As the weather hit thirty degrees and the season's first snow closed in on Occupy Denver last night, members turned once more to tents as a refuge from the elements. Because this was the reason the state patrol raided the camp two weeks ago, the four new tents lasted only an hour. Nights like the last one prefigure a more difficult protest season and slimmer numbers for the group.
Because of poor weather that began with cold rain and eventually transitioned to solid snow, the group huddled under trees, umbrellas and tarps, and all personal property was covered with donated blue and black tarps, or "tents without poles" as the group distinguishes them from the park ordinance banning structures. The Thunderdome was hardly recognizable under a series of plastic shields collecting puddles while protecting the food.
At 6:40 p.m., three Denver Police Department cars arrived on the scene in reaction to this alleged violation of the park's anti-structure rules.
After an interaction that lasted about half an hour, the four tents were quickly taken down in order to avoid arrest. The decision to put them up originally created a stir between members of the group, one side of which considered them dangerous to the group's political well-being and the other side considered protection against the danger of the cold.
"You guys know the rules by now, and if you erect any kind of structure like this, tents or anything, we're going to have to come over and take it down," DPD sergeant Jeff Hausner told the occupation's security team. "If you keep everything neat and don't make this another shantytown like the one across the street and don't put up any tents, we won't bother you. We want you to be safe."
Worried about the group's future -- the health of the participants and the health of the movement if people are scared off by the weather -- several occupiers questioned the officer about the realities of the winter.
"This isn't Arizona, and we know what the weather's like," Haunser said. His fellow officers offered the group pamphlets for local shelters. "Do whatever you need to do to protect yourselves, but you can't erect any structures like this. We'll be watching over you and checking in every day, so we'll know if you build anything. If you want to be protected from the elements, you should leave the park and return home." As the cold temperatures transition from threat to reality, Occupy Denver's main form of protection is the series of donations to help: tarps, sleeping bags, jackets, gloves, hand warmers, etc. Last night, the group offered six hotel room vouchers to occupiers through a raffle process: Those whose numbers were called received a ride to the hotel. Those who weren't called bundled up for the snow.
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"I'm not ready to go to jail over this yet, but I might have been if anyone was willing to sit in unity with me in the tent," says volunteer and Westword profile subject Billy Reno, who set up last night's first tent (and later took it down). "It's hard for me to believe that they are taking away structures to keep us warm from the cold. This night will test how many people will keep coming back. We'll lose people who can't handle the cold, which is understandable, but we'll find out who the most dedicated occupiers are."
Other cold-weather preparedness measures include a class held recently to teach the group safety tips, and the gathering now has shovels to remove snow from the area. A handful of people planned last night to stay awake until the morning and sleep during the day for a better chance with the weather. In the meantime, the greatest focus is on maintaining a presence in the area in the safest possible way, rather than abandoning the occupation because of the cold.
"It sounds dramatic, but this is a matter of life and death, and tonight is the first night that takes it there," Matthew Velasquez, another Westword profile subject, said yesterday. "These people stay here as part of a movement that matters to them more than most things right now, and their well-being is directly threatened by not being able to protect themselves from the elements. We're going to have to be very creative."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver clashes with police over the creation of a cardboard structure (PHOTOS)."