This has been one of the most intense and heart-rending weeks of my writing life, and proof that Vancouver's upcoming election has turned into what I can only describe as exhausting, dramatic and completely uncertain, after being initially predicted as a sleeper.
From the moment on Saturday that a friend at Occupy Vancouver phoned to tell me that a young woman had died at the camp -- whom I later learned was Ashlie Gough, 23, of Victoria -- up to today's interim court injunction following a skirmish over a sacred fire lit by Native elders at the art gallery, it's frankly surprised me that Occupy Vancouver somehow became the top election issue this past several weeks. So much so that Suzanne Anton, of the right-leaning Non-Partisan Association (NPA) has crept up 10 points in the polls, trailing incumbent Mayor Gregor Robertson by only eight per cent – thanks, it's believed, to her hardline, send in the troops approach to Occupy Vancouver – she would settle the encampment once and for all with five-day ultimatums and assertions of city authority.
With so many updates, I've decided to split my blog posts into this "roundup" of events, news and writings I think are of interest to the progressive and radical Left, and longer features profiling issues and campaigns not being covered elsewhere.
Turns out Ashlie Gough, the 23-year old artist who died at Occupy Vancouver a week ago tomorrow, was only in town for the weekend to visit friends, and was neither homeless nor a protester. Her death was immediately jumped upon by both the NPA and Robertson's Vision Vancouver as a reason the camp is no longer safe. I spoke with Gough's boyfriend, Kegan, and her sister, Tiffany, for my obituary in The Tyee, both of whom said they are disgusted by how their loved one's overdose death has been exploited in the media and in the election campaign.
And of course, no one seems to acknowledge that there are at minimum 60 drug overdose deaths every year in Vancouver, many of them only blocks away in the Downtown Eastside, where paramedics are often too late to find victims. In fact, Occupy Vancouver's intrepid medics told me that without them, another overdose earlier last week would have been fatal, and that in Gough's case they performed CPR for ten minutes before an ambulance arrived on scene.
In three press scrums I have asked Mayor Robertson how Gough's death and the other overdose can in any way be blamed on Occupy Vancouver, considering the other 60 deaths per year – which draw no press conferences, no campaign speeches, no personal visits from the mayor and his rivals. Here is the transcript of one scrum, at which I asked all the questions, outside a fundraiser for Vision's election ally, the Council of Progressive Electors (COPE).
Press scrum with Mayor Gregor Robertson (for my article in The Tyee, “Occupy Vancouver: Drug den or harm reduction haven?”):
ME: I obviously want to ask about the Occupy Vancouver camp first off. Your reaction last night was that it needed to be taken down immediately and there was a notice posted there this morning. Is this actually a change in approach to the Occupy camp, or is this just more talk, more extreme?
ROBERTSON: No, the clear message is: the protest is fine, the protest can carry on, it should carry on. But the tent camp, the encampment that's there, is not safe. There are huge concerns with fire safety and life safety that have to be addressed and that means that the tent camp has to go. So we're just taking those next steps in terms of enforcing the bylaws, and working with people on the site to move the tents off and enable the protest to continue.
ME: How do you see doing that without using force, in terms of -- the protesters have said they're not going to leave?
ROBERTSON: That's a challenge here. No other city has succeeded yet on this level. Our focus is to ensure that life safety is looked after, and to reason with people on the site that the protest is absolutely fine, the stage -- the set up that's there to enable people to protest -- is okay. But it's the tents, many of which are empty, and some of which obviously present a life threat, that needs to change, those need to move off the site. That's an enforcement step that City Hall is looking at as a next step.
ME: Has an injunction been filed yet?
ROBERTSON: No. But injunction is one of the tools that can be used, but there are bylaws and enforcements related to bylaws that enable the city to take next steps. We just want to do that in a way that's sensible and we're hoping that people will see that there's an important safety reason to this and there's every opportunity to continue protesting on that site.
ME: Some people have said, 'Well, people die of overdoses every year, a hundred last year.' Why is the focus on this Occupy Vancouver overdose -- potential overdose?
ROBERTSON: It's a combination of life safety threats on the site right now. The fire chief was very clear in his order a few days ago that they had propane bottles in tents, they had tarps over tents, and access and egress were dangerous on the site. All that happened around the first overdose, which was fortunately not a fatality. But the second overdose, we have a young woman who has died, and all of those life safety risks continue throughout the rest of the site. Those all need to be addressed. That, all together, represents a real risk to the people on the site and to the city.
ME: What will happen if an injunction goes through, or if bylaw enforcement goes in, and protesters don't leave? At what point will you not be able to prevent force from being used?
ROBERTSON: We'll take this one step at a time. The city has dealt with a lot of protests historically, and hopefully cooler heads prevail here and we find a solution here that is peaceful, that enables people to continue protesting, but to take the life safety risk out of the equation here and make sure that we have a good, safe protest in Vancouver.
ME: So how is it a greater life safety risk than what's happening in the Downtown Eastside, for instance?
