#VanElxn: Overcoming the left’s ambivalent relationship with power

Published in rabble.ca | November 3, 2011 | Circulation: 250,000 unique monthly visitors

Andrea Reimer. Photo by David P. Ball

This past few weeks’ election surprise saw Occupy Vancouver -– now in its third week, with a growing tent village settling in for the wetter months –- coming to dominate the city’s campaign trail.

Stuffed toy lobster and Guy Fawkes masks in hand.

Mayoral rivals Suzanne Anton and Gregor Robertson sparred on his “wait and see” response to the growing encampment outside the art gallery, and things took an even more interesting twist when a break-off group from Occupy stormed the candidates’ first public debate — hosted by business and developer interests, not coincidentally. One poll, written about by Frances Bula, suggests Gregor has double Suzanne’s support — and that the combined Vision/COPE slates enjoy a comfortable 48 per cent lead in the polls.

A notable image at the debate was a third but uninvited mayoral candidate –- Darrell “Saxmaniac” Zimmerman -– upstaging Gregor and Suzanne with his trademark stuffed lobster (he later explained to me, over Thai noodle soup at Occupy’s Food Not Bombs kitchen, that the lobster represents those served to Vision councillors on a trip to an East Coast conference on homelessness). After Darrell jumped on stage, Gregor tried uncomfortably to talk down the well-known activist and regular city council attendee, all the while moving towards the safety of Suzanne, who was attempting to flee the confusing scene.

It created quite a stir, with several journalists complaining on Twitter about the noisy and disruptive tactics, in one case a woman claiming to represent the media drumming a bongo loudly to disrupt the speech. Some prominent participants in Occupy Vancouver — officially a leaderless movement, which makes decisions by consensus at daily general assemblies — also expressed frustration with the confrontational tactics — notably Min Reyes, one of the original organizers of Occupy Vancouver, who was widely misquoted in the media this week as supporting ending the tent city. Others pointed out that the debate’s hosts represent the exact one per cent protested by the Occupy movement and that avoiding confrontation cannot advance the movement.

On Tuesday, as city council met for the final time before the November 19 election, the Non-Partisan Association (NPA)’s right-leaning mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton put forward a motion to give Occupy Vancouver a one-week eviction notice, all the while evading questions of whether she wants police to crack down as happened so disastrously in Oakland, California and across the U.S. this past week, which left one army veteran in hospital with a severe brain injury; I recently explored the crackdown and our electionin the Vancouver Observer this week. Needless to say she was vociferously opposed by Occupy activists attending the meetings, one holding an “Anton for the 1%” placard throughout.

Sadly, Gregor -– as always tepid about whether he supports Occupy’s objectives, not simply people’s right to demonstrate -– opted to hide behind his civil servants, relying on his police chief and city manager to defend their hands-off approach as not tactically workable or effective at ending the protest. Sadly, the issues of the protest itself scarcely emerged from yet another discussion of how best to end the demonstration.

In any case, Suzanne, who is the sole NPA councillor, could not find anyone else to even second her motion, meaning it could not even be debated. Protesters from Occupy Vancouver, who had informally organized an “Occupy City Hall” pilgrimage to the council chambers, cheered. They didn’t, however, have any plans to camp out there. Though it would be considerably warmer and drier than the art gallery, wouldn’t it?

I sat down with Vision Vancouver candidate (and incumbent councillor) Andrea Reimerover sloppy tacos this week, a block from her slate’s election headquarters. As the lettuce and salsa contents inevitably collapsed like a building demolition site, we discussed what makes a good leader, how she reconciles her former activism with being part of a ruling party, and the question of Vision’s developer financiers.

“Occupy Vancouver as a subject is taking up a lot of air in the room,” she said, failing to contain another crumbling taco shell. “Unfortunately, it’s not really about an issue. The discussion is about a space rather than the issues. There’s a reason people are there, but I rarely hear that discussion.”

Although Andrea said that Occupy’s issues vary from city to city –- with recession-wracked American cities much harder hit than Canada’s –- the basic issues of class and economic power resonate with her, and she wants them to be addressed on the campaign trail.

