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The Sledgehammer, The Nightstick, The Raincoat and John

2009 story submission by “Portland Fiction Project” (Jeremy Benjamin and Doug Dean)

Our story begins in a darkened television studio in the Media Building on Pioneer Square. The intro theme plays for “Wake Up Portland! with Mitch Flayburn.”

MITCH FLAYBURN: Joining us on the show today is Corey Egelstein. Welcome, Corey.

COREY EGELSTEIN: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here, on this very sad occasion.

MITCH FLAYBURN: Now Corey, you covered John Fitchburg throughout his campaign efforts against the privatized Portland Correctional Facility in the post-bailout depression, when you were an anchor for KPTV.

COREY EGELSTEIN: That’s right; I followed his movement from 2015 to 2018, during the time that the media dubbed him John Nightstick Fitchburg

MITCH FLAYBURN: For those viewers for whom those events may have been before their time, can you recap for us what John did and how he acquired that nickname, among his many others?

COREY EGELSTEIN: Certainly. I first met John at a demonstration rally outside the Portland Correctional Facility where John led a film crew and a band of peaceful protestors who were opposing the treatment of prisoners. John’s original intention was to interview the inmates for a documentary. When the administrators repeatedly denied him entry into the facility, he began the protest outside on the prison steps. I was sent by Channel Twelve as a last minute replacement for another news correspondent, and all they told me was just that. I was previously familiar with Mister Fitchburg from newspaper accounts of his earlier work with the Equal Rights Coalition, but I was puzzled as to what was happening there.

MITCH FLAYBURN: When you arrived, were you expecting John to agree to an interview?

COREY EGELSTEIN: As a reporter, I’m used to being the bad guy when I try and stick a microphone and a camera in people’s faces and talk to them, and I don’t expect anyone to take kindly to it. If someone thrust a microphone in front of me when I was having a bad day – a newsworthy bad day – I’d probably tell them to go screw themselves too. So I don’t have any personal expectations of people I approach for interviews, but it’s my job to aggressively request talkback at all times. I tell my friends that being a reporter at a scene trying to get information is kind of like being a fat, ugly guy at a bar trying to hit on women half your age, and it’s your job to get their phone numbers. So no, I did not think John would talk to me. I’ll never forget the moment when he saw me coming, noticed the news crew making its way carefully through the assembly of protesters, and there was a smile on his face. Once I got to him, he practically grabbed the microphone from me before I said anything.

MITCH FLAYBURN: And as you learned, what was the group’s intention?

COREY EGELSTEIN: I can tell you what John’s intention was. He just wanted to talk to the prisoners. That was his modus operandi…he would get on the inside, which oftentimes was a very perilous undertaking, and once on the inside, he would just talk to people, but more than talk to people, he would listen. The man was absolutely fearless. I saw it in his eyes.

MITCH FLAYBURN: And thanks to you and your camera crew, so did the city of Portland on their television sets on that memorable day.

COREY EGELSTEIN: He had a political agenda, but at the same time he didn’t; his mission, as he saw it, in his philosophical view of the work he did, was to hear peoples’ stories and learn, and facilitate a way for everybody else to hear everybody else’s stories, and…That’s where I related to him. In a sense, he did…in the purest sense…what I did for a living, which was just that; working my way in there and getting the stories and projecting them out.

MITCH FLAYBURN: I understand that John Fitchburg was a largely influential figure who impacted the lives of many in our community and at large, and his passing came as a shock to us. I appreciate you coming here to help us commemorate-

COREY EGELSTEIN: I didn’t answer your earlier question, did I? Regarding the nickname…during the commotion outside the prison, a guard had pulled out his nightstick and was about to strike John. John was able to get the nightstick from him and was photographed throwing it into the air. John never did get inside the prison, but the news story-

MITCH FLAYBURN: Our producer has a clip of the footage. Let’s view it.

The studio darkens and a screen shows a mustachioed Corey Egelstein moving along the lawn of the Portland Correctional Facility. As he speaks into the camera, we see over his shoulder a young, thin yet muscular John Fitchburg shouting and shaking a fist on the steps of Portland Correctional Facility. Corey Egelstein approaches and extends his microphone. John snatches it from his hands and suddenly the camera is on John who is yelling into it. He is chanting “Not in my prison! Not in my city!”

