Occupy Vancouver prepared for potential police violence: Medics

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The first aid tent at Occupy Vancouver. Photo: David P. Ball

Volunteer medics at Occupy Vancouver -- including an emergency room nurse and a first aid responder trained in the military -- are preparing for the worst as political rhetoric over the three-week-old encampment escalates.

After the death this weekend of Ashlie Gough, 23, in the camp, Mayor Gregor Robertson has come under pressure from his right-leaning opponent in the upcoming city election, Suzanne Anton, to remove Occupy Vancouver's tent city -- although the mayor said Sunday he was happy to let the protest continue, without people sleeping in tents. Stronger warnings from City Hall have medics at the encampment worried.

"There's going to be a need for a medical presence if people are tear-gassed, beaten or shot with rubber bullets," said Ian Beeching, a volunteer medic at Occupy Vancouver and hospital emergency room nurse. "Judging by what's happened in other cities in North America, when they decide to clear out protest camps it's always violent on the side of the police."

While the Vancouver Police Department has so far not been in any major confrontations with protesters, cities in the United States evicting Occupy camps have seen violence -- including the shooting in the head of Iraq veteran Scott Olsen with a projectile several weeks ago in Oakland, California, as well as past experiences of police cracking down on Asia Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) demonstrations in 1997, come quickly to memory.

"What's going to happen, if the city decides to remove people, is it's going to have to be forcibly," Beeching told rabble.ca. "I'm not the one who makes the decisions, but people have a legitimate right to be there and aren't going to want to leave."

"If the city forces its hand, the only way they can get rid of us is if they use force."

On Sunday, another medic -- veteran activist and University of British Columbia professor Chris Shaw -- sent an email to the Occupy Vancouver medics to discuss how best to prepare for the potential use of police force.

Shaw was the camp's first responder on Saturday when campers alerted him that Gough was unresponsive in her tent, and attempted cardiopulmonary respiration (CPR) for 10 minutes until paramedics arrived. Only days before, another volunteer medic saved the life of a man who had overdosed on drugs.

"We're prepared for things that can happen in street demonstrations," Shaw said. "Chemical weapons, blunt traumas of various kinds, projectiles."

"We have to keep people safe and treat them if they are injured. We're getting as prepared as we possibly can."

The city's response, Shaw and Beeching agreed, is hypocritical considering Vancouver's high injection drug use and, on average, 60 drug deaths a year -- with Shaw and others claiming last year's numbers were as high as 120 deaths. They want to see the city endorse a safe injection site at Occupy Vancouver, and to provide resources and information to increase safety.

"I want to make people feel welcome so they don't have to shoot up in alleys where it's not safe for them," Beeching said. "I see people come in (to the hospital) all the time with overdoses -- that's a reality of the streets of Vancouver."

"To say our community and the camp are creating these problems -- those problems exist in our society."

Robertson has said he has instructed city officials to create an eviction plan, which may include bylaw enforcement officers, the fire department, and potentially a court injunction, although the mayor said Sunday no injunction has yet been filed.

Street medics -- a regular feature at large protests such as Toronto's G20 summit last year and the Summit of the Americas protests in 2001 -- usually wear white armbands with red crosses. At Occupy Vancouver, Shaw said volunteers include medical professionals and certified first aid providers. So far, he said, the volunteers have not only treated overdoses, but life-threatening foot infections and a suicidal individual who they took to hospital.

Beeching is hoping more volunteers will come forward as a potential showdown with the city nears.

"There are things that can be done to improve the level of safety," he said. "Some of the recommendations of the fire department are good recommendations. That's not a reason to shut it down."

"We're a community that looks out for each other. I felt it was probably the most valuable thing I could bring to the community -- that the medical services were going to become crucial."

David P. Ball is a freelance writer in Vancouver, B.C., on Coast Salish territories and blogs for rabble.ca. His website can be found here.

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