- Alexis Baigue
More than a week after a small army of Salt Lake City police officers evicted the Occupy Salt Lake City protesters from their Pioneer Park encampment, refugees of the movement are still occupying public spaces. They’ve crowded into city council meetings and taken over sidewalks outside of high-rise downtown money-changing institutions, like the Goldman Sachs corporate office on Main Street.
“Once we’ve exhaled,” says occupier Jesse Riddle, “we’re going to come back stronger.” Others, however, like organizer and former City Weekly reporter Jesse Fruhwirth, say the occupation lost a key battle after being evicted for public-safety reasons after a homeless man in the camp was discovered dead Nov. 11 due to a possible drug overdose or carbon monoxide poisoning. “We didn’t just lose ground—they ended us,” Fruhwirth says. But, he adds that he hopes the community the camp formed will continue. “A number of us will stick together under the same name—but it’s going to be something completely different than what we had.”
For many, the battlefront has moved from the war on Wall Street robber barons and has now come home to challenge local cities’ ability to care for the homeless. “We’re writing city hall on a global scale,” Riddle says of the movement’s more localized focus. In Salt Lake City, that has meant that a camp originally filled with idealists angry at Wall Street soon became concerned about the lives of the city’s homeless, who struggle with a lack of supportive housing and inadequate drug and mental health services. But the Occupy movement isn’t one where all members move in the same direction. With the Pioneer Park camp vacated, the movement has only one physical occupation remaining downtown, where members organize and try to keep the cause in the public eye.
Nestled between the long, cold shadows of the Wells Fargo and Chase bank buildings, a small Occupy day encampment claims a spot on Gallivan Plaza, where members catch suits on their lunch breaks and hand them literature. The haggard-looking but well-spoken Riddle talks at length with a Deseret News columnist who holds a notebook but takes few notes. Later, a dozen or more curious onlookers stop to watch some Occupy street theater, where actor Alexis Baigue, playing the greedy Fat Cat, pretends to weep and blow his nose with fake trillion-dollar bills, in mock-mourning of the death of the American Dream—represented by a cardboard-box coffin draped in a blue and gold cloth and surrounded by flowers.
The week-long street theater, continued marches and rallies, and other events like the anti-Black Friday “Really Really Free Market”—where people bring free goods to give away at Pioneer Park the day after Thanksgiving—are proof that the movement is keeping itself occupied. But where that takes them is something organizers don’t really know. In a leaderless movement organized loosely around populist frustration, the mission is constantly changing. Some, at least, hope that the time spent occupying Pioneer Park with members of the local homeless population will give them the ability to fight for better help for the down and out who once shared their camp.
On Nov. 15, Occupiers were allowed to comment on their eviction from Pioneer Park at the Salt Lake City Council’s Redevelopment Association meeting. The following day, a meeting was arranged by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s staff to allow organizers to meet with local homeless-services providers in the city.
“It was good both for the Occupy people to hear from our [our service providers] and for the providers to hear from Occupy, as well,” says David Everitt, chief of staff for Becker. The meeting with homeless advocates is usually once a quarter, but Everitt convened a special meeting to introduce occupiers to the service providers, including representatives from The Road Home shelter and advocacy group the Crossroads Urban Center, who are on the front lines of tackling the city’s homeless problem.
Though it’s a leaderless movement, Occupy tends to spontaneously develop “facilitators,” like Seth Neily, who runs the movement’s Pioneer Park Solutions Working Group and attended the meeting with the city’s homeless-services providers. Neily says a provider confronted him with the reality that the Occupy movement doesn’t realize how difficult it is to provide services on the budget it has. Neily acknowledges that the funding providers have is “diddly-squat.” Because of that, he proposed at a recent meeting that Occupy members explore engaging members of the homeless community who often spurn local services—a demographic members say was especially drawn to the Occupy encampment. Neily hopes Occupy can target this troubled demographic of the homeless and bring them to service providers through outreach and a survey of local homeless individuals.
“What I’m hoping we can do is educate the homeless and educate the homeless-advocacy groups to get together and come up with some solutions,” Neily says. He’s also working on the idea of a job fair at Pioneer Park aimed at the homeless and those who have lost work because of the recession.
For Bill Tibbitts, a homeless-rights advocate at the Crossroads Urban Center, the Occupy SLC group has succeeded in making visible the problem of homeless individuals who suffer because they may have been kicked out of a shelter or supportive housing or have otherwise been rejected by the system.
“Occupy SLC has made it impossible to ignore people who have slipped through all of the cracks,” Tibbitts writes via e-mail.
Fruhwirth worries that it was the camp life that really engaged the homeless and gave them a voice. He says it also drew enough attention that the recent death of the homeless camper sealed the camp’s fate.
“We were a victim of our own success,” Fruhwirth says.
Even without a camp, occupiers have pledged to keep fighting. Critics have dismissed the movement for its vague message, but a recent Occupy Town Hall meeting at the Salt Lake City Main Library was attended by nearly 50 individuals—protesters and homeless alike—full of ideas and trying to work on all of them.
A sharp-dressed lawyer stood out among the dreadlocks-and-sweatshirts crowd arguing for the movement to lobby businesses to hire unemployed veterans. One attendee, who skateboarded to the meeting, was one of the 19 arrested at the eviction and, as a minor, faced a $100 fine. A hat was passed around and the fine was collected in 10 minutes. One attendee had a 15-person bus and wanted to know if the movement would like to paint a billboard on it.
While Occupiers aren’t forming a nonprofit, a Political Action Committee or looking to run a candidate for office, they are trying to cover more ground, even if they can’t stake a tent in it.