MITCH FLAYBURN: We also have this infamous photograph courtesy of the Oregonian taken a few months later, after constant protest caused the prison to be shut down and scheduled for demolition. This is the shot that earned John Fitchburg the nickname “Sledgehammer.”

The screen changes to a photograph of John standing at the corner of the building, wearing a hardhat and holding a sledgehammer. He is smiling.

COREY EGELSTEIN: After John shifted his focus from the prison legislation to the commercial fishing conflict – the John Raincoat Fitchburg we all know – I fell out of touch with him for several years, but I think he’s left us with some valuable lessons that will live on through the distribution of his published memoirs, and through those who are still active in fighting the good fight. It’s not every day that someone with the dedication and character of a John Fitchburg gets behind a cause, and yesterday was a tragic day for us, but the fact that we’re here talking about him is a testament to the impact he had and will continue to have on future generations who care about the things that matter to us most.

MITCH FLAYBURN: Thank you very much Corey for lending us your time and your thoughts on this, a day of mourning. One thing viewers are wondering that I’m almost embarrassed to ask; out of all the many nicknames we’ve attached to John Fitchburg at different times in his career, from his reform work in the food packaging industry to the renewable fuel campaigns to the revolution in the Mt. Hood elementary education system, what did his close friends call him in casual circumstances?

COREY EGELSTEIN: To us, he was just John. To John…John was just John. To his wife, Donna…I don’t know.

MITCH FLAYBURN: Thank you very much, Corey. Actually, Mrs. Fitchburg is here.

COREY EGELSTEIN: Oh, my!

MITCH FLAYBURN: Yes, she is going to join us today. We’re very lucky! Please welcome her! Mrs. Denise Fitchburg!

DENISE FITCHBURG: Thank you, everyone. John would’ve really been touched by all this attention. Touched, and well…he would’ve been beaming about all this attention.

MITCH FLAYBURN: Yes, well we’re very sorry for your loss. I think we all feel at a loss in the wake of John’s passing.

DENISE FITCHBURG: Oh. Thank you for saying so. I know you’ve all lost a civic leader. (pauses) He really was…I guess I feel a little alone in mourning John in that I feel as though I’m mourning a different man. I mean, you all knew and miss John as something else…The Raincoat, I guess. Or Nightstick, or any of the names Mr. Egelstein came up with. But I just keep thinking about him having tickle fights in our living room back on Knott St. with little John. Or the guy that used to leave me those misspelled comments on Myspace…back when we were kids and that was still around.

MITCH FLAYBURN: Yes. I remember Myspace. (Giggles to himself.)

COREY EGELSTEIN: (laughing) Me, too.

DENISE FITCHBURG: It was important to him…Portland was very important to him. All of you. That you had everything you deserved. It mattered to him. (pauses) But, as much as all that, the protesting and the campaigning…as much as all that really is who he was, and God did he have a nose for finding controversy…(laughs) especially with those fishermen (laughs)…but, I find myself wishing you all could’ve gotten to know him. The John that insisted that we all, “as a family,” make volcanoes out of our dinner on steak and mashed potato nights.

MITCH FLAYBURN: I never would’ve pictured John Fitchburg doing that.

COREY: This is the same guy that stood on that dock in Newport and threw farmed salmon into the ocean chanting “Not my fish! Not my dock!” in front of a crowd of hundreds and caused a small riot.

DENISE FITCHBURG: I remember right before he went to Newport to do that. We had driven little John to school, John went to Grant. Anyway, the whole ride there I was telling him that I thought he should bring a real raincoat, my father’s old yellow one-

COREY: Wait, you were the one that told him to wear that big yellow coat?! Everyone thought it was a show of solidarity with the fishermen.

DENISE FITCHBURG: Well…(snickers) it turned into that, once you guys got a hold of it, Corey. But my main intention was keeping him from getting sick. Little John had the 7th Grade Fall Concert that night and I didn’t want John to be coughing all through it. He was such a baby when he got sick.

MITCH FLAYBURN: Wow. The other side of John “Nightstick” Fitchburg.

