Most of the Occupy Missoula campers struck their tents Monday morning after more than a month on the Missoula County Courthouse lawn.
“The word came down last night,” camper Kathlene Kelly said as she helped pile gear in the morning snowfall. “We broke down the tents for Veterans Day in honor of what they’re doing here. A great many of our members are veterans.
“Then last night, a representative from the county came to the encampment and told folks if we were still here by morning, we could expect a visit from the sheriff.”
The campers said they negotiated a brief extension until Monday morning so they could pack up their gear in daylight. They also believed they got permission to keep an information post in the courthouse gazebo.
“Everybody is going except me,” Kelly said. “I’m going to put up a tent as soon as everybody else is gone.”
However, Missoula County officials said they did not give any orders to break up the camp.
“There was no ultimatum given,” county facilities manager Larry Farnes said on Monday afternoon. “There’s no deadline. They haven’t given us a date when they’ve decided they’ve won.”
Farnes said he did meet with county health officials about the growing problem of human waste in the bushes around the courthouse and the concern for people sleeping outdoors as freezing weather sets in. And he said he told Occupy Missoula members they could continue to have their information tables set up in the courthouse gazebo and have people there overnight to protect their materials.
“We’re trying not to confront them,” Farnes said. “We’re not Portland. We’re not Oakland. People protest in this town all the time. There are the ladies in black on the (Higgins Avenue Bridge) and the people protesting abortion at the Blue Mountain Clinic. We’re trying to keep open communication so everybody stays safe and healthy.”
While there have been numerous clashes between Occupiers and police in other cities, the Occupy Missoula encampment has avoided a full-on fight with authority.
Places like Portland, Ore., Oakland, Calif., and New York haven’t been so peaceful. More than 50 people were arrested in Portland on Sunday after police there broke up camps in public parks. Over the weekend, Oakland authorities ordered protesters evicted from the courthouse lawn there. In Salt Lake City, 19 people were arrested after refusing to leave a city park where a man was found dead. Recent arrests have also been reported in Albany, N.Y., Denver and San Francisco.
In Missoula, Kelly said she was willing to be arrested for her continued presence, but the bulk of the remaining 20-odd Occupy Missoula participants sounded prepared to move on. One woman in the group volunteered her home and lawn as a temporary camping area for Occupy Missoula members while they worked out a next step. That plan will be in place by Sunday, the group agreed.
Participants agreed the rally for economic justice and social change had lost momentum since its high point around Oct. 15. The protest got started Oct. 8 when a crowd of nearly 300 people marched through downtown Missoula and wound up on the courthouse lawn.
Occupy Missoula’s tactics and activities were modeled on the Occupy Wall Street protest that started Sept. 17 in New York City. Similar encampments spread to many other U.S. cities. Rallying around the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” the protesters called for societywide change.
“I was pretty joyful when I learned we were going to have an Occupy action here,” participant Laura Jensen said while watching the cleanup Monday morning. “It’s good to hear all these people and know what you’re talking about, whether it’s elite corporatism, our puppet government, the lobbyists in Washington or homelessness. We try to relate to everybody.”
At its height in mid-October, the courthouse lawn had 16 or more tents, a big white tepee and more than 100 people regularly rallying to the cause. Not all of those people actually slept on the lawn, and participants said many tents were empty toward the end of October as the weather turned colder.
In the gazebo, participant William Olson said fellow Occupiers were cleaning up the grounds and removing their gear to comply with the county’s request.
“It may give us some leverage to keep what we’ve got going here,” he said, looking at the tables of signs, food and printouts under a picnic canopy. “I’d like to see it continue in a well-mannered way. I’m willing to do that, but not to the point it gets my butt thrown in jail.”
Olson and others said the encampment faced challenges from the downtown homeless community and late-night bar patrons from the start. While some homeless people agreed to follow the encampment’s prohibition on drug and alcohol use and essentially join the protest, others hung around for the entertainment value.
The Occupy Missoula members tried to separate their tents from other campers who wanted to sleep on the courthouse lawn but not follow the movement’s rules, Olson said. But after a portable toilet was tipped over last Tuesday and later removed, county tolerance appeared to fray.
One man at the encampment was arrested shortly after midnight Sunday on disorderly conduct charges. At the group meeting Monday morning, several people said that man wasn’t welcome back to the movement.
Farnes said the Occupy Missoula people have had run-ins with late-night partiers and others who’ve tried to start trouble at the encampment. He said Missoula County sheriff’s deputies would be checking the gazebo area two or three times a night while the Occupiers were still there, to help with security.
Protester Mark Bickel said he believed there was disagreement among county officials about what path to take with the encampment. But he believed the Occupiers were “strongly encouraged” to leave before they were ticketed or arrested.
“They’ve tried to work hard to allow us to have an area where we can give out information and have our First Amendment rights,” Bickel said. “They’re cooperating with us to an extent. But we’re being blamed for human feces on the lawn – we don’t do that. This isn’t anti-American. I’m worried about the future of this country. This is patriotism to me. I love this country and I want it to turn back to a day when ‘Made in USA’ becomes a daily purchased item.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.