Last week, one Occupy Denver protester self-identified as having scabies. The skin infection, created by mites inside the skin, is spread through close contact, leaving city officials concerned about health in Civic Center Park and protesters worried about repeated visits from police and Public Works employees. Yesterday, approximately fifteen police officers visited the park to enforce the most recent in at least five scheduled clean-ups scheduled in the past week.
The same afternoon, Public Works released an official statement confirming that the clean-ups will be regular events in the coming weeks, as they have been recently. According to the release, the department is scheduling the surprise visits in a "critical" effort to maintain health and safety at the park with the regular support of the Denver Police Department.
"We're a support role, and that's all," stresses Sonny Jackson, public information officer for the DPD. Although he elected to withhold the total number of officers present during the visits, Jackson says the clean-ups are not a DPD-led event.
The regularly scheduled visits to the park include power washing the sidewalk where approximately 25 to thirty people continue to sleep overnight on a regular basis. In conjunction, city officials will remove any items considered encumbrances unless their owners move them from the right-of-way. Because scabies mites are capable of survival outside the human body for up to two days, bedding and other personal effects are additionally suspect.
Recently, this prospect has led to the confiscation of protester property when owners were not available at the time of the visit. At least some of the property may be reclaimed at the DPD's Property Bureau within thirty days of collection, though any that is unclaimed has the potential to be disposed of on-site.
"Public Works was responsible for disposing of the garbage, not collecting property," Christine Downs, marketing and communications director for Public Works, told Westword after a clean-up scheduled last week. "Our crews clean the area as needed to ensure the right-of-way is accessible for all."
Yesterday afternoon, Occupy Denver protesters staged a meeting with members of the city's Public Works staff to ask questions about the city's visits to the park. Among the issues protesters are considering is the loss of property and the concern that one case of scabies might hinder the group's public perception without risk of serious widespread contagion. In a statement released this morning, protesters insist that the case of scabies reported has since been treated without any others becoming infected.
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"This is not even the correct way to treat scabies," says protester Ben Dolon. He argues that the city's decision to visit regularly and remove belongings from the area is overly aggressive compared to the topical ointments generally employed to heal the skin disorder. Along with other protesters, he worries that the continued mention of scabies and police presence in the park will deter public participation in the movement.
In recent weeks, Occupy Denver faced similar concerns over accusations that members of the organization deployed "urine bombs" during an Anonymous-organized anti-police march on February 25. DPD PIO Matt Murray later confirmed that the reports were not supported by evidence.
But for Public Works, one case of scabies is too many. "To prevent further incidents of this and other parasitic and/or transmittable diseases, as well as to keep the right of way clear for pedestrians, crews will continuously remove items from this right of way and power wash the sidewalk," reads the department's statement. "The purpose of this effort is to clear the area of encumbrances, not individuals."
More from our Occupy Denver archive: "Occupy Denver: Mercer Lewis, first arrestee to face jury trial, is acquitted."