Occupy SLC protesters vilify elite, camp with destitute
As I begin my 24th hour with Occupy SLC, a man is singing a Beatles song to me. "Come Together."
It's appropriate for a movement that has morphed from a protest into an ambitious, if unintentional, social experiment: Bring the homeless together with the housed for a multiweek camping trip in a tough city park.
After spending Wednesday night and Thursday in Pioneer Park, the original Occupy message fight against the top 1 percent for the bottom 99 is an asterisk to my experience. The hour-to-hour focus of these 150 campers is to somehow live with each other's conflicting cultures and expectations in the face of limited resources and a cold winter. This is what has shaped their Occupation and my one day with them.
In the afternoon, it's easy to notice only the activists and hippies in the park. Placards are waved at traffic. Meetings are held in hand gestures: wiggly fingers up mean agreement, wiggly fingers down mean dissent. Guitarists and hand-drummers play next to the "Sacred Space" an open circle of posts decorated with wooden hearts and caution tape, reserved for meditation and worship.
But camp gets noisier after dusk, especially on the east side. That is the "night owl" side, says protester Adam Lund. Many of the homeless stay on this side. Those who want quiet hours camp on the west side, but the rowdiness can spill over. Late Wednesday, 18-year-old Nathan Clark crosses the center line to get a volunteer security guard known as Hawaii.
"Cowboy dropped a guy," Clark says, referring to a fight in which a guy called Sasquatch got into it with a fellow camper. Cowboy, another volunteer security guard, has tried to break it up, but now he needs help.
By the time we get there, Cowboy is escorting one fighter away, presumably the one he just "dropped," but Sasquatch tries to chase after them. Hawaii blocks Sasquatch and holds him back, so Sasquatch goes to the curb to cool off.
"[Expletive] the homeless!" he shouts.
"You're homeless, too," Clark retorts.
I have not felt afraid in Pioneer Park.
Despite its history and reputation and the recurrent outbursts of Sasquatch, no one has given me trouble and several have offered to watch my back.
But it is still Pioneer Park. It was Pioneer Park before the Occupants occupied it. Every city has a difficult spot, and this is Salt Lake's. Those who live and work nearby have gotten used to people sprawled on the 400 West median, the jaywalking, the occasional broken glass and the behavioral quirks staring, staggering, shouting, hunching, muttering, frequent peripheral glances and the ability to sit perfectly motionless on a bench for a really, really long time that, in sum, makes a lot of Utahns brace for something weird and probably bad to happen here.
Even benign surprises can be uncomfortable, and I have to admit, it's hard to know what to do with myself when an Occupant stumbles out of the Sacred Space, stops 18 inches in front of my face and tells me I look like John Denver.
"It was disconcerting and difficult for some people who didn't have any experience with street life previously," says Occupant Jesse Fruhwirth.
Of the 150 people or so who are camping at Pioneer Park, about 100 are actively protesting, Fruhwirth estimates. About half of those were homeless when the Occupation began, he says.
The 50 or so nonparticipants camping in the park mostly have substance-abuse or mental-health problems.
It is this group that leaves the demonstrators homeless and housed torn. Should nonparticipants who yell and make trouble all night be pitching tents under a permit for a demonstration? Kicking them out might be the easiest.
But that's just not very 99-percenty.
Instead, the group is trying to accommodate the nonprotesters, and most of the daily survival tasks are performed by fellow transients. Stacey Allen, 55, moved to Salt Lake City in September from California with her steelworker husband because they heard there were more jobs here.
Neither found work and they moved from motels to a shelter. She manages the camp kitchen every day, and her husband used his construction skills to build the kitchen tent. Homeless volunteers process donations, staff the medical tent and work security, or "de-escalation," as Hawaii calls it.
Winter will make things more difficult. Logistics coordinator Seth Neily is working with city park, sanitation and fire officials to plan insulation and outdoor space heaters for the group.
Meanwhile campers are running with their own ideas e.g., generators in tents that Neily says could violate the group's permit or kill people.
Among the homeless, there is a strong incentive to make the permits work. Every transient I spoke with wants to be able to camp in the park during winter rather than risk shelter overcrowding and nights in the jail or "drunk tank."
But on the protest side, there is the question of emphasis. Edward Swift, a protester who also visited Occupations in New York, Chicago and St. Louis, says Occupy SLC has the highest homeless concentration he has seen. A visitor from Boston made a similar observation Wednesday on Twitter.
"It kind of shifts the focus" away from corporate greed, Swift said.
Several times during the day, amid occasional domestic disputes and matches Occupants compare their numbers to the thousands of committed political protesters in other cities. There is some self-consciousness that the struggling tent city in Pioneer Park might be exactly the sort of ragtag affair one would expect from an anti-establishment cause in the country's most conservative state.
But there is an honesty here that perhaps not every Occupation can claim: The protesters in Pioneer Park know what 99 percent looks like.