#VanElxn: Occupy City Hall, decolonize Vancouver

Published in rabble.ca | October 18, 2011 | Circulation: 140,000 unique monthly visitors

City council candidate Lauren Gill joins the #OccupyVancouver encampment. Photo by David P. Ball

Yesterday, a drum circle and wafting sage smoke downtown reminded me of principles the #OccupyVancouver movement — and Vancouver’s upcoming election campaign — should really be about. As someone who camped outside the Vancouver Art Gallery and attended the General Assemblies, I’m sad to say there is still such a long way to get there, but a few positive signs.

Family members of missing and murdered Indigenous women — joined by nearly 100 supporters, some associated with the Occupy encampment a block away — staged their own “occupation” of the busy Georgia and Granville intersection.

The families invited us into a circle and conducted sacred ceremonies — smudging with sage for cleansing, offering prayers, laying down memorial blankets, drumming and sharing songs — as the second week of the disgraced Missing Women’s Inquiry got underway in a nearby building. The traditional ceremonies brought me and several friends tears as we honoured the missing women, and the power of Indigenous survival in the midst of towering concrete offices, banks and courts of Vancouver, built upon unceded Coast Salish territory.

Inside the inquiry, with nearly 20 lawyers defending the government, it has become clear that there is simply no meaningful chance for Indigenous women’s voices to be heard, or systemic issues to be addressed. The government denied legal funding to the participating civil society groups; the two lawyers assigned to advocate for community interests are under no obligation to even consult. Even Amnesty International and the Assembly of First Nations — the two largest groups invited to participate — are boycotting the proceedings.

But on the street, though small in number, people spoke (and drummed, prayed and sang) truth to power. Whether those voices are heard is another matter — and depends on all of us to speak out. As certain divisions emerge within the #Occupy movement — particularly, as I’ve observed, around support for the police and the recognition of Indigenous rights, I pray more folks will show their support for Indigenous struggles, and I sincerely hope that those who did so today will share their humbling experience with others in the movement. This is a learning opportunity.

Acknowledging that the “Occupy” movement is growing on already-occupied Indigenous territory is not an option, nor is it a “sub-agenda” or “hijacking by radicals” as some have alleged — it is absolutely essential if we are to have moral integrity and resist the dehumanization and oppression of the First Peoples of this land. Harsha Walia expresses this so much more powerfully than I can — if you haven’t yet read her Letter to the Occupy Movement, please do so.

Addressing these divisions is all-the-more important in the midst of authorities’ fear-mongering — for example Dave Jones, former head of the Vancouver Police Department’s crowd-control unit, who told Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith: “We’re just a little worried that the radical element will try and infiltrate — as they tend to do — and use these people as sheep’s clothing for their wolf-like behaviour.”

Challenging the elements of #Occupy who want to sideline views and voices that aren’t “mainstream enough” is going to take a lot of patience and education on the part of those who have been entrusted with personal experiences and stories of oppression and resistance — particularly those of us with privilege. I certainly don’t want to be smug or righteous, or assume I have all the answers or experience; I certainly don’t.

I want to throw my whole-hearted support behind a truly grassroots, organic movement against corporate rule. But as I talk to #Occupy supporters across the country who are frustrated with the movement’s reluctance to welcome marginalized voices, I admit I don’t know how to communicate with people who see Indigenous rights or anti-racism as “sub-agendas” which alienate the “mainstream.”

My hope here comes from seeing some incredible — and many first-time — activists who have never protested or organized before wanting to learn about Indigenous territory, struggles and culture, and how they are integral to understanding the powers that be. On Sunday, as Vancouver’s General Assembly broke into small discussion circles, I was inspired to see some relationships forming, some new and diverse voices at the microphone, and people beginning to engage in heartfelt discussions and admit that we all still have so much to learn from one another.

This weekend, the #OccupyVancouver encampment received several high-profile civic election candidates’ visits — notably from Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE)’s Ellen Woodsworth and Tim Louis — as well as that slate’s endorsement of the movement.

