The clouds hung low over the foothills behind the Capitol on Thursday morning. The gloom and chill of the day only added to the sense of purpose of the small band of protestors gathered there at 10 a.m., their cardboard signs already limp with rain.
Those walking or driving past who hadn’t heard about the protest might have been unsure what the people in the gradually growing crowd had in common. Teenagers in tight jeans, grey-haired men wearing army jackets, middle-age women with signs and serious expressions, college kids wearing Guy Fawkes masks, even a man in a clown suit all chatted and shifted as it began to rain harder.
Their signs said things like “REPRESENTATION THAT CORPORATE $ DID NOT ELECT,” “THE MIDDLE CLASS IS TOO BIG TO FAIL” and “THEY ONLY CALL IT CLASS WAR WHEN WE FIGHT BACK.” Everyone was there for the same basic reason: to bring the anti-corporate movement known as Occupy Wall Street to Salt Lake City, but no one really knew how to begin.
A smallish middle-age man wearing a “Democracy Now” shirt broke into the middle of the gathering, waving a tie-dyed heart flag. He shouted into the crowd, condemning America as it is today and comparing it to the dystopia in George Orwell’s 1984. Other voices joined his, and passing cars honked their approval as the march began. Although the protesters shared a common cause, the specific reasons for why they braved the rain and cold weather to protest were different. “I’m here because I’m a grandmother and a mother,” explained one woman. “I’m here for my children and grandchildren who are the future of our country. Corporate greed and the Republican Party are killing the American Dream. Even though I’m upper middle class, I’m here to support everyone who is really being bought out of the American Dream by corporations”.
The chanting began: “A people, united. We’ll never be divided,” “This is what democracy looks like,” and “We are the 99 percent” were some of the most popular chants, as well as “What do we want? Democracy! When do we want it? Now! When will we leave? Never!” The marchers wound their way through the financial district of downtown Salt Lake City, pausing in front of businesses they feel embody corporate greed, shouting “Shame on Well’s Fargo,” Shame on Chase,” and so on in front of the Federal Reserve, Channel 2 News, Goldman Sachs, and US Bank. As the crowd approached Pioneer Park, they began chanting “Occupy Salt Lake.”
A group of young people wearing identical yellow shirts that said PEACE KEEPER directed the crowd. I asked Henia Belalia, a member of the activist group Peaceful Uprising, who they were. “We are out here to support our community, and one of the things that we’re passionate about is that if something this big is happening in Salt Lake, we want to make sure it remains peaceful, so a lot of us have joined the Peace Keepers,” she said. “We’ll be helping to make sure that the march goes well. The Peace Keepers instructed the marchers as they made their way through Salt Lake City’s streets, asking demonstrators to slow down at times and making sure they crossed streets appropriately.
Even though the organizers of the march didn’t get a permit, it went without a hitch. The police presence was minimal, just a few officers directing traffic. One officer even chanted along with the protesters as they marched by. By the time the protest reached Pioneer Park, there were close to 300 demonstrators. After the chanting died down, rules for occupation were laid out: no weapons, no drugs and alcohol, and no demonstrating within base camp. Occupiers were told to pick a place to camp in one of the designated areas on the north end of the park and donate $20 to fund the food, first-aid and sanitation operations.
The camp planning committee intends to host speakers, musicians, and free workshops and activities. Although the park technically closes at 10 p.m., occupiers were allowed to camp through the night.
I asked one young man how he felt about camping in the mud and stormy weather and what his plan was. “I think the weather is going to get better,” he said. “I don’t have that much of a plan, to be honest. I think that the discussions that will happen and the continued activism will motivate me to continue to be here.”
The occupiers plan to strike the entire camp at 6 a.m. on Saturday for the Downtown Farmers Market. After that, they plan to occupy the park until the clouds clear and they can see some hope on the horizon.
Video of Thursday's Occupy SLC by Bryan Young: