If you become confused by what you are about to read, you are not alone. It's a story about confusion, about the misinformation that is so easy to spread through the Occupy movement, and it begins with a death that never happened. It ends, however, with a march: Last night, Nicole Sisneros led a candlelight vigil down 16th Street Mall to commemorate a death that most of her friends at Occupy Denver originally thought was hers.
By 7 a.m. yesterday, Westword had received several messages and phone calls saying that an occupier had died of hypothermia the night before, and it turns out the coroner's office got those calls, too. The story went like this: Overnight, Denver police officers had apparently approached the camp to check on whether anyone there had died in the cold. When asked why, the story continues, the officers told campers a homeless woman named Nicole, identified commonly (and with her knowledge) as "crazy Jesus lady" because of her religious devotion, had passed away from hypothermia earlier in the week.
(The rumored death of an occupier due to hypothermia had even spread through the Denver Police Department, whose spokesman confirmed news of it this morning.)
Whether this story is true (spoiler: it's not) isn't important yet. That's because it was believable, in large part because nobody had seen the occupier, Nicole Sisneros, for a few days. News of her death spread throughout the camp, through Twitter, Facebook and texts to Westword and, eventually, the medical examiner's office in the person of Chief Deputy Coroner Michelle Weiss-Samaras.
"This story came in yesterday, and it's taken different forms since then," Weiss-Samaras says. "There are no reports of death from hypothermia down there. The only Nicole we even have is a thirty-year-old woman who died in October of breast cancer. We just don't have any of this happening in our records. It didn't happen."
But if no Nicoles died of hypothermia this week, where is Sisneros? The answer: Alive. While feeding a tortilla to pigeons at Civic Center Park around 2:30 p.m. yesterday, Sisneros said she has no idea why reports of her demise have been circulated -- but she's glad they're untrue.
"People keep coming up to me and saying I'm alive," Sisneros says. "I know I'm alive. Why don't they?"
It was at this point, then, that the rumor began to dissipate -- or at least adapt. Although Weiss-Samaras has not confirmed the death from hypothermia of anyone named Nicole in the area, the latest chapter of our story focused on the (again false) rumored death of a different homeless and Jesus-loving Nicole, allegedly named Nicole Martinez, who was said to have passed away from the cold at 16th and Champa earlier in the week. (This, Weiss-Samaras confirms, also did not happen.) So, instead of staging a planned candlelight vigil for Sisneros, a group of about twenty Occupy Denver protesters redirected their efforts to the other Nicole.
Which is why, at about 7 p.m. last night, while holding a small white candle a group member found in a dumpster and walking very slowly so the wind wouldn't quiet the flame, Sisneros embarked on a march from the occupation to the the mall to celebrate a death that, for at least eight hours, was hers. At last check, that death did not take place, but its celebration was lovely.
The fact that it could have happened is eventually what mattered the most. The occupiers gathered, holding a larger supply of white candles, to remark on the demands of the weather and the anonymity of life on the street. "We don't even know our neighbors' names," one man remarked. "We're all strangers, but I know that if we saw Nicole on the street, this group would have said hi to her. We would have cared."
According to the coroner's office, no one has died recently under those circumstances or with the name Nicole. Whether anyone actually has seen or said hello to her remains unlikely, as do the chances she lived or died or slept in the mall or loved Jesus. Sisneros, for her part, brought two Bibles to the vigil and appeared, for all intents and purposes, happy to be alive.
If there's a moral to this story, it's probably that with great power and good intentions comes a lot of solid misinformation. This is not the first rumor to spread both online and in-person about Occupy Denver: After an earlier altercation with police, a (false) story came out that multiple DPD officers had dramatically quit in support of the protest. And Weiss- Samaras has heard her share of bogus, too.
"Two weeks ago, we got all these reports of all these heroin deaths down there, and there were none," she says. "I don't know where these come from. It's just kind of a rumor mill down there, like in high school, where someone says something and it spreads through the whole school. I'm sure I'll have another call this week."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver: David Lane says refusal to grant restraining order a civil rights tragedy."