Protest groups respond to police shutdown of camp-out in Washington Square

Jan 6, 2020, 2:08 PM | Updated: 2:54 pm

(Photo credit: KSLTV.com)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — After 17 protesters were arrested at a planned camp-out in downtown Salt Lake City’s Washington Square, protest groups are responding with demands for “better treatment of unsheltered people,” according to a press release sent to KSL on Monday.

The camp-out began Friday night, after a protest group coined “Take Shelter Coalition” submitted a formal list of demands to the city earlier that day.

“Our aim is to improve conditions for our unsheltered neighbors who are experiencing harassment by police simply for trying not to freeze in the city’s harsh winters,” the statement said.

The Take Shelter Coalition is comprised of a range of local community organizers, including CivilRiot, Democratic Socialists of Salt Lake, For The People, Freedom Road Socialist Organization and others. Before Washington Square, the group held public rallies, submitted letters to representatives and engaged in conversations with the homeless population to address their needs.

“The occupation at Washington Square was formed out of direct conversations with our unsheltered friends,” the statement said. “The aim of the occupation was to draw more attention to the terrible and unfair experiences forced on the homeless community and to continue providing food and other basic needs to as many as we could.”

Police clear the park

Police responded to the camp-out Friday by clearing the park once it reached the designated curfew.

Four people were arrested and taken to jail while another 13 got citations. Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said his officers acted with restraint when they cleared protesters out of their camp near the County Building.

“We were told that some unsheltered people along 500 South were woken up very early (Friday) morning and were told to move to Washington Square,” Salt Lake police media director Christina Judd said to KSL.com.

“After two days, the protesters were still unwilling to meet with the administration, and it was determined that we needed to enforce park curfew.”

Around 11 p.m. Friday, over 100 officers in riot gear and civilian staff cleared out the square and removed about 100 protesters from an “occupy style protest,” according to Brown.

‘Take Shelter Coalition’ responds

In the press release, the group said the camp-out was formed in response to the closure of the Road Home downtown shelter and what the group calls the prevalent housing crisis in the city.

“The closure of the Road Home downtown shelter has reduced the number of shelter beds available on any given night by hundreds,” according to the statement. “While the police have claimed that the shelters are not full we know from our daily work with the unsheltered community that the shelters are full and that this is a direct result of the closure of the Road Home and reduction in the number of beds.

“There is not enough space in the current shelters for the community in Salt Lake City,” the statement read.

However, Brown said this argument of “not enough space” isn’t accurate.

“At the time we began this operation, there were — and we confirmed this — 74 beds in the shelter,” Brown said.

Protesters said they were trying to give a voice to the homeless through the demonstration. They argue that the camp-out wasn’t disruptive until the process of removal began.

“During the occupation, we developed an efficient system for basic sanitation needs and regularly changed the trash cans near our camping area,” according to the press release. “In contrast to the claims of the Salt Lake City Police Department, the camp only became a mess when the riot squad trampled and tore the camp apart.”

Protesters’ demands

The group said their work toward “justice for the unsheltered community” is not over. In their response, they made the following list of demands for the city:

  • Open a new downtown shelter.
  • Have, at a minimum, the equivalent number of beds lost in the closure of the downtown shelter made readily available and accessible.
  • No arrests, tickets, or harassment for campers.
  • Change the existing legislation to allow for the new centers to have more beds.
  • Free public transit fare for all people who stay in shelters.

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Protest groups respond to police shutdown of camp-out in Washington Square