DENISE FITCHBURG: Yeah, John hated the sniffles. Hated runny noses. I remember that other time that Cory mentioned, when he earned that nickname. The time John tried to break into prison…(laughs)…well, John and I had just started living together. We were trying it out. Anyhow, we had a fight, and believe me, if you think John fought hard against injustice in Portland, he was the same way when it came to matters at home. He was furious at me because I told him that he needed to get rid of his mini-scooters or at least, find somewhere else to put them besides our front stairway. He had moved in with me over at the Alberta Street Commons, and space was tight. Anyway, he felt persecuted…having a girlfriend tell him he had to get rid of his toys. And I really put my foot down, said that either he would be spending the night at the apartment or the scooters…but not both. He compared himself to those prisoners that they were mistreating. I said that he didn’t know how good he had it. So he told me that he’d spend the night in jail and let me know. And then a couple of hours later, I’m watching the news and I’m seeing him grab the microphone from you, Corey, on the front steps of Portland Prison.

COREY: Interesting. No wonder he grabbed the mic and tried so hard to get arrested. (laughs) He needed a place to sleep!

MITCH FLAYBURN: (laughing) These aren’t moments included in his memoirs!

DENISE FITCHBURG: No, of course not. I mean, thank god he didn’t get arrested that day. But I did feel bad enough to let him come home that night, despite the scooters still chained to our stairway. No, his memoirs focus mainly on the issues he felt strongly about and how he was fighting for them. I don’t think anyone would want to read about the domestic side of a vigilante activist, do you? And I suppose that, well, sort of relates to why I’m having a tough time with this. I can understand why my husband will be remembered as John “Nightstick” Fitchburg or “The Raincoat,” why people will probably remember him like that, the way his memoirs read. But there was such a silly side to John. And a romantic side to him, too. I remember that he brought me flowers every day the month before our son was born.

MITCH FLAYBURN: John Fitchburg: Sweetheart. Never thought we’d be reporting that.

COREY EGELSTEIN: No, we didn’t. I mean, (pauses) we never did.

DENISE FITCHBURG: Yeah, he kidnapped me from work one Tuesday. He had cleared it with my manager. So he comes in and tells me he’s taking me out to lunch. Then he drives us straight to Government Camp. He tells me on the way that there’re these egg sandwiches he wanted to show me. He said they really complimented the view. As we were sitting out there, eating and looking at Mt. Hood, well it was beautiful and really romantic. Actually, that was when he got so riled up about the Mt. Hood Elementary education system.

MITCH FLAYBURN: How so?

DENISE FITCHBURG: Well, this was a weekday, as I mentioned, and there were loads of school-aged children around. Many of them had skateboards and were coming and going to this skate park. Anyway, John was sure that they were all ditching school to hang out at the park. We went over there to watch them skate after eating, and it was amazing how good they were. And we started talking about how all those kids were probably failing out of school and yet they were great athletes and obviously had the motivation to stick with something, even if the something was skateboarding. John felt like the system was failing them. It wasn’t too long after that he was campaigning for a recall of Superintendent Davies.

COREY EGELSTEIN: Fascinating.

MITCH FLAYBURN: A fateful egg sandwich. That’s a very nice story. Please tell me, Denise. How did you feel about the outpouring of emotion at John’s memorial service yesterday?

DENISE FITCHBURG: Well…I appreciated all the love being shown for John, certainly. I remember laying a bouquet of flowers next to his headstone, and there were so many arrangements there already…actually it was the same bouquet he’d brought me before that trip to Hood…and I remember feeling, it sounds crazy because there were hundreds of people there, but it was like I was burying him alone.

MITCH FLAYBURN: I think we all know what you mean.

COREY EGELSTEIN:  No…we don’t! Not at all! That’s the point!

The theme of “Wake Up, Portland! with Mitch Flayburn” begins to play.

MITCH FLAYBURN: Well I’d like to heartily thank my guests, Corey Egelstein and Denise Fitchburg. Unfortunately that’s all the time we have but tune in tomorrow when our guests are Senator Large and Mayor Breedlove.

Our story ends as the lights go down on a small stage inside the Media Building of Pioneer Square. The outro music of “Wake Up Portland!” continues to blare and Corey Egelstein continues to look at Denise Fitchburg.

© 2009 Jeremy Benjamin and Doug Dean

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