I thought I knew what community was. If I’m midway through a cookie recipe and I need a cup of sugar, I have nice neighbors from whom I can borrow. That’s community, right? Well, I don’t think so anymore; that’s just not enough. Occupy Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park tent assembly—prior to the eviction and subsequent police raid of Nov. 12—taught me that community is so much more than borrowing sugar. I’m still mourning the community we lost at the hands of a city administration that crumpled our civil rights like our tents in their front loader.
Occupy SLC’s Pioneer Park assembly was a victim of its own success. While pickets outside banks might give them an itch, far more threatening to the oppressor is publicizing the brutal reality of those who are most oppressed. One hundred twelve individuals died in Salt Lake City in 2009 and 2010 due to homelessness-related issues, but hardly anyone with a home knew or really cared until the lifeless body of one man—our friend Mike, who’d had serious difficulties—was found in a tent among Occupy SLC.
Regardless of the cause of his death—which is not yet known despite Police Chief Chris Burbank’s disrespectful presumptions—suddenly the entire Wasatch Front press corps wanted to know: What happened? How could this happen? These are important questions we should ask after every death of a poor person whose death may have been preventable.
Though we’re more committed than ever as an organization, Mayor Ralph Becker squashed an important aspect of our work. We relied on each other constantly—for food, for blankets, for dignity when the rest of the world is disrespectful, and for an embodiment of the Declaration of Independence, which states “all (wo)men are created equal.” The only egalitarian community I’ve ever known was destroyed by Becker and Burbank—and a piece of my heart went with it.
On Nov. 12, a great threat of violence was embodied in the line of police vehicles taking up the entire block between 300 West and 400 West, tear-gas launchers on officers’ belts, ridiculously unneeded demolition equipment and a police chopper—all to evict patently peaceful “campers.” Many Occupiers and others in the park had no other home besides Pioneer Park and had not had enough time to find transportation or storage for their property. Many fled before or when police arrived, sometimes in a panic—their property was seemingly trashed by police. In the face of that tyrannical machine, I felt I had our forefathers whispering in our ears, saying, “This is what assembly looks like. You have a right to it. Fight for your tents!” We did so, peaceably. I was arrestee number 13—jailed for setting up a tent.
Our First Amendment right to assemble was violated. Under the auspices of public-safety and public-health concerns, Mayor Becker and Chief Burbank chased us all out of the park and arrested 19 of us. By collectively punishing the entire group for perceived public-health and safety concerns presented by some individuals, they violated our Fourth Amendment rights by abandoning individualized suspicion. The raid was also a sneak attack: On Tuesday, the police chief and cheerful subordinates were all but giving us a group hug as they showed us to Gallivan Plaza where some activists would be allowed to set up tents. By Friday, those cheerful cops were lacing up their jackboots, and by Saturday, arresting us and stealing our property. The timing and duplicity violated our rights of due process and our rights to be secure in our persons and property—more Fourth Amendment violations.
The system that funded this theatrical show of force, realigned and refocused, could provide funds to help the people who presented public-safety and public-health concerns at Occupy SLC—rather than scatter them across the valley, where they will not be seen and cannot be organized.
No one at Occupy SLC denied our Pioneer Park community had problems—your community has problems, too. It’s just that walls probably separate you from your neighbors, forcing you and/or allowing you to ignore your neighbors’ sexual abuse, domestic violence and drug abuse. In our tent community, there were no thick walls between people—and one’s personal issues (like a kind, alcoholic veteran experiencing nighttime screaming fits of PTSD) sometimes became everyone’s issue. That is community as I now understand it—it’s intimate and sometimes inconvenient, and it was too much to bear for some people who didn’t want to be so exposed. For many others of us, however, it was enriching.
But to be enriched by it, one had to realize that anytime one welcomes and genuinely enfranchises all people—including the most downtrodden and sick—one faces social problems like untreated mental-health issues and substance abuse that have been left to fester for decades. Don’t blame the victim: Fight the real enemy.
From Oct. 6 to Nov. 12, we occupied Pioneer Park, and I’m incredibly proud of our work there. Our Occupation of Salt Lake City continues at Gallivan Plaza, but few among us trust this duplicitous administration to stand by its word to allow those few tents to remain.
Tell Mayor Becker that Salt Lake City should restore Occupy SLC’s right to assemble—all day, all week, in tents, with a kitchen in the park. We were building community, which uplifts the lives of the 99 percent. And without community, we won’t have a chance at toppling the top 1 percent of wealth holders who oppress us all.
Jesse Fruhwirth is a former City Weekly reporter and an active member of the Occupy movement.