Occupy Vancouver: Geography of a ‘modern agora’

Published in the Vancouver Observer | November 15, 2011 | Circulation: 99,000 unique monthly readers

It’s been exactly a month since Occupy Vancouver was established during one of Vancouver’s largest protests in years. With the city heading back to court tomorrow hoping to evict the campers, we map out what occupiers have built in a month.

Geography of a ‘modern agora’

In recent weeks – while politicians debated the tents and safety issues, and many wondered about the protest’s demands – Occupy Vancouver built itself an expansive village on the art gallery lawn, with amenities from medical services and food servings to a cinema and library.

“The power of the protest rests on its longevity,” explains Nicholas Blomley, professor and chair of Simon Fraser University’s geography department. “It entails the physical occupation of space and its subsequent reworking as a site for education, eating, and gathering.”

“It’s not something that exists only on the internet or a three hour rally.”

Blomley told the Vancouver Observer that while the city’s concerns with fire safety, for instance, may be valid, he questions how the tent city can be separated from the protest, as Mayor Gregor Robertson hopes.

“While there are undoubtedly issues around fire safety, I think this is rather too easy a distinction to draw. One of the things I do find interesting, however, is the ways in which the authorities have been clamping down on tents and camping, while claiming to support the right to protest.”

As one protester said: “We come here to break mother’s golden rule: ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ said Greg Renouf, a management consultant. “This place is a modern agora. We have people from every order of society coming here — and we talk. It’s okay to talk about politics in Vancouver again.”

So how has the Vancouver Art Gallery lawn been “reworked”? TheVancouver Observer takes you on a tour of a few of the camp’s features (offering this reporter’s subjective remarks along the way)…

General Assembly meeting plaza

Photo by David P. Ball

This central area hosts the most important gathering of Occupy Vancouver – the daily General Assembly (GA). Run on consensus — in which each person has an equal voice and facilitators take turns — meetings vote on proposals (including philosophical debates, protest planning, and camp logistics), and delegate tasks to smaller working groups.

Review: Meetings, held daily at 7 p.m., are painfully long and require patience. But if you’ve never experienced direct democracy, they’re worth sticking out just for the jubilation when all hands are finally raised, showing consensus has been reached. Democracy is a little messy, it seems.

View @ Occupy: Mike Blais, 27
“The mustering area is the main spot for everyone to come together. The other stuff is scattered but it still has the same legitimacy. But this is where everything happens, where everyone gets down to the core issues.”

The sacred fire and elders tent

Photo by David P. Ball

Lit by Indigenous participants last week, leading to a skirmish between firefighters, police and demonstrators, the bonfire barrel has been reluctantly accepted by the city … for now.

Review: Some argue the fire barrel was intentionally provocative. Talking to the Native elders, however, their ceremonial motivation seems genuine and it’s a shame that the city doused it before getting all the information. To extinguish an Indigenous religious practice on public land is extremely worrying — whether it happened at a protest camp or not.

View @ Occupy: Telquaa, Wet’suwet’en nation (northern B.C.)
“We’re here to heal the people and help them live a happy and healthy life. Look at this fire – it’s not harming anybody, it’s healing. This land was never surrendered. They never got our free, prior and informed consent to take this land from us. I hope this becomes a monument for freedom and peace, rather than war and fighting all the time. I call this fire today the ‘fire of freedom.’”

City workers staging area

Photo by David P. Ball

Whether removing tents deemed unsafe, pacing the camp, or playing Angry Birds on their smartphones (I swear it’s true), fluorescent-vested workers are a ubiquitous sight on Howe Street. They tend to keep interactions to a minimum.

View @ Occupy: City worker, anonymous
“Our crews are here for public safety – keeping sidewalks clear so there isn’t stuff on them. We were over on Hornby Street for quite a while, but there’s more room here to stage our vehicles. Throughout the day, we are constantly walking. If there’s garbage on the street we’re picking it up; we’re picking leaves out of the gutters.”

Sleeping tents

Photo by David P. Ball

At its peak hosting more than 100 tents, Vancouver got an injunction last week to clear out those it deems hazardous. But Mayor Robertson said he wants the whole camping element of the protest gone.

Review: This reporter slept out for but a single night. It was cold. The cars were noisy in the morning. But the highlight was a 3 a.m. roving ghetto blaster dance party… not to mention cuddle piles to keep warm.

View @ Occupy: Pat, 60-something
“I live here now. Shelters have rules, curfews, and food that is mystery meat — it’s very high in starch, very low on nutrients and veggies. They rush you. Here it’s a little cold, but you become acclimatized. To assume that because you make one monetary unit more than people here, does not mean that you own the damn town. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

Food Not Bombs kitchen

Photo by David P. Ball

Serving healthy vegan meals every day since October 15, Food Not Bombs hosts a two-tent cookery, communal dishwashing area, and dining table with benches.

Review: From humble squash soup to tasty Thai noodle curry, the camp’s cuisine tends to be simple but colourful. Generous spicing and ample servings mingle enticingly in the kitchen’s signature plastic yogourt containers. Pairs well with air-chilled ice tea.

View @ Occupy: Mic Lessard
“This place is very good — they give us food every day for free. I’m really happy to be here. People bring donations and they help us. This is a group of people who don’t act like they’re better than anyone. At last, we can see there are some good people.”

Media tent

Photo by David P. Ball

Hosting a half-dozen computers, this tent is for committee members only. They livestream video, issue press releases, and maintain Occupy’s website, Facebook page and Twitter feed.

