When organizers of Occupy Salt Lake City marched from the Utah Capitol and took over Pioneer Park earlier this month, the immediate plan was to focus attention on corporate corruption.
But 12 days later, Occupy SLC is wresting with what one spokeswoman describes as a "class privilege" clash between some members and the homeless Utahns and drug dealers who long ago claimed the park as their own.
Alexandra Fabela, a spokeswoman for Occupy SLC, candidly told The Tribune on Tuesday: "We didn't realize how intense the situation at Pioneer Park was with the previous residents there." That was reflected in a post to the group's online forum Monday saying the camp was "being overrun by area homeless competing for resources" and indicating Occupy SLC might relocate.
"We've been trying to do everything we can to integrate both groups together and be cooperative," Fabela said. "At this point, we've not made any formal decision at all to leave."
A park regular suggested they do just that.
"Find some place else," urged a man known as "New York," who added: "We're feeling disrespected. What the [expletive deleted] is wrong with you people?"
New York spoke at an impromptu meeting Tuesday, where friction between the two groups was on full display. More than a dozen people gathered around a picnic table to air grievances and pitch ideas for how to keep things peaceful and safe at the park, where approximately 140 people supporting Occupy SLC are camped.
Problems include a groping incident, aggressive behavior and late night arguments by long-time park denizens. There reportedly has been drunken behavior by people on both sides.
"That is going to happen anywhere," said Mindy Hatch, a spokeswoman for Occupy SLC. But, "when you don't have walls and houses to separate you, it makes it all the more visible."
In addition to a sacred space, a free school and a kitchen, Occupy SLC has a new homeless liaison committee.It also has instituted night watches and invited the park's regulars to participate. But Occupy SLC apparently upset some park regulars when it required mandatory training for anyone working the night patrol; so did criticism of alcohol and drug use.
"The clash is people are homeless. They're frustrated. They party. And you've got people coming in and saying you can't do that," New York said. "Just because you don't do something doesn't mean I can't do it. That's what everybody's trying to avoid a dictatorship."
Between 50 and 100 people have regularly frequented Pioneer Park, where Mormon pioneers first camped when they occupied the Utah territory in 1847. New York said the regulars managed to deal with troublemakers.
The regulars helped Occupy SLC when a man became "overassertive" and began grabbing a women's buttocks. "The end result of it was he was escorted out" of the park, New York said.
Occupy SLC "are just not aware of all the issues going on," he said, and that puts some people at risk.
"You older women need to get together and teach your younger women how to protect yourselves," New York suggested Tuesday.
Hatch acknowledged the regulars' street smarts has been helpful. She said concerns about homeless residents came from "middle class" supporters who "need to have some respect and understand what's going on here." The biggest problem is "bias," she said.
A man named Bob made the same point.
"Stop stereotyping, stop blaming. If you see a problem take care of it. If you see something wrong, address it," Bob said to much applause.
Raphael Cordray, who lost her state job in August 2010, has spent nine nights in the park and moderated Tuesday's discussion.
"We've got to operate with love and respect," Cordray said. She later said conflict started when some "comfy people" her words for white, upper middle class people thought Occupy SLC should only feed people who are active in the movement.
"A lot of people here haven't been around homeless people," she told the group. "If we leave here it's like we've abandoned our brothers and sisters in the homeless community."
Later, away from the heated group discussion, New York said he really didn't want Occupy SLC to relocate, either.
"This is the beginning of a movement and it's always rough in the beginning of a movement," he said. "Nobody wants them to move because it defeats the purpose."
Who gets to camp?
Until two weeks ago, Salt Lake City police patrolling Pioneer Park enforced a no-camping overnight ordinance that prohibited anyone from staying in a public park between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. But Occupy SLC now has a permit that allows supporters to stay overnight, so police are no longer enforcing that rule.
"That permit allows those people to camp there and we can't distinguish who is there as part of that organization and who is not," said Sgt. Shawn Josephson.
Rob Wesemann, director of homeless services for Volunteers of America, said the media and police attention that Occupy SLC drew when it first arrived at Pioneer Park made "our folks nervous. They don't want to be part of that attention."
But since then, Wesemann said his staff has received several requests for tents something VOA doesn't supply from clients who want to stay at the park, too, and "folks experiencing homelessness certainly represent what the movement is about."
"It does look like there are more folks over there than there were last week," Wesemann said. "We've had a couple folks call our outreach saying they'd joined and been given jobs within the protest."
But with that many people cramped in the park, problems were bound to happen, he added.