It was a frosty, makes-your-ears-hurt, body-numbing kind of day. But if you’d been walking past West Valley City Hall on Jan. 22, 2013, you’d have seen about 30 demonstrators marching in the cold, holding signs that read “WE DEMAND JUSTICE” and “POLICE MURDER.”
The protesters wanted answers from West Valley Police about the Nov. 2, 2012, death of 21-year-old Danielle Willard. Willard was shot while in her car by two drug detectives. To date, it has yet to be determined if the shooting was justified.
On the sidewalk among the protesters, a miniature altar had been erected, draped in a black cloth. It held a single object, a digital picture frame, which cycled through a slideshow of images of Willard as a small child, as a teenager enjoying nature, as a young adult smiling with friends and family. Then, her story ended abruptly. She appeared to have been a gentle, normal girl—someone it’s hard to believe posed a threat to police.
A middle-age male protester arrived to join the group. He shouted, “Who’s in charge here?”
“We’re all in charge,” replied Jesse Fruhwirth, a 32-year-old journalist-turned-activist. Bundled up against the cold, he greeted friends, introduced himself to strangers and passed out slips of paper with Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s phone number. He explained who Danielle “Deedee” Willard was to those who didn’t know her.
Formerly a silent observer at events like these, Fruhwirth was now the one responding to questions posed by reporters of Channel 2 News, Fox 13 and KSL.
So why did Fruhwirth quit his 9-to-5 with City Weekly, after having also worked for the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin and Ogden’s Standard-Examiner, earning top awards for his reporting from the local Society of Professional Journalists? “I don’t understand why people don’t more live in accordance with what they believe as fully and completely as they can,” he says.
Part of what shaped Fruhwirth’s identity as an activist was his involvement in a movement that’s lately been forgotten and dismissed. Remember Occupy Salt Lake?
“It was huge moment in my life,” he says. “There was a lot of ‘no going back’ for a lot of people.”
The turning point for Fruhwirth took place on a chilly night in November 2011.
According to news accounts, more than 70 police officers from the Salt Lake City Police Department and Salt Lake County’s Unified Police Department assembled Nov. 12, 2011, to roust the 70-some members of Occupy Salt Lake from their tent city, established 38 days prior. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank ordered the group to vacate the park after a homeless man died in the Occupy compound.
Police moved in and cleared the residents, after which dump trucks and front-end loaders began to raze the camp. By the time the dust had settled, around 8 p.m., 18 people had been arrested, including Fruhwirth, Michael Wilson and Rachel Carter, who had allegedly attempted to pitch a tent during the eviction process. Most of the 18 faced misdemeanor charges, more than half of which were dismissed in September 2012.
But there were still other Occupiers camped out in the city. A splinter group headed by Seth Walker, Solomon Schneider, Karen Neverland and Skydude Hawk had set up camp Nov. 7, 2011, in a parking lot adjacent to the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building on State Street, until they were also evicted. They then moved to Main Street’s Gallivan Plaza. That group became the face of Occupy in Salt Lake City during the winter of 2011-12, living in tents on the plaza until April 6, 2012, when they relocated to Library Square. They disbanded in June 2012 without much notice.
So, what’s become of these tent-city insurgents in the intervening year—and why did they disappear? Has a slowly improving economy made their encampments, revolutionary signage and demonstrations irrelevant? Or have they morphed into new groups and begun new action, still hoping to change the world?
Time for Action
Most recall the first stirrings of the local Occupy movement in fall 2011. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, a small group of activists contacted one another through Facebook and other social media and began holding nightly meetings at Library Square. According to activist Rachel Carter, 43, the group’s concerns focused on corporate dollars in politics; the government’s inability to solve social, economic and environmental problems; and, perhaps most of all, the apathy of citizens.
According to the group’s website, OccupySLC.org, their mission was, in part, “to find a place where our success does not come at the impoverishment of another” and “to break the silence of the silenced masses.”
The group organized a march from the Capitol to Pioneer Park, where they established a campsite and began a 24/7 protest against the status quo. Over the course of the next five weeks, they held marches, demonstrations and community-outreach events on a daily basis.
The camp—a miniature city complete with a kitchen, library, first-aid station and sacred space—attracted anarchists, communists, environmentalists, liberals and people of almost every political and philosophical stripe. But it was also a magnet for a number of the park’s homeless residents, who greatly preferred the camp environment over the cacophony of the nearby homeless shelter.
“I Could Not Do It Anymore”
Raphael Cordray, owner of the Salt Lake City political gift shop Free Speech Zone, was already an activist and leapt at the opportunity to get involved. “When [Occupy Wall Street] started in New York, I thought, ‘That’s really great. Too bad I can’t be a part of that,’ ” she says.
She was thrilled to see a similar grass-roots movement start in Salt Lake City and, from Day 1 of the Salt Lake City occupation, became instrumental in the camp’s operations. She prepared the group’s first meal in her own kitchen and volunteered time to help run the camp as much as her schedule would permit.
It took seeing Occupy Wall Street’s encampment in Zuccotti Park firsthand, during a trip to New York City, to get Peaceful Uprising activist Deb Henry interested. Inspired by previous acts of civil disobedience, such as Tim DeChristopher’s 2008 disruption of a federal oil- and gas-lease auction, she and others had vowed to take responsibility for society’s problems and to work toward change and formed the environmental group in early 2009.
At first, she had trouble seeing how Occupy could accomplish anything because it was making no specific demands. Occupiers agreed that society is rife with problems, but didn’t know the answers.
For Henry, that became part of its appeal. “We’re going to invite everyone to suggest something and work through them as a community,” she says. Occupy Salt Lake adopted a consensus-gathering process from its New York counterparts, which meant a decision could not be adopted until every person at the nightly general-assembly meeting agreed to it.
Gregory Lucero, an apprentice stagehand at Salt Lake Community College and a founding member of the Revolutionary Students Union at Utah Valley University, had immediately jumped onboard the movement. “I’m a Marxist-Leninist,” he says, “so any strong anti-capitalist mass movement, any upsurge in worker struggles against oppression/corruption, is something that I have an intimate need to be a part of.”
But, Lucero says, though Occupy Salt Lake “began with an incredible upsurge of optimism … of feeling as though the entire world could be changed, it degenerated into a mundane, sectarian disaster of epic proportions in which the wider political message was almost completely lost.”
He eventually left the movement. “I was just absolutely exhausted, absolutely brutalized, and I could not do it anymore,” he says.