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19 arrested as police clear Occupy Salt Lake tent city from Pioneer Park; Most participants left voluntarily

Most participants left voluntarily

Published: Saturday, Nov. 12 2011 9:51 p.m. MST

Occupy Salt Lake protestors Ron Hardy, left, and Roy Begay break down a tent before vacating Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Police arrested 19 people while clearing the Occupy Salt Lake tent city from Pioneer Park Saturday night, but the eviction was conducted largely without incident.

Participants were asked by police at sundown to take down their tents, pack their belongings and relocate. Most complied. Their belongings were taken to a private warehouse for temporary storage, as arranged by homeless advocate John Netto. He also organized transportation in limousines and buses for people living in the park who wanted to stay in local homeless shelters or join the Occupy Ogden movement.

Netto said he and his wife, a Presbyterian minister, have cultivated a relationship of trust with many homeless people in Utah. Nettto, a supporter of the Occupy Salt Lake movement, said he got involved to ensure no one was injured while police cleared the park. Some of the people in the park "are quite ill" and needed to dealt with kindly, he said.

Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank said the park was cleared in a peaceful manner thanks to the assistance of community members and the professional manner in which Salt Lake police officers conducted themselves.

"It's gone as well as we could have expected," Burbank said.

As for Netto arranging rides in limousines, Burbank joked, "I think he set a standard that will be hard to compete with."

Salt Lake City public works crews began cleaning the park even before it was cleared. Burbank said the immediate plan was to clear the park of property, close it, and allow city crews to thoroughly clean it. Burbank said city officials are working on establishing another protest space nearby and would allow the occupiers to have two tents in the park — a makeshift education center and kitchen, although no cooking equipment would be permitted.

While the protestors could return to the park, they will not be permitted to camp overnight. The park curfew, Burbank said, is a half hour after sunset, according to city ordinance.

Most people cooperated with police. As arrests were made, Occupy Salt Lake participants collectively shouted the person's name and thanked them for their sacrifice. 

Representatives of the ACLU of Utah were in the park to observe the activities of police as the park was cleared. Acting legal director Joe Cohn said the ACLU had concerns about "unnecessary restrictions on First Amendment activities."

While he understood the health and safety concerns raised by the police chief and city officials, Cohn said, "We must ask, if someone died of an overdose at the homeless shelter, would they be closing the homeless shelter?

"We think this was an overreaction to events leading up to tonight."

District 7 Salt Lake City Councilman Soren Simonsen said he understood Burbank's and Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker's concerns about health and safety in Pioneer Park, but he was "very disappointed to see the park cleared." Simonsen said he would work with city officials to ensure protestors had other options to continue to assemble peacefully.

Shortly before sunset, some 30 law enforcement vehicles — police cruisers, jail buses and mobile command posts — lined 400 South along Pioneer Park in preparation for the operation.

Burbank said the department was prepared for every contingency but it was his intention to conduct the operation as peacefully as possible. He entered the park first, flanked by a couple of officers, to hear the concerns of Occupy Salt Lake participants and explain that officers would assist them in clearing their belongings. 

While some were arrested when they resisted police and incited others, most complied with the officers' instructions.

Occupy SLC participant Seth Neily urged calm. "We stand for peaceful protest. Don't let people get hurt here."

Another protester, who would not provide his name, shouted, "This is not the end of the movement. We have technology. We can regroup."

Two gatherings were planned for Sunday, one at noon at the Gallivan Center and another at Pioneer Park at 4 p.m., organizers said.

About 7 p.m. Saturday, police arrested protester Michael Wilson, who was putting up a tent long after other tents were going down.

By 7:30 p.m. the tent city was mostly torn down and people waited with their belongings until they could go to the warehouse to temporarily store their belongings and then ride to shelters or other destinations. The people in the park included "occupiers" as well as homeless people who are well known to advocates and police.

Occupy Salt Lake had been granted a permit to camp overnight in Pioneer Park since the protest started in mid-October.

On Friday, city officials announced that overnight camping would no longer be allowed anywhere in the city. That announcement left protesters camping at Pioneer Park and at the Gallivan Center with about 24 hours to decide what to do.

The city changed its position following the death of homeless man identified only as "Mike" on Thursday night. Police believe his death may have been caused by a drug overdose and carbon monoxide poisoning from a space heater inside his tent.

Mayor Becker met with protest groups that have been camped at Pioneer Park and the Gallivan Center, and issued a statement Saturday evening saying he had agreed to a compromise that would let the protest groups keep one or two tents in each location to store materials with only a person or two allowed to tend the storage tents during the nighttime hours.

"Both of these groups, by nature, are leaderless," making it hard to predict how the protesters will react to what the mayor sees as a compromise, said spokesman Art Raymond.

How the compromise will be administered is yet to be determined. "Obviously it is an evolving situation," Raymond said.

Earlier in the afternoon, participants said they hoped police would give them more time to relocate.

"We need a week before we can move," occupier Ryan Kirk said about 1:30 p.m. Saturday. "We're trying to work with the city to get more time."

Police officers talking with the occupiers Saturday afternoon warned them no extension in the deadline was in the works. Kirk said some of the occupiers were weighing their options to avoid being arrested. He acknowledged that, as part of their protest, some in the camp may stay put with the hope they can be arrested.

Kirk and occupier Justin Sampson acknowledged that the homeless, who joined the Occupy SLC protesters, now have the problems facing the homeless as their primary agenda. 

But at least one "occupying couple" that published an article in the movement's newsletter, "Notes from an Occupation," praised the community's benevolence.

"There's more resources and there's a lot more people up here who understand and are willing to actually work with you and give you info on where you can go take showers or get food or get clothes. There seems to be more resources up here than out in Ogden or anywhere else. I feel more comfortable here than in any other city I've ever been in."

Matt Minkevitch, executive director of The Road Home, which provides shelter and support for overcoming homelessness, said between the weather and the deadline for Occupy SLC participants to leave from Pioneer Park looming, the shelter system was prepared for every contingency.

"We have room tonight for single men, single women and families with children. We're bringing in everyone we possibly can. That's been the case for years now," Minkevitch said.

The shelters are "not at capacity now," he said. "I expect 50-plus families out in Midvale (The Road Home's overflow shelter) and some 20 to 30 single guys to come in. With this weather, we'll see some of the guys that prefer to camp out will start to come in."

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com, marjorie@desnews.com, sfidel@desnews.com

Twitter: SteveFidel, SteveFidel

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