ROBERTSON: Well there's a life safety risk in that the fire chief has gone through the tent camp and said this is a serious risk -- and it's not tolerable and there have to be changes. Changes have not been made. A few things started to get changed, but not enough. So it still represents a significant fire risk to people who are on that site with flammable materials and real problems with access. The drug overdose and the death last night are on top of this. Obviously, there's huge concern with that – that is still under investigation. But we have to ensure that people are safe on that site, that's our bottom line here.
ME: Do you believe this is a distraction from the election campaign?
ROBERTSON: I think that this is a huge issue right now facing cities across the world – 1,700 cities with Occupy protests. The encampments, I think, are what are creating more of the problem right now. Protest is part of life here in Vancouver. When it gets to this point of being a real risk to people's lives, then we have to take action to address that. It obviously is being politicized by my opponent who has taken a very radical approach of ultimatums and saying she would send people in to end it by force if necessary, and that's unacceptable. It's unfortunate to see it politicized like that, because it's a very sensitive issue. We want this to end in a sensible way.
Meanwhile, protesters stormed the mayoral election debate on Monday, heckling the entire time that both Robertson and Anton were lying, and that both are developer parties. The media missed the mark, however, in describing all the protesters as from Occupy Vancouver - when there were three distinct groups that I observed, including anti-gentrification organizers from the Downtown Eastside, and residents, both housed and homeless, of that neighbourhood.
When the moderator allowed only 13 minutes for questions at the end, demonstrators and DTES service workers alike were furious that so little time had been given for public input. Especially since, as several journalists near me in the press area observed, both candidates' answers seemed remarkably similar on some points. Suzanne Anton, for instance, slammed Vision Vancouver's policy of offering incentives to developers to build or contribute to affordable housing -- arguing that taxpayers should not be funding developers -- while immediately advocating for policies that give incentives to developers to build affordable housing. Baffling, really. Even the Globe & Mail's Frances Bula commented on the similarities.While the heckling was no doubt stressful for many in the audience, many agreed that the debate excluded many voices, especially those of DTES residents themselves -- the people most affected by the affordable housing crisis in Vancouver.
Robertson's approach, it seemed, was to ignore the heckling and continue speaking through it. While a worthwhile attempt at remaining above the fray, by the end of the evening it appeared more like powerless obliviousness than taking the high road - particularly since you couldn't hear a word the Mayor was saying, though his lips were moving.
Anton's approach, which gained repeated glances of amusement and Robertson's signature eyebrow-raised-are-you-serious? death glance, often involved pausing until the heckling settled, and suggesting that she understood peoples' concerns. Of course, it was hard to hear her criticize the Olympic Village failure to provide promised social housing -- when the NPA itself set that up -- or a number of similar hypocrisies. She maintained her calm throughout, however, but near the end looked to me and another journalist like she was about to cry.
In fact, after she avoided my question in the backroom scrum about why Occupy's tent city is unsafe in light of 60 drug overdoses a year, I approached the would-be "common sense" mayor and tapped her on the shoulder:
"Excuse me, Ms. Anton, I don't feel you answered my question about drug overdoses in the Downtown Eastside." She turned, her eyes red-rimmed and watery, and a weary look on her face, and avoided my question once more. (I won't discount the possibility Anton may just have watery eyes).
But as her City Council table neighbour, Councillor Andrea Reimer, pointed out at an event last night, it sure is easier to dish it out than to take it, but apparently Anton doesn't handle late nights well.
Things at Occupy Vancouver are, to say the least, intense. The impending shut-down by the city has, needless to say, caused tension among the organizers. Nowhere was this more clear than after a secret meeting between several individual Occupiers and the B.C. Federation of Labour, observed by several current campers who said that negotiations must be conducted openly if they are to be legitimate. The BC Fed renewed its support for the movement, sources in the meeting said, but were emphatic that that support could only continue if non-violence could be assured in the event of a city raid.
As I revealed in the Vancouver Observer, several other ex-Occupy organizers, frustrated with the direction of the camp, said they were reaching out to the city, despite not having the approval of Occupy's General Assembly. In the midst of these tensions -- and the urgent need to reach out for solidarity, and support one another in the movement, I invite you to read the open letter, below, from Occupier Danielle Lee Williams, addressed to the movement in Vancouver and beyond.
Letter from Occupy Vancouver's Danielle Lee Williams
I have been participating at varying levels of involvement in this movement since the first day. Yet, on all levels, my heart has been completely in this, like many of yours. And I have shown up, day after day, and stayed many nights with you all in the genuine belief that we are a part of something unique with the potential to be something truly special and magical.
Today, I feel very sad and heavy.
I am very very close to stepping away completely from this movement. I feel I have gotten lost somewhere amidst our process and I feel sad to be looking around and watching the chaos and division that is ensuing around our camp, in our meetings, and amidst each other.
We are at a moment of crisis, and I recognize that it is precisely in these moments that we need to come together. All groups go through stages of development, and we are in the Storming part of our development. We are in the heavy. The honeymoon is over, and now we have to deal with the differences between us that are going to make living together challenging. Most groups fall apart at this stage if they are not able to come together and work through the conflict and establish boundaries and lines of communication.
I have been doing a lot of reflecting over the last couple days, and I realized that I am sorry for a number of things. Ideally, I would like to be specific in my apologies, yet, I sense this will already be a long letter, and so for now I would like to begin by broadly apologizing for ways I have behaved at various moments of our time together; I have been short-sighted, I have been selfish, I have been inconsiderate, I have been negative, I have been critical, and also I have failed to be more self-loving, and therefore I have failed to know how to love you all more fully. I have neglected to both care meaningfully for members of our community, and I have neglected caring for myself in this process. And therefore, I now find myself sick, with a hoarse voice, exhausted, and verging on burn out.
In the face of upcoming conflict with the city and police I find a sense of panic running through all of us -- as though their arrival and the prospect of shutting us down might actually work. And I realize that the more I invest in the belief that their arrival is anything other than a temporary blip in the road -- the more power I give to them. The more we lose focus, stop doing the work we are here to do, and remain preoccupied with what they might do to us: the more likely they can do anything to us.
Our power is in our numbers. Our power is in our community. Our power is in our willingness to develop a new way of living together. And they are distracting us. They are distracting us and hoping to keep us distracted from accomplishing our work until this election is over, and then they will come and shut us down.
We are so young in our development. There is a looooong way to go. We cannot afford these distractions, as we need much more time than they are going to give us. So, we need to know, without a doubt, we are not going anywhere and they can't take anything from us. We are taking the time to do this, and they can't tell us how long it should take, what it should look like, or when we are finished.
Unlike many of the brave and wonderful people I have met here, I have, over the last few years, been a part of the faction of people who are apathetic. Having grown increasingly disenchanted, I had lost hope in the possibility of actually achieving the change I want to see in the world. I have, too often, opted for complacency rather than engaging my agency. I have opted to isolate and withdraw, rather than engage. I have opted to remain silent, many times, when I needed to speak. I have opted to ignore my privilege, rather than acknowledge it -- and as a result I have been the source of oppression. I have used my past of abuse, difficult upbringing, and mental health as a source of victimization, and so I have continued the cycle of victimization by I hiding behind it as a way to justify my own victimizing of others. And I have done so many of these things because of fear and because I have felt completely alone.
This movement, and the beautiful members of our community, have inspired me to wake up, get up, and stand up. I have said and done and participated in ways that have surprised and empowered me like never before. I have felt agency in this movement.
The reason I have been able to do these things is because we have all stood in solidarity together in this. It is our community, and it is us, standing together, that have enabled some of the most beautiful moments of my life.
I am forever grateful for this. I am forever grateful for you, and for your commitment to show up, day after day, and keep working through this impossible task we have before us. I have experienced community in ways I never experienced before, and actually couldn't even dream of.
And I have stood in solidarity, proudly, among all of you.
But I am just waking up: a baby still. And so I have stumbled and fumbled many times in this journey that has barely begun.
This is part of the learning curve, I know. We all have to make mistakes in our process of learning. There is no shame or blame in that.
The key is learning to be accountable to those mistakes. And I am now being accountable. I am responsible, and I acknowledge it fully and publicly.
The many lines of dialogue on the Facebook group hurt me.People are being cruel to each other and pointing fingers outwards, without implicating their own hands in things. And I realize, I simply can't do it like this.
The energy at the camp is incredibly toxic at moments. There is a growing sense of distrust, skepticism, and criticism growing between us.
That is exactly what the forces against us want. For us to turn on each other and disband, preferably without their intervention.
I appeal to us all: please, at this time of crisis in our movement, amidst all our contingency plans and lines of defense, let us find the time to look inward and reflect and look outward and work together. Let us make the time to question ourselves, our motives, our intentions and our goals. Let us keep ourselves in check and therefore help keep our group in check.
If we actually want to address systemic change, I truly agree with the many who have said the revolution must begin within. It must begin with each of us internally, and move outward.
We have to hold ourselves accountable, even if we are in moments of crisis. Especially if we are in moments of crisis. If we ever want the world or systems ‘out there' to be accountable to us, we have to figure out what accountability looks like for us.
Amidst the many things we have created, I feel we have left out some crucial things so far: namely, where is the heart of our movement? Where is the safe space? Where is the space for healing? Where is the compassion and love for one another that is most certainly not given to us by this capitalist beast we are trying face down and contend with?
I acknowledge that I have taken up a lot of space here, but if you have been willing to read all of this, thank you for bearing with me and for hearing me.
I send this note with so much love and continued hope that we are not about to fall apart, but rather, we can use this time of difficulty to begin really addressing the issues that desperately need addressing.
With much love and solidarity,
danielle (a fellow Occupier)
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