As the Occupy Vancouver protest enters its second month, the dynamics of the occupation and the city’s response are on the verge of a major change. First, by the time this blog is posted, the B.C. Supreme Court may have ruled on the city’s hoped for injunction against the camp. Depending on the outcome, the city may choose to launch a clearance of the site. The riot police have been training for this scenario for at least a week and a hard response is hardly unlikely given the recent events in other cities, including against the original occupy site at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan.
What happens next is the big unknown. As Genghis Khan once reputedly remarked about his enemies, “They have opted for war, and only God now knows how it will end.” Where it will end with the Occupy movement, in New York and elsewhere, will be in more than a symbolic revolution if the powers that be don’t begin to make meaningful changes.
The key questions that the new mayor post Nov. 19 will have to consider are these: If the police are launched to clear the site, will people resist? If so, how much force can the police use without making the issue one of police brutality, at least in the eyes of the city’s progressive community? Next, how do the police stop the occupiers from coming back?
Next, while there is little doubt that the police would succeed initially given the resources at their disposal, Vancouver itself presents what the military might term “a target rich environment.” In other words, there are many more things to occupy than the police could possibly defend. Let’s say, hypothetically, that those displaced from the Art Gallery grounds decide to seize parts of the Olympic Village, much of it still “unoccupied” by the city’s hoped for buyers. Now, rather than rooting out demonstrators from an open area, the police now face taking a series of buildings that they then have to hold. Absolutely nothing, besides a permanent police presence, would prevent occupiers from coming back time and time again. And the list of potential occupier sites goes on and on. There are various counter-remedies available to the city, of course, but just as in a counter insurgency war, many of these would mainly serve to alienate still more people who might just be pissed off enough to take some unpredictable actions of their own.
The Olympic Village offers a number of attractive features for an occupy site: First, given the history of the project, it really does belong to the people who could justify seizing it as simply taking back their “own” property. Second, it’s approachable from numerous directions, including the water. Third, it’s far more defensible than the Art Gallery if the occupiers did chose to resist. Next, it’s near a Sky Train hub and key roads, making the resupply and reinforcement of the occupiers far easier. Finally, rather than resisting from a relatively vulnerable position in a wind-swept plaza, the resistance would now be in a valuable asset where a police-induced riot could damage some pretty pricey real estate.
It would be especially hard to refute the first of the above points: The people of Vancouver paid for the Village when the city bailed it out and refinanced the mortgage. The original promise by COPE in the days leading to the plebiscite was that it would contain a significant fraction of social housing. This promise rapidly fell by the wayside in the rush of the Olympic circus, but a promise is a promise. Indeed, the guarantee of social housing was a de facto contract with the people of the city when they were asked to vote on the Olympic bid. Essentially then, we would be occupying something that is already ours in a legal sense that might carry more weight in a court than an occupation of a part of the “commons” such as the Art Gallery.
Finally, there is this: the Occupy Vancouver movement has created something quite unique as a social phenomenon. In this space not only are protesters calling it home, but a number of the homeless are as well. Where else in the city can the homeless find food, basic medical services, and relative safety? All of this was done by volunteers with donated money, but nothing from the city besides a grudging restraint, for now, against sending in the riot squad. The Occupy Vancouver protesters have established what is, in essence, a parallel government and one ready and able to tackle a problem where the city and other levels of government have so dramatically failed.
It is hard to avoid the impression that it is really this example of positive democratic action, rather than the trampling of the “grass” at the Art Gallery, that is the source of the city’s discontent.
Within an Occupy Olympic Village there could be the same experiment, but one warmer and drier, and hence healthier and safer. Inside it could be the same basic housing for the homeless, as well as the same volunteer medical and food and counselling. If the city wanted to help, rather than hinder, they could add on Insite and addiction services. The city could, in fact, make this social experiment a success and demonstrate that they not only accept, as claimed, the Occupy phenomenon as a democratic expression of peoples’ rights, but want to help it thrive. In brief, the city could start to keep the promises made to the homeless of the city almost 10 years ago.
Occupying the Olympic Village would be the first step and one long overdue.