Published in Vancouver Observer | October 28, 2011 | Circulation: 99,000 unique monthly readers
It was an unusual juxtaposition: Occupy Vancouver campers – now firmly entrenched in their ever-growing tent village – versus a condominium-dwelling corporate lawyer who lives a block away from their art gallery encampment.
This lawyer, however, had walked a block from his expensive residence to tell demonstrators he supports their protest against the economic system, in the midst of a crackdown on similar occupations across the U.S. this week, in which hundreds were arrested and an Iraq veteran remains hospitalized with brain damage after being knocked into a coma by a tear gas canister in Oakland, California on Wednesday.
“He said we’ve been better neighbours than anyone he knows who lives in a condo downtown,” said Lauren Gill, who has slept at the tent village since it began October 15. “The fact this movement has taken time to talk to people like this gives me a lot of hope.”
“It means something different for everyone, but it’s not just reform we’re talking about. It’s not just an economic issue either. We’re talking about systemic change — it means the eradication of racism and poverty, of changing the way we think and feel about the world.”
What began as a scattering of tents – after thousands gathered to show support the past two weekends, and visits from David Suzuki and other activist luminaries – has burgeoned into a makeshift village of more than 100 tents, a geodesic dome ‘healing arts’ space, a live music jam stage, permanent food-serving kitchen, daily mass discussions and meetings, a cinema, lending library, and nearly constant political conversation.
However, the week was overshadowed by violence in the U.S., where similar encampments were broken up by police in cities from Atlanta, Georgia to Oakland, California. The Occupy movement has spread to nearly 2,000 cities worldwide after it began in New York City last month, including every urban centre in Canada.
In Oakland, the encampment was broken up by hundreds of police, who used tear gas, batons and percussion grenades to tear down a tent city outside Oakland, California city hall. In a later demonstration against the police raid, Iraq veteran Scott Olsen was hit in the head with a high-speed tear gas canister on Wednesday, an incident which caused police to back down on their push to end Oakland’s Occupy camp. Olsen was critically injured hours after police used a pre-dawn raid to destroy a tent village comparable in size to Vancouver’s.
“I arrived just in time to see a plume of tear gas and the police trampling tents,” said Josh Wolf, a freelance journalist in Oakland who witnessed the raid at 4 a.m. Wednesday after being receiving a tip from an administrator in the police department. “I got there just in time to see them storm in.”
“The reactions of people around me were frustration and sadness to see their city destroyed. There was a whole village there. They sieged the occupation and then occupied the square themselves – it was like they were engaged in a territorial war.”
Although journalists were barred from entering the area, Wolf and others were able to get close enough to witness – and in some cases videotape – the police raid, which he estimated involved up to 500 officers from numerous law enforcement agencies in the surrounding region.
“Occupy Oakland protesters were peaceful, they weren’t terribly noisy, they were friendly,” said Mike Godwin, an Oakland lawyer who has represented Wikimedia. “I walked past them every day or every other day, there was no sense that there was anything particularly troubling to me as a member of the neighbourhood.
“To be quite frank, the more social activity happening in downtown Oakland, probably the safer it is.”
Godwin was awakened in his home a few blocks from the encampment at 4:30 a.m. by the thundering of police helicopters announcing the raid, and arrived in time to witness the tents being hauled away by police.
Later that day, protesters reconvened in an attempt to reestablish the tent city, only to be met by police barricading the square and repeatedly firing rounds of tear gas into the growing crowd.
“The police reported it was in response to thrown objects, but I didn’t personally see any protesters doing that,” Godwin said, a claim backed up by Wolf who saw a single, half-full plastic water bottled lobbed toward riot police. “A small minority were yelling at the police.”
“If the goal was to disperse the people on the 25th, it was for naught. More people came back. By the 26th, double the number or more, 1,000 at least.”
In fact, public outcry against the raid, and the shooting of Olsen, has led for high-profile calls for the resignations of Oakland’s mayor and police chief, including from former MSNBC news commentator Keith Olbermann.
Wednesday’s surprise pre-dawn raid was a change of tactics from the police’s approach in neighbouring San Francisco, where riot police stormed a daytime protest en masse but were forced to back down after public outcry.
“Police have used tactics they had never used before in all my years observing police,” Wolf recalled. “They came across the street like a pack of wild mammals.
“This charging pack of animals – it’s like what you’d see with antelopes or lions or other animals that run in packs, that would trample anything in their path. I’d never seen anything like it before.”
Here in Vancouver, the Occupy Vancouver protest – which is demonstrating against a raft of issues including economic inequality and political corruption – has not seen a police response, even though members of the non-hierarchical movement have ratcheted up direct actions with a ‘run on the banks’ last weekend, and days later disrupted a mayoral candidates debate on Wednesday. One Occupy camper, mayoral candidate Darrell Zimmerman, jumped on stage carrying a stuffed lobster, which he said represents lobster dinners fed to what he views as out-of-touch city councillors at conventions.
But many were surprised when Occupy became a leading election issue, with Suzanne Anton of the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) attacking Vision Vancouver’s incumbent mayor Gregor Robertson for allowing tents to be set up in the first place and refusing to send in police.
“Cities that have gone in swinging and attempting to drive protests out have created havoc,” Robertson said. “There has been violence. We don’t want to follow that path of creating chaos in a downtown with a heavy-handed approach.”
Robertson told the mayoral debate audience that his approach has been to negotiate with demonstrators to end the encampment. However, three organizers with Occupy Vancouver deny that negotiations exist.
“Right now, with the mayor, there are no negotiations,” Gill said, adding that Occupy is a leaderless movement, so no individual can speak for the entire group. “The mayor hasn’t even been down here.”
“The majority of people down here have no intention of leaving. It doesn’t matter who gets elected — it’s not going to quash our movement.”
Addressing Robertson’s defence of his wait-and-see approach to the encampment, Gill said with homelessness and the environment as Vision Vancouver priorities, the mayor would be welcome to attend a General Assembly and hear protestor’s voices.
“All of the issues on his platform are down here,” she said, saying the mayoral arguments are hypocritical and that both parties represent the ‘one per cent’ economic elites. “Why wouldn’t he be down here too?”
Gill believes a heavy-handed police intervention – as advocated by Anton – would be disastrous.
“It’s mind-blowing that any government would take that type of action for a movement like this,” she said. “It would be an embarrassment for the city, and it would be extraordinarily traumatizing to a new community that has been formed.”
“A lot of this is a distraction from the beautiful things happening down here – the creation of community, the ability to find solidarity, empowering each other. One of the most beautiful things is the connection to the broader movement of people across Canada and around the world.”
With files from Linda Solomon.