“Here in Vancouver we don’t really have many of the same circumstances,” she said. “We definitely have widening gap between rich and poor — the middle class is functionally disappearing.”

Andrea got into electoral politics in 2002 when she was elected to the school board — the second Green Party candidate in Canada to win an election. In 2008, she won a seat on city council with Vision Vancouver, a party which split off from the left-leaning Council of Progressive Electors (COPE) after its election landslide in 2002.

That acrimonious split, if you’re not in the know (don’t worry, I still haven’t fully figured it out either), is beautifully summarized in this week’s stellar Georgia Straight profile on COPE councillor Tim Louis. (Incidentally, Tim’s being heard from a bit recently — announcing his idea of a buik-bin style discounted “community transit pass” for neighbourhoods one week and being interviewed in The Mainlander the next).

Before council, Andrea was head of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, and also chair of the Vancouver Green Party. Her activist background — not to mention her personal story of living on the street and doing drugs as a teenager -– put her in strange company on the Happy Planet-owning, juice-powered Vision slate, but she doesn’t consider herself the most radical member of the party. She defined “radical” not as a particular ideological position -– as the left often understands it — but rather taking a significant and difficult step outside one’s own experience and interests. It’s contextual, she suggested.

She offers former COPE mayor Larry Campbell‘s support for the Insite safe injection site as an example of radical –- a potentially costly move considering his background as a police officer, drug squad leader, and eventually chief coroner of B.C.

“I’d been fighting for a safe injection site for years, while others had done that for decades,” Andrea said. “Larry Campbell was a law and order dude — someone who had something to lose — from a very non-traditional advocate community. To me that was quite radical.”

For her, that significant and difficult step was entering politics after years of activism in the environmental and economic justice movements.

“I would say the most radical thing I’ve ever done was running for public office — I never would have considered it in spectrum of possibilities. It’s so outside the experience of grassroots community organizing.”

She lambastes the assumption among many leftists that electoral politics are inherently corrupt and lead to co-optation and selling out.

“If you’re going to organize to change the law, you’re going to have to organize to change the people who change the laws,” she said. “If you really want to change the world get involved in municipal government. And your neighbourhood, your union and your credit union.”

“It’s where shit’s going to fall.”

Of course, Vision Vancouver is not seen in many quarters as far to the left whatsoever (see my last post, Occupy City Hall, Decolonize Vancouver), and Andrea is not immune from the accusation of selling out either. A particularly common sentiment, as voiced in my first post, Is City Hall Controlled by Developers?, is that Vision is a party under the control of developers, who donate a sizable amount of its budget. She’s used to the accusation, but still bristles at the question.

“I’m not going to shy away from the fact we take money from developers,” Andrea said. “Money wins elections — it’s sad and pathetic. I’m not to going to sit by and watch NPA take election after election because we won’t take money from developers.”

“You can probably hear the frustration in my voice.” In fact, I could.

When I pushed on exactly how developers would not be able to get a foothold in the parties they donate to, Andrea pointed out that Vision also gets substantial donations from unions and individuals — what she labelled the “three pillars” which she suggests balance out the party’s policies. Coming from activism, she admits, she too struggled with the compromises required to work within the system.

“It’s where ethics of black-and-white activists comes up against actually taking responsibility for community,” she said. “There’s a moral imperative to act. We need 38,000 units of affordable housing in the next ten years.”

“Or we can spend our time yelling and screaming at each other over who the developer party is.”

Instead, Andrea decided to go with a team she felt had vision (heck, it’s in the name) and demonstrated a culture of authentic leadership she hadn’t seen in her years at the Green Party or school board. And while she might not claim to be radical by her own definition, she certainly appears at the ideological left of Vision. Many, myself included, would not relish the tense contradictions of this position.

In any case, Andrea says that the Left needs to overcome its own marginality — in which it is always easier to criticize from outside than work from within. The fear of selling out once in power is “more a fear of ourselves than fear of the system,” she said. “It is one of the hardest things for the progressive Left who have traditionally not had much power. It’s hard for us to reconcile our ambivalent relationship to power.”

The irony that Vision’s split from COPE almost immediately after its electoral victory in 2002 may have done more to push Vancouver’s left from power is, I’m sure, not lost on many.

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