Las Vegas Sun

November 27, 2015

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Occupy Las Vegas:

Living in the present tents

Occupiers and Metro are maintaining a delicate truce


Leila Navidi

Mary Underwood works on her laptop at the Occupy Las Vegas camp between Paradise Road and Swenson Street south of East Naples Drive in Las Vegas on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. Underwood works in IT and plans to work from her campsite.

Occupy Las Vegas Camp

Mark Andrews of Las Vegas stands with an American flag with 13 colonies at Occupy Las Vegas between Paradise Road and Swenson Street south of East Naples Drive in Las Vegas on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Occupy Las Vegas - Fremont Street

A participant taking part in Occupy Las Vegas carries a sign on the Fremont Street Experience on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011. Launch slideshow »

These are the things you learn when you show up with a sleeping bag and spend the night at Occupy Las Vegas.

The movement is taking shape at an encampment some 300 feet south of the Double Down, a saloon known for its bacon martini. We’re between Paradise Road and Swenson Street, north of Tropicana Avenue, on a piece of land owned by the county.

The movement’s leaders and its faithful include real estate gurus, an ex-Texas madam, public relations experts, doctoral students and lawyers. They mix with barbacks, veterans, unemployed construction workers and the homeless. Someone’s a stage-lighting wiz. One guy wears a bright red hoodie emblazoned on the back with his self-proclamation: “Facebook President of the World.”

JoNell Thomas, a Clark County special public defender, shows up with her two kids and husband. She is pledging legal aid, and says another dozen lawyers have vowed to help. Billy Logan, her husband, has come every morning with 100 hot towels that campers use to wipe their faces and freshen up.

Some stay overnight in tents erected on the asphalt lot. Others stay for a bit then drive home.

The site is oddly neat, despite the characterization that the movement is an exercise for hippies, bums and other undesirables.

But here you see smart kids and seasoned businesspeople along with some rabble-rousers. The gamut of Las Vegas.

Late Thursday afternoon and deep into Friday morning, occupiers emerge from and disappear into the tents arranged in a neat rectangle with walking space between them. Peacekeepers — volunteers who act somewhat as security guards — walk among them and shush people talking too loudly so those in the tents can get some sleep.

Against the wall of a building to the north is the main staging area where nightly “general assembly” meetings are held. On the wall is a hand-drawn calendar, partially filled with upcoming events. Bank of America protest October 28; Paris demonstration October 29; foreclosure workshop October 31.

Next to the calendar is a list of rules, which organizers proudly proclaim are unique among all the Occupy assemblies around the United States. They include no tolerance for alcohol or drugs and no use of flammable materials.

It’s the 99-cent potluck dinner night — the 99 cents to mock the $1,000-a-plate fundraiser President Barack Obama held on the Strip a few days earlier. People arrive in cars to drop off food, then drive off. There’s pizza and a chocolate sheet cake with white frosting that declares: “In Solidarity — We Are The 99%.”

By 7 p.m., the time set for general assembly meeting, 60 people are on hand. Meetings are to be open forums allowing anyone the chance to talk. One man takes advantage, yelling from the crowd that they need to arm themselves. He is booed.

Someone else has a near meltdown, yelling about his lone effort years ago to accomplish what Occupy Las Vegas is trying to do now. The guy can’t calm himself and keeps talking loudly, to himself mostly, while others speak into a megaphone. Someone finally barks at him to keep quiet and he does.

There’s talk among the throng that Metro has undercover cops embedded in the camp.

Kristal Glass hears that and shrugs. She has emerged as one of Occupy Las Vegas’ leaders. She was one of four who put an ultimatum to county commissioners two weeks ago: Let us have/lease some county land to occupy, or we’ll occupy it ourselves and the arrests won’t look pretty on TV. Within days, this site was arranged. Strewed with broken glass, Occupiers cleaned it and painted over the graffiti that was on the north wall. Then tents started moving in.

Glass, a 41-year-old mortgage loan officer, is adamant in her warnings. Don’t break the rules. The police are not our enemies. We can get more done peaceably than through civil disobedience.

Police like that message. And for now they and the Occupiers are friends. Some officers have even confided their own financial troubles to group members, an effort to demonstrate their kinship. Thursday night, two officers stop by just to talk. One gives a group of peacekeepers tips on how to approach people.

In Glass’ view, if police are embedded, undercover and watching, she doesn’t have a problem with it. The Occupiers have nothing to hide. On the other hand skinheads, American Nazis and others deemed less desirable have tried to join. They have been turned away — but what if they decided they wouldn’t be turned so easily?

Sebring Frehner, a 34-year-old UNLV student who is also emerging as a leader, has no problem with police checking their event calendar.

Metro worked with Bank of America executives to work out a peaceful protest Friday. (The bank is despised for having received billions in taxpayer bailout dollars but then doing what many see as very little to help those same taxpayers keep their homes.) The protest will entail a throng of people entering the downtown bank building and closing their accounts.

“Officers are part of the community, they shop where we do, their kids go to our schools,” he says. “They are no different from us.”

Frehner learned the logistics of organizing earlier this year when he helped get thousands of university students to Carson City to protest higher education budget cuts during the legislative session.

“It seems that people in power have forgotten that people are more important than money,” he says.“

County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who helped the group work with Metro to find this place, stopped in around 9:30 p.m. The group treats him as one of them. They all know him. They also know he has a few million dollars to his name. But does he agree with what they are doing, what they stand for? Does he support stronger campaign finance reform?

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak

“I do,” he says, adding that he would support moves to prevent corporations and unions from flooding political campaigns with money. “A lot of reform needs to be done. Unfortunately, political campaigns have become increasingly expensive.”

Maria Wilburn, a 54-year-old guidance counselor with the Clark County School District, retires to her tent around 10 p.m. She’ll get up in seven hours, drive to her house, shower, then go to work. Then she will return to the encampment. Her Occupy mission is to draw more people from Las Vegas’ large Hispanic community to the group.

“I wouldn’t be here if there was a possibility of being arrested,” Wilburn adds. “We’re going to do this peacefully.”

By midnight, a young man strums and sings on a guitar and another 15 people sit in 50-something-degree air listlessly. There is some talk and political debate.

Over by the Double Down, the flashing light of an electronic billboard splashes over the Occupy encampment, promoting gentlemen’s clubs, casinos, Chippendales, circus acts and Halloween parties.

It’s about 3:30 Friday morning. Glass and Frehner aren’t around. Four 20-somethings sit in chairs guarding the entryway when a 59-year-old construction worker, out of work since CityCenter was completed, walks over from his tent. He sits in a chair cocooned inside a large blanket.

“I’m homeless now,” he says. Maybe the Occupy movement will work, he says. Maybe it will change things.

He’s been living mostly in the Salvation Army shelter. Now he’s here.

He likes it here.

“This is my element,” he says.

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