Occupy protesters: Will they go, or be arrested?
As a result of a man dying overnight at Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park, Police Chief Chris Burbank on Friday ordered Occupy Salt Lake protesters to vacate their camps at both the west-side park and downtown's Gallivan Center.
The protesters who began camping at Pioneer Park Oct. 6 have until sundown Saturday to pack up and leave.
But during a news conference Friday evening, Occupy member Tara Bueche left open the possibility that the campers might depart, as asked, but added: "I don't think we want to leave."
Prior to the news conference, Reverend Tom Goldsmith, of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, led a candlelight vigil for the dead man, saying: "When a homeless person dies in a wealthy nation such as ours, it is a sin."
Occupy SLC protester Jesse Fruhwirth said that in 2010, 54 people died in Salt Lake City due to issues related to homelessness, and in 2009, 58.
"We understand the city's concern about the situation but let's be clear. We have been providing food, shelter and health care," Fruhwirth said of the makeshift community born out of the Occupy movement at Pioneer Park. "To react by shutting this down will lead to more people dying alone, cold, hungry and without shelter."
Fruhwirth challenged city leaders to "refuse to ignore the brutal reality of poverty and homelessness and embrace moral compassion."
"Mayor Becker, the nation is watching," Fruhwirth said. "You cannot extinguish our light."
The mayor later issued a news release saying that the city was rescinding Occupy's camping permit and would no longer be issuing such free-speech camping permits anywhere within city limits. He said the city will continue to work with protestors to ensure the protesters' rights are protected.
Saturday's showdown could result in citations and arrests, and some in the park Friday holding lit candles to remember the dead homeless man known as Mike vowed to stay put. As a group, Occupy SLC is still discussing its next steps, Bueche added, and protesters hope to negotiate further with police Saturday.
"We're not going to forget [Mike] and we're not going anywhere," Sharon Wade, 43, said Friday night through tears. "You're going to have to push me out of this park, dammit! I'm staying right here."
Meanwhile, in the heart of downtown, Occupy the Fed protesters are appalled that their newly formed Gallivan Center camp will be included in the police sweep.
"We've been here for more than two weeks without any incidents," said protester/poet Seth Walker. His group had camped out tentless in front of the Federal Reserve Bank for several days, then as the weather worsened they moved to a nearby vacant lot and pitched tents for shelter from the elements.
Within a few days, the lot's owner asked police to boot them off. Fervent about their cause, protesters negotiated an alternate camp at Gallivan, which has barely taken root.
"We made promises with [Burbank] and we've kept them," Walker said. The police chief "seemed to recognize a difference between the two camps," he said, "that this is a group of dedicated activists trying to change the world."
The chief arrived at Pioneer Park just after noon and asked campers and reporters to gather round. He said the protest camps had become a public safety concern, particularly with the approach of winter. He wondered if the dead man would still be alive had he not been camping and instead staying at a shelter.
"That possibility, that he may still be here [alive], is one that we can't overlook," said Burbank, who led the group in a moment of silence.
Burbank said he would try to work with the group to find other forums for them to express opposition to Wall Street policies and corporate greed, but in the wake of the death early Friday morning he could no longer allow camping out in subfreezing weather on public sites.
"You have a lot of people who don't understand what's going on but come down because the homeless can camp here and receive free meals," Burbank said. "That has enabled some of the problems we've had."
Burbank said anyone remaining at the campsites after sunset Saturday would be arrested. He said he understood if some protesters preferred to be arrested as a matter of principle, but he asked that they pack up their belongings before being taken into custody. He pledged officers would treat the protesters respectfully and would not be dressed in riot gear. In return, he asked for everyone's cooperation.
Burbank said it appeared the victim died around 2 a.m., likely from a combination of carbon monoxide poisoning and a drug overdose. Along with a small propane heater, police were reportedly seen retrieving what appeared to be drug paraphernalia from the tent where the victim was found.
The man was discovered about 10 a.m., as protest organizers reportedly were making routine tent checks.
Police spokeswoman Lara Jones said the victim was a 42-year-old white male, but said his name was being withheld pending notification of next-of-kin. Those camping at the park said they believed Mike was a homeless person who supported the Occupy protest.
Sabo McFeed, 38, said Mike was from North Carolina, had come to Utah about seven years ago and had worked for Kennecott until he injured his back and was laid off. McFeed, who also is out of work and homeless, said Mike had been using a tent belonging to a man named Fred, who has an apartment.
Tribune reporter Nate Carlisle contributed to this story.
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