Homeless

Activists Disrupt City Council Meeting to Deliver Petition to End Camping Ban

Laura Avant slammed two stacks of signatures on the floor in front of stunned City Council members.
Laura Avant slammed two stacks of signatures on the floor in front of stunned City Council members. Chris Walker
There was a moment during Monday's Denver City Council meeting that felt like déjà vu for anyone who happened to be at another council meeting way back on October 26, 2015: the sudden swinging open of chamber doors, the single-file line of activists marching up to surprised councilmembers, a barrage of insults and shaming, and a dramatic presentation of a petition to end Denver's urban-camping ban.

The main difference between the disruption eighteen months ago and the disruption yesterday was that the activists had added nearly 30,000 more signatures to their cause — split between two petitions on the website Care2 and representing at least 1,500 Denver residents.

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Demonstrators gathered outside of the City and County Building before the City Council meeting.
Chris Walker
The same woman organized both demonstrations: Laura Avant, who is associated with Occupy Denver and has been a vocal opponent of Denver's controversial restriction on sleeping outside using cover — which mostly affects people experiencing homelessness — since the ordinance was adopted in 2012.

When Avant entered the council chambers yesterday, she carried two heavy stacks of signatures and planted herself in front of city council president Albus Brooks, who attempted to calm the situation and stated the obvious: “Excuse me, you're interrupting.”

Despite the fact that she was unmiked, Avant's yelling drowned out Brooks.

“If you don't want to repeal Denver's urban camping ban, FINE!”

She then slammed both stacks of signatures — each producing a loud thud — on the ground in front of Brooks.

“At least you know how the citizens of Denver feel about it! Goodbye, and shame on you, Albus Brooks, forever!”

“Go live in a shelter with your damn kids!” shouted another man.

There was a moment of awkward silence as the half-dozen activists left the chamber.

“Okay, anyway...,” continued the man at the podium who had been speaking about development in Cherry Creek before the disruption.

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Laura Avant about to slam down a stack of signatures.
Chris Walker
Councilmembers (including some who have told Westword that they are against the camping ban) did not say anything to the chamber regarding the demonstration, but it was a reminder of how contentious the ordinance has become. Organizations like the ACLU of Colorado say that it criminalizes homelessness, and earlier this month, the law faced its first significant legal challenge when attorney Jason Flores-Williams defended three people who had been cited by the city for illegal camping. The defendants — Terese Howard, Jerry Burton and Randy Russell — were found guilty by a jury, but not without plenty of courtroom drama and a fraught jury-selection process.

The timing of Avant's disruption of city council this week also comes as a “homeless bill of rights” (called the Right to Rest Act) will be heard by a state legislative committee Wednesday, April 19.

It will be the third year in a row that the Right to Rest bill, sponsored by Representatives Jovan Melton and Joseph Salazar, will be considered at the state level. If passed, it would outlaw local ordinances like Denver's urban-camping ban by protecting anyone's right to sleep and move about freely in public spaces.
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Chris Walker is a freelancer and former staff writer at Westword. Before moving to the Mile High City he spent two years bicycling across Eurasia, during which he wrote feature stories for VICE, NPR, Forbes, and The Atlantic. Read more of Chris's feature work and view his portfolio here.
Contact: Chris Walker