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Occupy Fairbanks: Do protesters have a 'right to warmth'?

Casey Loeschen,Tori Middelstadt
Other Occupy protesters Outside may be battling police and politicians, but Occupy Fairbanks protesters face -40 F temperatures.
Saryn Walsh photo
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins contends the protesters are "camping" because there is a wall tent and sleeping bag for warmth.
Casey Loeschen photo
Occupy Fairbanks protester Brent Baccala traveled up from Juneau to join the demonstration. He called capitalism immoral.
Saryn Walsh photo
Heavily frosted hand-printed signs leaning against the park gazebo and tents were all used in Fairbanks protests and marches over the last month.
Casey Loeschen photo
A new sign placed at the Occupy Fairbanks encampment.
Casey Loeschen photo
A sign critical of Fairbanks Mayor Luke Hopkins was placed at Occupy Fairbanks over the weekend.
Casey Loeschen photo
Occupy Fairbanks protesters believe they have a right to warmth, too. Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins disagrees.
Casey Loeschen photo

FAIRBANKS -- Saturday marks the two-month anniversary for the Occupy Fairbanks movement. Instead of the police crackdowns seen elsewhere around the country, the Interior Alaska protesters are contending with punishing cold and local grumbling about the legality of warm-up tents.

Brent Baccala, a 41-year-old self-described preacher and software designer from Maryland, continued his vigil at Veterans Memorial Park sporting a donated Northern Outfitters blue suit and matching boots Friday. He slept in the nearby tent as overnight temperature dropped to minus 36, Thursday, three degrees cooler than the record low for that date, set in 1969.  It was the second time this week area temperatures set new daily lows, according to the National Weather Service. 

Baccala, who's been in Fairbanks two weeks, said he felt a religious calling to join the movement while reading about Occupy Fairbanks in Juneau, where he'd been preaching to tourists. People should live the Christian life of "giving, forgiveness and generosity," he said Friday. "My focus is the immorality of capitalism."

John Watts, 50, had ice forming on his mustache Friday as he explained his motives for supporting Occupy Fairbanks.

"Elements of the tea party are connecting with the thinkers," he said. "Something is wrong. Media wants to set it up to look like the solution is either we are free or not free, the far left side or far right."

Baccala and other protesters contend the First Amendment's protection for free speech implies a right to stay warm in the process. The Fairbanks North Star Borough, which maintains that protesters are squatting on downtown space, prohibits camping in its parks, except specific camping sites.

"I appreciate discussion, but I disagree with them," Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins said of Occupy Fairbanks' recent installation of two tents.

The small, stove-heated wall tent set up across from the park's Centennial Gazebo contains a sleeping bag on top of cardboard for insulation. To the borough, that is camping. At a meeting earlier this week with Hopkins, Fairbanks police and Occupy representatives, the borough requested the protesters take down the tents.

If the request to remove tents is ignored, the borough will schedule another meeting, said Hopkins, who added that he understands many Americans have fallen on hard times. "There are lots of issues citizens want addressed," he said. "But it takes time to see political change from protests."

Fairbanks mayor: 'I'm not losing sleep' over tents

It's the city, not the borough, that provides police service. But local officials aren't eager to police a few tents popping up in the snowy lot across the street from city hall. "If they want to camp, I'm not losing any sleep over it," Fairbanks Mayor Jerry Cleworth said Friday.

As with Occupy groups elsewhere, the motives and goals of Fairbanks supporters defy simple characterization. 

"We want to have a discussion between everybody and find a way to change the system," said Ethan Sinsabaugh, a 27-year-old anthropology major at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. To him, setting up tents in minus-36 temperatures to get attention was worthwhile.

Jim Hunter, 74, a self-described capitalist, said government has an essential role in implementing the distribution of essential utilities like water, heat and a police force. "Capitalism is not bad. How it is being used is bad. We left one kind of royalty in leaving England to follow another in the corporations."

This is about freedom, added Watts, who urged people to get educated, participate and be active, while pushing away "extremists."

Heavily frosted, hand-printed signs leaning against the park gazebo and tents were used in protests and marches over the last month, according to Sinsabaugh. "We're fighting for their voice," he said of the people who made, waved and carried the signs. "Most can't afford to pay for voices to be on the radio or TV."

Local officials said emails indicate Fairbanks residents are split on whether protesters should be able to reside in the park. Borough Mayor Hopkins called for community members to remain tolerant of the difference of opinions being presented.

"I hope the protest remains civil and orderly," Hopkins said.

Tori Middelstadt and Casey Loeschen are journalism students covering the Occupy Fairbanks protest for the University of Alaska Fairbanks.