Occupy Denver tent city occupies Hickenlooper’s time

So far, group allowed to remain on state property

Protesters and onlookers mingle Wednesday morning in the center square of a tent city that has sprung up on Broadway in Denver outside the state Capitol. Occupy Denver organizers say they stand with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which decries corporate greed and bailouts. Enlarge photo

JOE HANEL/Durango Herald

Protesters and onlookers mingle Wednesday morning in the center square of a tent city that has sprung up on Broadway in Denver outside the state Capitol. Occupy Denver organizers say they stand with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which decries corporate greed and bailouts.

DENVER – A growing tent city outside the state Capitol has attracted the support of a state lawmaker and is posing a problem for Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Cokedale, pitched a teepee among the more than 60 tents in a park outside the state Capitol. McKinley has been living among the protesters since Monday night.

The Occupy Denver protest is an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York. Now in its 19th day, Occupy Denver’s population fluctuates from dozens to hundreds. Protesters express grievances with bailouts, bank foreclosures and the cozy relationship of government and corporations.

McKinley, a conservative Democrat from southeast Colorado, said he does not share all the same grievances.

“But when our country is in the crapper and we have to bail it out, and we have CEOs associated with the bailout get raises, something has to change,” McKinley said.

The camp has the makings of a long-term city, including a medical tent, a small library, generators, wireless Internet and a kitchen run by a trained chef.

Volunteers have organized teams for security and medical care.

“We’re leaderless, and yet at the same time, we’re all leaders,” said Neil Therrell, one of the organizers.

The crowd includes street people who have always frequented the area and well-dressed, middle-aged people who wave anti-Wall Street signs.

The core group, though, seems to be young people who feel dispossessed by an economy that offers only low-wage jobs, if that.

One of them is Elaina Jeansonne of Louisiana.

She was laid off from Cingular Wireless. She reluctantly admitted that she quit a job as a pizza driver for Domino’s because she couldn’t make enough to support herself. Instead, she worked for a while at a strip club.

She was on her way to Occupy D.C. when she got waylaid and decided to join the Denver protest.

“The government is supposed to be of the people and for the people, but instead of doing things to help the people, they choose to gold-plate the state Capitol for $1.7 million,” Jeansonne said.

(Actually, AngloGold Ashanti donated $130,000 worth of gold to recap the famous golden dome. A structural repair project is under way, and the costs are estimated at more than $17 million.)

Occupy Denver has turned out crowds of several hundred for some of its protests.

Some tea party protests at the Capitol in 2009 and 2010 were larger, including one that drew 5,000 people. But the Occupy Denver group includes a core of people who are in the park all day and night.

Although the occupiers and tea partiers seem to have little in common culturally, they express some of the same grievances, especially a revulsion at government bailouts of banks.

The tent city is on state property, and the state usually requires a permit to hold demonstrations. Hickenlooper has the power to order the state patrol to kick out the protesters, but so far he has not.

In a Tuesday interview with KOA radio, Hickenlooper said he was worried about the precedent of letting people camp illegally in the park.

Protesters responded Wednesday with a letter to Hickenlooper, asking him to respect their First Amendment right to assemble.

“Our tents are a symbol,” the letter says. “We are here to draw attention to the injustice of corporate sovereignty over modern life.”

McKinley brokered a meeting between a delegation of protesters and Kevin Patterson, Hickenlooper’s deputy chief of staff, on Wednesday afternoon.

During the brief meeting, Patterson listened as a protester read the letter. He accepted a written copy, and protesters asked him if he had a response.

“Not right now. We don’t have anything to say at this point,” Patterson said.

Therrell, one of the organizers, said he thinks Hickenlooper wants to get rid of the camp but doesn’t know how.

“We’ll come right back again if they remove everything,” he said. “And that’s the point. We need to keep doing this until a solution is reached.”

Wednesday night, Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock sent out a joint statement that said, “The Occupy Denver protesters are on state property. The state and city are working together to find a solution that balances Occupy Denver’s First Amendment rights with growing concerns around public safety and public health in violation of city ordinance and state law.”

jhanel@durangoherald.com