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July 31, 2014

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Occupy movement stays peaceful in cash-poor Vegas

Image

Leila Navidi

The sun sets 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.

Occupy Las Vegas remains peaceful

KSNV of the Occupy Las Vegas movement that has set up camp in a lot near Tropicana Avenue and Paradise Road, Oct. 25, 2011.

Occupy LV: NV Energy

Occupy Las Vegas demonstrates in front of NV Energy, speaking out against rate increases, Wednesday Nov. 9, 2011 Launch slideshow »

Occupy Las Vegas camp: Nov. 3

Henri Palnar holds a sign on Swenson Street in front of the Occupy Las Vegas site near Tropicana Avenue Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011. Launch slideshow »

There are no police in riot gear here, no bulldozers leveling encampments.

In a city that celebrates behaving badly, Occupy Las Vegas protesters are touting civil obedience and government cooperation as anti-Wall Street efforts elsewhere have turned to violence and police confrontations.

Las Vegas demonstrators have sought approval from government leaders and police before protesting or setting up a camp site. They called off a protest during President Barack Obama's visit to Las Vegas last month because police asked them to do so. And they have created a system of protest rules that ban, among other things, law-breaking and hate signs.

The good behavior in Las Vegas and other Occupy efforts across Nevada is even more noteworthy because Nevadans may have the most cause to rage against the machine. The state tops the nation in foreclosures and unemployment and entire neighborhoods have been overtaken by vacant homes and storefronts.

But while protesters in other cities riot and rage, the Vegas group is hosting a series of free foreclosure mediation workshops for homeowners who are underwater on their mortgages.

Organizers insist their anti-greed message has a better chance of spreading if they aren't labeled violent anarchists.

"It's a combination of respect for the police and the general public, and it's a safety issue as well," said Jim Walsh, an unemployed truck driver volunteering as Occupy Las Vegas' self-appointed chief of security. "As a group we had voted that we were going to do this with non-violence and so far, not one person in our group has not been arrested or sent to the hospital."

The peaceful spirit stands in stark contrast with the protests unfolding in other cities, notably in New York, where police arrested 200 protesters before dawn Tuesday and demolished the tent city that had anchored the movement. Police have also arrested protesters or shuttered camp sites in recent weeks in Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, Oregon, Texas, Florida and California. In Dallas, an occupy campsite has been plagued by reports of chaos, including the alleged sexual assault of a child. In Oakland, a man was shot and killed Thursday near the encampment at the City Hall plaza. Police in Burlington, Vt., evicted protesters after a man fatally shot himself last week inside a tent.

To avoid similar showdowns or violent outbreaks in Las Vegas, protesters have met weekly with police. They forwarded their plans to police for review, and then tweaked their efforts when police suggested changes. One weekend, police asked if the occupiers could cancel a proposed protest on the Las Vegas Strip because city officials were expecting a large number of visitors. In a rare act of defiance, protesters went forward with the protest anyway _ sort of. They moved it to Fremont Street, a smaller tourist haven in downtown Las Vegas.

"It's the mentality of that group that, `we can make a point without being arrested,'" said Lt. Jason Letkiewicz, the staff liaison between the protesters and the Las Vegas police department. "They don't want to be known as thugs."

It's not that Nevadans are incapable of mustering some old fashioned civil disobedience. They just don't want to be arrested or attacked by police.

"Some people have said, `why are we being so friendly to the police?'" said Robert Paulson, 21, a comedian who has lived at the Las Vegas camp for three weeks. "And it's like, it's cool. We got to do everything we want to do and we didn't get beat."

Fear that an ugly protest could further hurt Nevada's wounded economy has also restrained protesters.

"We don't want to chase tourists away from our city because that's where a lot of people's jobs come from," said David Peter, a union worker active in the Las Vegas movement.

Occupy Las Vegas was one of dozens of copycat movements created last month after protesters began gathering near Wall Street in downtown New York City to protest corporate greed, economic inequality and government corruption.

The first gathering drew hundreds of protesters to the Las Vegas Strip in October, as police officers on horses watched cautiously. Some protesters wore goggles and gas masks, expecting tear gas and police dressed in riot gear. But there were no arrests or fits of violence that night, and a group of self-appointed organizers quickly decided that they would only express themselves by peaceful demonstration at subsequent events.

"We are definitely trying to take an organized and non-violent approach to all of our actions," said organizer Kristal Glass. "I don't want to say that non-violent civil disobedience is not going to happen in this group, but if it happens it will be done in a manner where it is not disruptive to the community as a whole."

When county officials balked at protesters who wanted to occupy city parks, Glass signed a lease with the county allowing the movement to occupy an empty lot on a secluded street near the airport for 30 days. The contract required protesters to maintain clean portable bathrooms, obtain insurance and prohibit littering.

"This group has been unlike the others in lot of the other cities where they have been health and safety issues and violence," said Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak. "They have kept their word in terms of being accommodating, no one causing any trouble."

The Occupy Reno movement has received similar praise from city staff and law enforcement officials for obtaining a permit before setting up camp at a public park miles from the main downtown casino strip.

"There's a small group interested in the actual occupation," said organizer Steve Metcalf of Reno. "I think a much larger group is interested in talking about policies and the community and community service."

In Carson City, roughly 70 protesters opted against gathering on the lawn of the state Capitol after they were told that would require a costly insurance policy.

"We decided to hold off on that for now and just use the public sidewalks," said organizer Janette Dean. "For the size of our group, that seems to be plenty of space."

But it's unclear whether the peace pushers will be able to tame the more aggressive voices within the movement forever. A local militant group tried last week to convince the protesters in Las Vegas to arm themselves. Others have simply urged organizers to take a more forceful stand and stop being so darn nice.

Roussan Collins, 38, a homeless former math teacher, said the Las Vegas protesters have been too willing to concede to the police department's suggestions.

"They are not `Occupy' officially to me," said Collins, who had been living at the Las Vegas camp for three days. "I want them to take back the land, not lease it."

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Associated Press writers Sandra Chereb in Carson City and Scott Sonner in Reno contributed to this report.

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Cristina Silva can be reached at http://twitter.com/cristymsilva.