Occupy Denver: Homeless protesters interrupt Mayor Hancock during homeless vigil

By now, it's public knowledge that about 30 Occupy Denver supporters interrupted Mayor Michael Hancock's speech during a vigil for the homeless last night on the steps of the City & County Building. This is true. Little, however, has been shared about the decision-making process behind last night's protest or the fact that it was not actually sanctioned by Occupy Denver. Just because a protest involves members of Occupy Denver doesn't mean it represents all of Occupy Denver, says Pamela Zubal, the protest's organizer.

Last night's vigil is part of an annual series to memorialize the homeless who died during the year, and it marks the only public attention some of their deaths ever receive. Although disrupting an event designed specifically to support the city's homeless community in order to protest in support of the city's homeless community might seem misguided, Zubal urges that the group's opposition listen to their reasoning first. None of the 30 people who interrupted Hancock's speech for approximately three minutes last night wished to ruin the moment for the homeless.

Instead, they wanted only to ruin the photo opportunity created by Mayor Hancock's presence. In the end, they briefly interrupted both. This is the second time Occupy Denver demonstrators have protested in support of the homeless by interrupting an event in support of the homeless. The day before Thanksgiving, another group visited the holiday dinner service at the Denver Rescue Mission, again to confront Mayor Hancock, who was that day accompanied by Governor John Hickenlooper.

"We found that it was the absolute height of hypocrisy for the city to kick people who were warm and homeless out of their structures, wake them up and make them go out into the cold," says Zubal, a supporter of the homeless who is no longer a supporter of Occupy Denver. "To watch this happen and then let the person who is responsible for that talk is absolutely crazy."

And to be 100 percent clear, neither of the two events were specifically sanctioned by Occupy Denver. As the group becomes louder and more active in the community, this distinction is tough to make, but it can most easily be defined by approval from the movement's general assembly, the closest thing it has to a governing body.

The trip to the homeless vigil was not approved or, in fact, even brought to the GA. Zubal posted it on Facebook, and a handful of supporters texted the news to others. The same thing goes for Saturday's anti-capitalist elf march, which, though attended by many Occupy Denver supporters, was not an Occupy Denver event. This did not, however, keep it from being covered as one.

"There's an overlap," Zubal says. "You can be Occupy Denver and for the homeless, but you don't have to be both. It was not sanctioned by Occupy Denver or brought to the group as a whole. But to be honest, we're no longer concerned with what our reputation is."

Of the close to 30 people who protested Hancock until he left the stage, half of them identify as homeless. Although protester Corey Donahue, who also attended the event, argues that 100 percent of the protest's most ardent supporters can be called homeless because of their time at the park, he estimates that about 80 percent of its most frequent supporters fit the legal definition of the word. Personally, he prefers "houseless."

Occupy Denver protester Nicole Sisneros, arrested during Monday night's protest, kneels in front of police to plead with them not to evict protesters.
Occupy Denver protester Nicole Sisneros, arrested during Monday night's protest, kneels in front of police to plead with them not to evict protesters.
Kelsey Whipple

It should be noted that two of those arrested Monday night, Jakeob Olson and Daniel Newman, are listed as transient in their arrest record, though Nicole Sisneros, also arrested, self-identifies as homeless. Although those who chose to protest at the vigil were aware that the act would be controversial, they say they took care to explain their actions to a variety of the vigil's representatives before it began. The results were mediocre.

"We went over there, and we did let people know what we were doing, though lots of people were understandably opposed to it," Zubal says. During their protest, group members brought picket signs and copies of the notice against encumbrances the city used to warn them before Monday's eviction. During Hancock's speech, Donahue walked up to the Mayor and presented him with a copy of the notice. "We wanted to be as respectful as possible, but we felt like it was way more disrespectful to have that man speaking there than to interrupt. We were silent throughout the rest of the ceremony, and we only spoke when the mayor was up there to give the speech."

Still, the group earned a healthy amount of negative attention, including homeless supporters asking them to leave or be quiet when they shouted "Shame!" at Mayor Hancock. The decision to protest was not without its consequences, and Donahue admits the group was "a bit unorganized."

"When it was over, people were mad at us, but we stayed to try to explain and get their cards and tell them why we did it," Zubal says. Occupy Denver's supporters invited those who disagreed with them -- a generous number of about 150 people present -- to attend one of their general assemblies. "We both care about the homeless. We have different tactics, but we have more in common than we don't."

During the event, one protester from the Family of Love cried in response to the support of the homeless, and Donahue says he held the hand of a stranger who audibly disagreed with him.

Since the group was most recently evicted, Occupy Denver protesters have already faced additional challenges from property seen as an "encumbrance." Last night, the box protesters are using to collect donations for Toys For Tots was removed and placed in a trash truck, though demonstrators later removed it. When asked about further plans for events in support of the homeless, Donahue said he and other supporters -- not Occupy Denver as an entire entity -- plan to continue much of the same strategy, which he calls a movement against hypocrisy.

"If they don't want us to interrupt events like that next year," he says, "don't put homeless people on the streets."

More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Updated: Occupy Denver's latest eviction ends in flames, arrests and Tebowing."

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