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In Washington state's capital, Occupy protesters coexist with businesses

OLYMPIA, Wash. – As Occupy Olympia settles into its fourth week at downtown’s Heritage Park, public agencies and nearby businesses are settling into a routine, too – checking daily or weekly to see how things are progressing at the site or serving hot beverages to those trying to get out of the cold.

The interaction goes both ways.

Members of Occupy Olympia took up a collection and raised $500 for the owner of one downtown business after the business was broken into and 11 bottles of wine were stolen.

This is some of the activity that has taken place at or near Occupy Olympia, one of several gatherings throughout the country that have sprung up following a larger protest known as Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Olympia began Oct. 15 at Sylvester Park and moved to Heritage Park a day later. By one estimate, 250 people are now living at Heritage Park, up from about 20 last month. There is food service, a first aid tent, regularly scheduled meetings for the residents and nearly 100 tents.

“We are taking care of our needs, meeting the needs of the community and addressing social and economic injustice,” said Alex Daye, 31, of Olympia, a former EMT who set up the medic tent and has helped with the camp’s basic infrastructure. He also has worked as a liaison between Occupy Olympia, the state Department of Enterprise Services and the Washington State Patrol.

As Occupy Olympia has settled into its routine, so, too has Enterprise Services, formerly known as the state Department of General Administration, the state agency that manages Heritage Park.

Since Occupy Olympia’s arrival, a conference call is held daily with the agency’s director, maintenance staff and the state patrol to assess the gathering, spokesman Steve Valandra said.

The state so far doesn’t have any big issues with the site and neither does the state patrol, he said.

“They don’t have them so we don’t have them,” Valandra said. “We want to avoid a confrontation.”

The maintenance staff picks up garbage daily, cleans bathrooms daily -- something that would normally be done for the park anyway -- and has provided an extra dumpster. Occupy Olympia members have agreed to provide bathroom supplies, he said.

This year it cost the state about $394,000 to maintain and operate the park.

Although Enterprise Services doesn’t have any big issues with the gathering, it still has some concerns. One is Occupy Olympia’s apparent evolution from a free-speech activity to more of a homeless encampment; another is that the agency would like to see the group apply for a 14-day permit, Valandra said. So far the group doesn’t want the permit because they don’t want to be tied to a specific time frame, he said.

The permit is free for a free-speech gathering -- it’s $75 for a commercial or private event -- and could be renewed repeatedly as long as it doesn’t conflict with another Heritage Park event. The permits are issued on a first-come, first-served basis, Valandra said. The next scheduled event for the park is a third annual sunrise ceremony, which is set for 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. Nov. 24.

Occupy Olympia is a nearly unprecedented activity for Heritage Park and Enterprise Services. The closest thing Valandra could compare it to was a three-week vigil called Camp Rachel, which set up in the park in 2003 following the death of Rachel Corrie, a former student at The Evergreen State College. Corrie was crushed to death by an Israeli Army bulldozer near the Palestinian town of Rafah on the Gaza Strip.

Enterprise Services also had some concerns about basic sanitation at Occupy Olympia and asked for assistance from Thurston County Public Health & Social Services Department.

The county health department inspected the site one day last week, checking how food was being handled, how garbage and water used for dishes were being disposed and whether Occupy Olympia members had access to bathrooms, said Art Starry, environmental health division director.

“Based on our first inspection, things looked pretty good,” he said, adding that the county likely will start inspecting the site weekly.

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