Occupy Denver profile: Homeless since 13, Chris Bidwell joins a new street family

To hear him tell it, Chris Bidwell's trench coat is a black wool guardian angel. Last year, it prevented third-degree burn from a firecracker gone off course. Today, it serves as both picnic blanket and protector against wet grass at Civic Center Park. Bidwell's black, military-style boots weigh ten pounds each, but it's his guardian trench coat that he keeps returning to. He has no ID, no Social Security card, no job and a meeting with a lawyer in thirty minutes, but at least he has this jacket.

"It's the best thing I own, and one of the few," Bidwell says. "It has saved me from quite a few nasty situations."

Underneath the black jacket is a black shirt followed by black pants, those enormous black steel-toed boots and a black-cuff bracelet with a metallic skull on the front. It's a common and relatively consistent misconception of the occupation that everyone who wears black (and about half of the total) is an anarchist, but this is not true of either the whole or of Bidwell. Although his time with the occupation has perhaps been shorter than average, it began as a direct result of his history with the police.

Since age thirteen, the now twenty-year-old Bidwell has identified as homeless, but in addition to spending time on the streets, he's also been in halfway houses, in juvenile detention and in lock-up for a variety of usually minor offenses. "At thirteen is when I came out as gay, and my parents booted me," he says, relentlessly maintaining eye contact in a way that's both comforting and disconcerting. "That's kind of when all the fuckery started."

This is a word that Bidwell uses often, usually to reference some sort of disaster or disappointment, though he apologizes for any tough language.

At thirteen, he and his younger brother were threatened when a stranger broke into their home, and Bidwell retaliated by pulling a knife out and walking the man out of his house. But when he crossed his property line, he was charged with felony menacing, for which he served two years in detention.

The charge was wiped from his record when he turned eighteen, but it was not his last. For this reason, among others, Bidwell joined the protest this past Friday, the day he discovered all of its tents had been removed. The next day, after linking arms in a human chain where Broadway joins 14th, he was arrested.

"I've got a work ethic," says Bidwell, who has made it a personal goal to maintain the presence of at least one protest sign at all times. "I just don't have a job. And I'll do everything I can to support a movement that recognizes the futility of that and wants to change the system that supports it."

Following the second set of arrests, and thanks to a $700 bail charge, Bidwell was the last to be released on bond. The first thing he did when he got out was return to Civic Center Park, get in line at the group's general assembly and thank his fellow occupiers for supporting him. Since then, Bidwell is most often seen playing one of the group's shared guitars. Music is both what his life evolves around and how he made money as a busker on the 16th Street Mall before his time with Occupy Denver.

"I've gone through a lot of pain in my life, and I'm not afraid to put it in my music," Bidwell says. His voice is soulful and surprisingly loud, even in the morning chaos of the occupation. "I believe that music is a language, but rather than conveying thought, it conveys emotion. You can move to it, but it's going to make you feel something."

While he looks down at the guitar, his hair, a mixture of black and platinum left over from when it was purple, green and black, covers his face. If his fingers seem especially nimble, it might be a result of a deteriorating joint disease that lets him lock his arms and rotate them 360 degrees but leaves him unable to feel one of the camp's puppies nipping on his thumb. When Bidwell mentions this, it is without complaint: The other members of his street family have seen worse, he says.

"I don't let the news and other people paint everything through rose-colored glasses," he says. "I see things from the street, and I take that as truth. I see misery, and I see poverty, and sometimes I also see happiness."

Right now, however, he sees patience. After all, his lawyer is late.

More from our Occupy Denver archives: "Occupy Denver and Tea Party protests make Denver America's angriest city, says Daily Beast."

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Kelsey Whipple
Contact: Kelsey Whipple