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Occupy Salt Lake City won't get booted from Pioneer Park

Published: Thursday, Oct. 20 2011 8:01 p.m. MDT

Ayla Nereo, left, and Aharon Ben Or hug while Alchemy, standing at right, watches at Occupy Salt Lake City in Pioneer Park Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Police Chief Chris Burbank spent more than an hour Thursday afternoon visiting with Occupy Salt Lake City protesters, trying to allay their fears that his officers might be planning to oust them from Pioneer Park. 

The chief's visit came after a letter was posted on the protest group's website earlier in the day, claiming that city leaders were planning to kick protesters out of the park this weekend.

"The city, citing public safety concerns, will no longer grant our permits to stay in Pioneer Park beginning Saturday, Oct. 22," wrote Occupy Salt Lake City protester Jesse Fruhwirth. "That means at 10 p.m. that night, when the park officially closes, (Occupy Salt Lake City) faces the threat of camp being wiped out by police." 

Mayor Ralph Becker's office responded quickly to the post, which referenced a Wednesday night meeting between city officials and protest organizers. Art Raymond, a spokesman for the mayor, said Fruhwirth's fears are the result of a "miscommunication."

Refusing to approve a new permit "was not the intent of the conversation last night," Raymond said Thursday. "The permit process remains unchanged."

Protestors took over the southwest corner of Pioneer Park two weeks ago in a show of solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement that has spawned similar demonstrations around the nation and the world. In Salt Lake, protestors have avoided violent confrontations with law enforcement as they have worked with city officials and with police to comply with a number of requirements, including that the group move its camp each Friday night to allow vendors to set up for the Farmer's Market on Saturdays. 

The protest has experienced internal conflicts.

In his post, Fruhwirth acknowledged that the camp has seen "fights, threats, unwanted touching and sexual comments, drug use (not just by homeless people), one incident involving an individual brandishing a knife but not using it, some disturbing graffiti in the bathroom."

"That's the extent of it as far as I know and that sounds not unlike an end-of-night police incident summary for a Twilight Concert, right?" he wrote.

"I'm not excusing safety/criminal issues at camp, but I'm suggesting that these are problems that every community faces (and that) we will not and can not run from by moving to another space," Fruhwirth added.

While acknowledging that there have been recent problems in the park, Burbank dismissed claims that his department is planning to forcibly remove the protesters this weekend.

"The information that hit a Web page today and became viral that the police department was coming down here to take a permit away, beat people up and take people away, it couldn't be further from the truth," the chief said.

Burbank said he sends his best officers to the park to work with the protest group, and praised those who have occupied the park for their cooperation with police.

"I think this is the relationships that we've developed over time and it's the best way to do business in life," he said. "We are here to facilitate free speech."

Police and protestors both said they hope to avoid violent clashes like the ones that have occurred in other cities around the world. But those who have occupied Pioneer Park say they are committed to their various causes and will resist if they are ordered to leave.

"They will undertake civil disobedience, if necessary, in order to carry forward the movement and the mission," said protest organizer Aharon Ben Or.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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