Sometime in the early morning, a man camping in Pioneer Park died. No one knows for sure yet the cause of death, but the police want to be sure that it won’t happen again -- so they’ve called for the Occupation to end and for protesters to break camp by sunset tomorrow.
“I come here to not issue a mandate for leaving, but to ask for the cooperation of everybody,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank said at a press conference at Pioneer Park today. “We will work with you to find avenues so that you can express your free speech; it just can’t be done through camping on our streets or in our parks, because the risk to even one individual is far too great.”
The individual who died has yet to be identified. and police are still uncertain if his death was due to a drug overdose or carbon monoxide poisoning from a propane heater in his tent. The police plan to disclose the results as they are returned from the medical examiner’s office.
The news was met with disbelief, anger and silence from protesters and members of the homeless in the crowd. Burbank delivered the news flanked by police officers and homeless-service advocates like Pamela Atkinson, who told the crowd that “this tent city is not the kind of environment that helps people.”
Police worry that the presence of the protest camp, which includes as many as 100 people living in over 60 tents, may have given cover to illicit behavior in the park, including drug abuse and violence.
One officer carried a plastic evidence bag around the conference, displaying a used syringe and other drug paraphernalia he says that he picked up in between tents after only a few minutes of searching.
But Jesse Fruhwirth, an Occupy SLC organizer (and former City Weekly reporter), challenged the chief’s decision by arguing that the encampment was providing services to a vulnerable population, many of whom were dissatisfied with local services. “We have a concern in Occupy that there is a gigantic portion of the homeless population that are dissatisfied with the services provided and would prefer to be in another environment,” Fruhwirth said.
Burbank countered, however, that those services could not be monitored safely in a park that mixes politics and protest with the welfare of the homeless.
“Every year, we honor the homeless individuals who have lost their lives [at a commemoration], here in the park coming up in December,” Burbank said, “and now we’re going to add one to that list because of this encampment.”
Renee Dallman, one of the homeless in the camp, says that she and her 21-year-old daughter had spent months trying to get assistance through local social services, to no avail, but that in spending three weeks at the camp, Occupy SLC protesters have helped her daughter apply for several jobs and get enrolled at Salt Lake Community College.
“This is one big family out here,” Dallman says, calling the shutdown “B.S.”
Occupiers were also dismayed to learn the camping ban would be extended to a satellite protest that recently located itself at Gallivan Plaza in downtown Salt Lake City. Burbank informed the protesters that he would respect those who choose to be arrested for not leaving the park tomorrow and hopes to facilitate the arrests in a peaceable manner. Fruhwirth expects that arrests will include many protesters. He says the group is currently organizing to decide on a course of action and may make an announcement later today as to what will become of the Occupy SLC movement.
While organizers are devastated over the loss of one the occupiers, they’re also critical of the death being used to shut down the camp. “This is scapegoating, this is injustice, this is bullcrap,” Fruhwirth says.