At several points, the stage was also graced by the sax-playing of mayoral candidateDarrell “Saxmaniac” Zimmerman, who is campaigning entirely on a platform of free transit.

There is even an unsubstantiated report circulating on Twitter that the conservative Non-Partisan Association (NPA) mayoral candidate, Suzanne Anton, visited the encampment (however, this seems somewhat unlikely). But for someone who has been quite vocal indemanding Mayor Robertson take a position on #OccupyVancouver, she has been surprisingly quiet about her own views.

To my knowledge, however, only one City Council candidate has joined the encampment full-time, sleeping out at the Vancouver Art Gallery and joining the missing women’s inquiry demonstration early yesterday morning.

Lauren Gill, who is running as an independent candidate, joined the #OccupyVancouver encampment when it launched on Saturday, and is part of a “safer spaces” committee hoping to make the camp more inclusive and safe. It is starting out by creating an anti-oppressive tent and offering a space for people to share their experiences.

Gill insists she is not occupying the art gallery lawns in order to campaign for Council.

“It’s important for all politicians and people to be down here,” she told rabble.ca inside a tent on the gallery lawns. “I would be here whether I was running for Council or not. I’m here because of homelessness and resisting gentrification.”

“This is the largest movement we’ve seen since the Depression. More than a thousand cities are occupied. I know the passion and dedication of one community to organize a tent city.”

In fact, Gill was part of two tent cities in Vancouver against homelessness — including during the 2010 Olympics, which secured housing for a several dozen homeless people and became a focal point for opposition to the Olympics. Vancouver, she said, has a long history of political camps, going right back to the Great Depression with the “hobo jungle” and the occupation of the Carnegie Centre during the 1935 On-to-Ottawa Trek.

“This isn’t something new; the mainstream is just starting to pick up on it,” she said. “Pitching a tent is a political act unless you’re just out camping. You’re breaking a bylaw. Poor people are criminalized all the time in this city.”

“If the city won’t provide guaranteed shelter for people and says they can’t put up shelter for themselves, is that the kind of city we want to live in?”

Gill said that Mayor Gregor Robertson has only expressed lukewarm support for the #Occupy movement — “I recognize and appreciate the concerns” — because his Vision Vancouver party receives much of their campaign funding from developers and business-people — part of the “one per cent” decried by the #Occupy movement. But because Vision is also hoping to attract progressive voters, she believes the city will be reluctant to shut down the tent camp.

“The city is not going to do anything because they don’t want to ruffle any feathers before the election — the feathers of the Left for one,” she said. “We’ve been under the guise that Vision are a party of the people, but they are not. The more promises they break the more people realize that’s not true.”

“I challenge Gregor to come down here and set up a tent. Not to campaign, but to come down with open ears to listen to the people. They’re making a lot of really valid points.”

In fact, one police officer I spoke with said the direction to break up the encampment rests entirely with City Hall, which for now is allowing the campers to stay. Perhaps, some speculate, it hopes the movement will fizzle out before the November 19 election — particularly since images of police clearing out peaceful demonstrators could backfire for Robertson and alienate Vision’s progressive wing.

As we head into the first full week of #OccupyVancouver, I am looking forward to seeing how the movement on our streets develops, and whether it can address some of the divisions that have appeared in healthy ways. In either case, “democracy is messy,” as one speaker told the General Assembly, and differences are inevitable and important to acknowledge. However, defending the safety of all participants — from both police officers, and social movements’ tendency of silencing marginal voices — is of utmost importance.

Yesterday, as I departed the circle of families occupying Georgia and Granville, an elder placed a bunch of tobacco firmly into the palm of my hand. I carried it back to the Art Gallery, and found a twisted tree near my tent. My prayer, as I placed the tobacco offering, was for transformation — not only of our city and justice for all — but also for our movements that dream of embodying that transformation.

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