visual image of two hundred Santas facing a line of riot cops was amazing; nobody had ever seen that before. You’re messing with and subverting this commercial icon. We knew that the cops weren’t our enemy; they’re just working class Joe’s doing their job, which is protecting property. And having a phalanx of cops protecting a suburban mall from Santas who really weren’t a danger to them (they’re a danger to the symbol, but not the mall) —I thought we pointed something out, there. It was a pretty brilliant moment, and it was fun…