Review: Slow in establishing itself (weeks ago, this reporter was told no corporate photo software could be used, an attitude that has thankfully changed), the media committee has helped Vancouverites understand the camp better, and been able to hold its own in fiery Twitter debates.

View @ Occupy: Maureen, 39
“I’m interested in representing ourselves as best possible and reaching as many people as possible through different forms of media — to counteract a lot of the bad press recently about us in the mainstream media.”
The People’s Library

Photo by David P. Ball

With hundreds of books of poetry, prose and pictures, this literary lodge also features newspaper clippings about Occupy.

Review: Still too small for the Dewey Decimal System, it was slightly difficult to find certain subjects. Like any good library, though: quiet.

View @ Occupy: Ricky Lavallie, 51
“The library is my favourite place, because there are a lot of books to read on First Nations stuff. We’re looking for more books to get into the library. There’s a lot of peaceful things happening.”

Chess lounge

In the back of the library are two couches set up for board games.

Review: I suck at chess. But much respect to those who don’t.

View @ Occupy: Nina Robertson
“I’ve ended up having a lot of very interesting conversations you don’t normally have with people (playing) chess and talking about philosophy. The whole use of public space is just amazing – something like this brings together community.”

First Aid Medic Tent

Photo by David P. Ball

With an overdose death and fire safety flabbergasting the city, the medics have played a crucial role in preventing another near-fatal overdose, treating serious infections, and providing counselling. But some argue the camp poses “life safety” hazards, medics or not.

Review: Solid folks – volunteer medics include a firefighter, emergency room nurse, former army medic and physiotherapist. Thank God these people know CPR.

View @ Occupy: Ian Beeching, emergency room nurse
“We’re a community that looks out for each other. From the beginning I felt that medical services were going to become crucial, so having experience there was important to saving lives. There’s going to be a need for a medical presence if people are teargassed, beaten or shot with rubber bullets.”

Tea House

Photo by David P. Ball

Like it sounds: a gazebo with an electric kettle and countless boxes of tea and coffee.

Review: Seriously, there is every kind of hot drink imaginable here. Some of the best conversations happen here over a warm cuppa.

View @ Occupy: Deng Manyang
“There are all different kinds of teas – they have green tea, they have brown tea – all different colours of tea (laughs). I’m very excited by getting hot water and electricity – it’s nice. This place is safe.”


What?! A digital projector and row seating at a protest? Occupy screens documentaries and videos from other occupations worldwide daily.

View @ Occupy: Anonymous woman
“When they show videos from the Occupy movement all over the world, it just makes me feel hopeful. It’s a reminder we’re not doing this alone.”

Healing Arts dome

Photo by David P. Ball

Weeks ago, a crew began mysterious work cobbling together small metal rods into a 20-foot tall geodesic dome – a space for yoga, meditation, massage, and other alternative therapies.

View @ Occupy: Anonymous man
“The meditation tent is a beautiful meditation spot, and structurally domes are cooler than blocks. I truly believe in the power of the circle or the sphere.”

Infrastructure tent

Photo by David P. Ball

Hundreds of people have dropped off sleeping bags, food, toilet paper and other camping supplies – it was only a matter of time before there was enough stuff to sort, store and administer.

Review: Portable shelving, once again, proves miraculous.

View @ Occupy: Raven Feraru
“This is actually history in the making. At infrastructure, people donate clothing and stuff that we need, we sort through it, and it goes back out into the community.”

Peacekeeping tent

Much has been made of safety in the camp, but in any crowd this size you’d be hard-pressed not to eventually have tensions. The volunteer security team – from three to ten people per shift, 24-hours a day – works to keep things civil.

View @ Occupy: Ben, 26
“We’re here all night long. (Security) entails basically making sure everything here runs smoothly — making sure everybody gets along. We make sure there isn’t any open drug use or open alcohol on the site.”

Leftist latrines?

Photo by David P. Ball

Of course, no month-long occupation could survive (literally) without sanitation, and thanks to the advocacy group Council of Canadians, these toilets get emptied every Monday.

Review: I gave it a try, but to be honest I’d rather use McDonalds’ reliable restroom or the Fairmont’s luxurious lavatories.

Your curator and guide’s last words…

Whether you sympathize or not with Occupy Vancouver’s protest against inequality and corporate power, you gotta admit: there’s something impressive about the scale and ambition of the tent city. Maybe you view it as a revolutionary reclaiming of people power — a “modern agora.” Or an embarrassing and disruptive eyesore. Or a once-in-a-lifetime piece of elaborate political performance art. Or a mostly white middle class love-fest ignorant to its privilege. Or simply a needed place to lay your head.

Certainly some downtown residents are cool to the concept: “I hardly like it here,” said one man anonymously. “I’m homeless, for my own reasons, but the way they’re going about it is absolutely wrong. I have a little tent somewhere else.”

Its participants, however, describe Occupy Vancouver as a community — and, for all its flaws, one they have designed and nurtured themselves. Without a grid, industry or authorities, the tent city is a stark contrast to the rush of commerce and concrete towers we’re used to in Vancouver.

“This is where we take control of our future, our destiny,” says Muckwa, a regular at the camp. “This is where we try to throw the brake on the giant machine that’s trying to crush all of humanity. This whole place is my favourite place.”

“This is my community – my community is my favourite place.”

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