The frigid air needles exposed flesh and sinks through clothing, but that hasn’t kept at least one protester from occupying a park in Fairbanks, Alaska, for more than a month. The temperature has been 30 to 40 degrees below zero in recent weeks.
This time of year, the days are short. It’s dim, bleak and other-worldly in the nation’s northernmost Occupy protest. While local officials want the protesters’ tents taken down, occupiers say the shelter is necessary in such cold weather.
Protester Beth Hughes says she’s outfitted to continue the effort in Fairbanks Veteran’s Memorial Park.
“A down, one-piece snow machine suit, and my gloves and hand warmers and my wolverine mittens — I’m ready,” she says.
Hughes, a 50-something retiree, says she’s not about to give up the ’round-the-clock Occupy protest, a movement she says she’s been waiting for all her life.
“I missed out on the ’60s, and with all the people that have been dedicated to this in the lower 48, we’re small. We’re Fairbanks, Alaska, but I believe this is just a ripe opportunity to really make a statement,” she says.
Nearby on a lawn chair wrapped in blankets, fellow protester William White wears Army surplus mukluks on his feet. White, an Alaska native, says he’s drawing resolve from European America’s most iconic hero. He displays a Boy Scout bandana with a depiction of George Washington at Valley Forge.
“It’s got George kneeling in prayer, and so that’s kind of been our inspiration,” he says.
The local struggle is against the cold and the borough government, which wants protesters to remove their tents. Mayor Luke Hopkins says camping is illegal in the downtown park.
“A tent sitting there with a woodstove in it, to me, certainly looks like camping,” he says.
Occupy Fairbanks stalwart Ethan Sinsabaugh says the gear isn’t for sleeping.
“We just need warmth and shelter,” he says.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks student says given the extreme cold, the tents are essential to the protest.
“You’re gonna take away our ability to peacefully assemble, and we feel that goes against the Constitution,” he says.
The protesters have received a lot of public support, but others say if camping is illegal in the park, they shouldn’t be there. Hopkins says borough attorneys are looking at how to proceed.
“People have the right to assemble, but as decisions have been, you know, in the higher court system … it can be called out time- and space-specific,” the mayor says.
Hopkins is considering options to keep the protesters warm that wouldn’t break the no-camping rule, like a car running nearby. He says in the meantime, police are checking on the protest, to make sure it remains quiet and peaceful.