Traffic rushes by on Broadway on a chilly day just before Christmas as Missoula County Facility Manager Larry Farnes shakes one of the few remaining tents at the Occupy Missoula camp on the County Courthouse lawn. "Anybody home?" Farnes asks, directing his voice into the large green Army tent that's served as camp headquarters for several weeks.
A sleepy occupier in baggy pajama bottoms pops out. He rattles off his name and social security number and tells Farnes that's the only information he'll provide. "You guys don't understand what it is to be a hard-working American citizen," he says.
The occupier, who tells the Indy his name is "Mike" and asks that his last name not be published, is one of only a handful of full-time protesters remaining at Occupy Missoula. He says he's also been working as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army.
Two tents dot the courthouse lawn's east side on this chilly morning. On the west side, Mike and another man are alone in the encampment headquarters.
"There haven't been any protests for days," Farnes says. He's accompanied by uniformed law enforcement, acting under orders from the Missoula Board of County Commissioners. On Dec. 21, the board, citing mounting complaints from the public, Occupy's refusal to pack up their tents during the day and the costs of keeping the area clean, said they'd begin taking measures to clear the area. "We...can no longer provide a facility to the camp that is funded with taxpayer money," the commissioners said.
With that in mind, the county this week is crafting an ordinance that will prohibit camping on county property. It would additionally require any group using the courthouse lawn to secure a special use permit.
"Protests and demonstrations are still welcome on the courthouse lawn," commissioners said, "but sponsors of demonstrations that encourage prolonged use of the public space—a space we are charged with managing—must offer assurances that activities on County property will not jeopardize the health, welfare, and safety of the general public, or restrict the public's rightful use of a public space."
In a statement released last week, Occupy's working group told commissioners that their tents are a form of political protest and, as such, are protected under the First Amendment. This week, the group is deliberating about how best to move ahead.