Occupy movement stays peaceful in cash-poor Vegas

By Cristina Silva

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 16 2011 12:51 a.m. MST

Dressed in a rat costume, Earla Penn walks out to the street to flash a sign at passing motorists near the Occupy Las Vegas camp site, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, in Las Vegas. While others act up, flout authority, occupy parks and conflict with police, Occupy protesters in Las Vegas favor peaceful rule-following and government cooperation.

Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — There are no police in riot gear here, no bulldozers leveling encampments.

In a city that celebrates behaving badly, Occupy Las Vegas protesters are touting civil obedience and government cooperation as anti-Wall Street efforts elsewhere have turned to violence and police confrontations.

Las Vegas demonstrators have sought approval from government leaders and police before protesting or setting up a camp site. They called off a protest during President Barack Obama's visit to Las Vegas last month because police asked them to do so. And they have created a system of protest rules that ban, among other things, law-breaking and hate signs.

The good behavior in Las Vegas and other Occupy efforts across Nevada is even more noteworthy because Nevadans may have the most cause to rage against the machine. The state tops the nation in foreclosures and unemployment and entire neighborhoods have been overtaken by vacant homes and storefronts.

But while protesters in other cities riot and rage, the Vegas group is hosting a series of free foreclosure mediation workshops for homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages.

Organizers insist their anti-greed message has a better chance of spreading if they aren't labeled violent anarchists.

"It's a combination of respect for the police and the general public, and it's a safety issue as well," said Jim Walsh, an unemployed truck driver volunteering as Occupy Las Vegas' self-appointed chief of security. "As a group we had voted that we were going to do this with non-violence and so far, not one person in our group has not been arrested or sent to the hospital."

The peaceful spirit stands in stark contrast with the protests unfolding in other cities, notably in New York, where police arrested 200 protesters before dawn Tuesday and demolished the tent city that had anchored the movement. Police have also arrested protesters or shuttered camp sites in recent weeks in Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Oregon, Texas, Florida and California. In Dallas, an occupy campsite has been plagued by reports of chaos, including the alleged sexual assault of a child. In Oakland, a man was shot and killed Thursday near the encampment at the City Hall plaza. Police in Burlington, Vt., evicted protesters after a man fatally shot himself last week inside a tent.

To avoid similar showdowns or violent outbreaks in Las Vegas, protesters have met weekly with police. They forwarded their plans to police for review, and then tweaked their efforts when police suggested changes. One weekend, police asked if the occupiers could cancel a proposed protest on the Las Vegas Strip because city officials were expecting a large number of visitors. In a rare act of defiance, protesters went forward with the protest anyway — sort of. They moved it to Fremont Street, a smaller tourist haven in downtown Las Vegas.

"It's the mentality of that group that, 'we can make a point without being arrested,'" said Lt. Jason Letkiewicz, the staff liaison between the protesters and the Las Vegas police department. "They don't want to be known as thugs."

It's not that Nevadans are incapable of mustering some old fashioned civil disobedience. They just don't want to be arrested or attacked by police.

"Some people have said, 'why are we being so friendly to the police?'" said Robert Paulson, 21, a comedian who has lived at the Las Vegas camp for three weeks. "And it's like, it's cool. We got to do everything we want to do and we didn't get beat."

Fear that an ugly protest could further hurt Nevada's wounded economy has also restrained protesters.

"We don't want to chase tourists away from our city because that's where a lot of people's jobs come from," said David Peter, a union worker active in the Las Vegas movement.

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