What are Occupy Vancouver’s demands?

Published in the Vancouver Observer | November 6, 2011 | Circulation: 99,000 unique monthly readers

Since roughly 6,000 people joined the October 15 protest -- pictured here -- which birthed Occupy Vancouver, many are still asking what the movement is about. Photos by David P. Ball

“They should quit while they’re ahead.”

That’s the advice of one civil servant outside Occupy Vancouver the day after a 23-year old woman died of a suspected overdose in the camp.

“I thought it was a good thing when it came,” said Peter Dombovary, a federal government employee. “But they had one death, another drug overdose — now I think these guys are done.”

“What can they achieve by being here? They delivered their message, and people heard.”

Which message, exactly? “Issues of greed, housing, child poverty,” he said, pausing to think. “Well, I see a whole bunch of messages here.”

While most media outlets have lately focused on the overdoses, as well as predictable campaign trail sparring between Mayor Gregor Robertson and contender Suzanne Anton over the city’s response, has Occupy Vancouver’s message actually been heard? And what, precisely, is it?

One of the immediate difficulties for many observers – including the soundbite-hungry and frequently sensationalistic media – is the vast array of individual grievances seen on the placards, banners and direct actions of the three-week old encampment.

But with seemingly every grievance on display — from political corruption and corporate greed to September 11 conspiracies and one placard decrying global occult rituals – one of the biggest struggles for observers seems to be understanding the movement’s actual demands.

Trouble is, there are none.

And that, say some demonstrators, is what makes Occupy such a vibrant and unique political phenomenon in the first place.

“There’s no point in just saying, ‘End homelessness,’” said Suresh Fernando, an Occupy Vancouver activist who has been involved since before the protest even began October 15. “That’s the old political way.”

“We’re more about issues and dialogue than about demands. I mean, humans are supposed to be the most rational animal but we’re destroying the planet. What one demand do you want me to make to end that? It would be a mile long.”

For activists like Fernando, the spread of the Occupy movement – in which tent villages have sprung up in nearly 2,000 cities worldwide – is precisely because it is a leaderless movement more concerned with democratic process than specific goals.

“Whatever demands we create have to reflect the broader movement. But it’s taken hundreds of years to build up this architecture, it’s not going to come down in 22 days.”

Of course, the movement has its opponents. An opinion poll recently showed support for the tent village has dropped substantially among Vancouverites – with three-quarters hoping it will end, and citizens divided down the middle on whether they support the issues raised.

With the Non-Partisan Association’s Suzanne Anton hounding the mayor on his ‘wait and see’ approach, Robertson appears torn between fending off attacks on his leadership from the right, and fears that the forcible removal of protesters might escalate to violence such as that seen in Oakland, California, where two Iraq veterans were hospitalized last week – one shot in the head by a police projectile and put into a coma, the other allegedly being beaten so badly his spleen ruptured.

Robertson said he wants to avoid using force – but others speculate he also fears alienating progressive voters before the November 19 elections if the eviction went awry. But is it possible to peacefully remove demonstrators who have vowed to stay no matter what?

“There’s only one way they’re going to do it: with force,” said Derek Newman, a restaurant manager in the West End walking by the art gallery, who says he supports the cause but not the camp. “No one’s going to say, ‘Okay Mr. Mayor, we’ll go now, let’s do it.’”

“If you think barn-storming this place is a good idea, you’re an idiot. If (Robertson) actually did something about their demands, then he’ll have the traction to evict them.”

Last week, a list was uploaded to the protest’s website. Labelled an “Ever-evolving rough draft of demands,” the document begins: “In sum, we demand the creation of a just and sustainable society.” It includes:

• Closing tax loopholes for the rich

• More rigorous prosecution of white-collar crimes by banks and corporations

• A “ministry of whistle-blowing” to protect employees who speak out about abuses

• Increase in the minimum wage

• Reducing or banning election campaign donations and the influence of professional lobbyists

• Proportional representation

• Eliminating Canada’s anti-terrorism legislation

• Ending racial and gender discrimination in workplaces

• Strengthening the independence of judges

• Halting subsidies to the oil and gas industry

Later, however, demonstrators said the upload was an accident, that the working document does not have consensus and is therefore not reflective of the movement – it’s more like a brainstormed shopping list.

“This is the beginning of our fourth week now,” said Anthony, a protest organizer. “When have you ever seen a political platform created out of thin in air in 22 days?”

“We’re trying to open a dialogue up on corporate greed and economic inequality. (But) there’s going to have to be a lot of long talks and amendments before we have unity.”

One couple, dressed literally in their Sunday best, ambled through the encampment after attending nearby Christchurch Cathedral.

“This is a spiritual movement,” said Colin Miles, a retired arts administrator. “It’s a mega-paradigm shift. It’s about our relationship with money, the economic system, and nation-states.”

“It’s been brewing for a long time, and it suddenly exploded all over the world.”

Part of the problem, Miles added, is that the leaderless, grassroots nature of the protest is difficult for many to grasp precisely because it is a new type of movement.

“(The media) are not taking the time to understand what’s different about this,” he said. “But there are many people in the general community who agree with what is being done of our behalf.”

Miles’ wife, Winnie Nowell, sported an “Occupy” pin with a heart on her church outfit.

“I’ve been meaning to come down and give money for toilet paper,” she said. “We should all be here, but we’ve left a few people to deal with what’s happening in the world — the gross gap between rich and poor.”

Of course, other passers-by were not so sympathetic, and expressed frustration with the ongoing encampment.

“They’re obviously really concerned about a few things,” said John, who works in the energy sector. “But it doesn’t seem very coherent.”

“To be honest, I’m not a supporter of it at all. I’m more into to the ‘occupy work’ thing.”

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