The Occupy Vancouver protest and encampment on the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery has taken this election by storm, forcing all of us to reflect on our core values. Many share a deep sense of frustration that the movement appears to lack clarity and focus, and that public debates and spaces have been disrupted.
Yet employing police authority to physically confront peaceful protesters is inherently inflammatory, and its longer term outcome uncertain. Before using physical force in this way, those in government should know the answers to three questions:
1. What is the cost?
2. What is achievable?
3. What is the exit strategy once the City engages in open conflict with protesters?
In the absence of clear and unambiguous answer to any of these questions, I would not approve the use of force to remove the tents at Occupy Vancouver.
Few if any of the over 1000 cities involved have displaced Occupy movement protesters without violence. It’s doubtful Vancouver will be the exception. The Stanley Cup riot in June has incurred massive investigative costs, and we have not even begun the trials. A choice that opens the door to a second riot in 6 months is not, in my view, in our city’s interest.
In my personal and professional experience I have seen many tense situations defused with calm and measured response by authorities, and I support this approach now. Rarely does raw force yield the desired results.
Patience, nerve, and quiet strength are the skills needed to resolve even the most tense situations. This is how we talk desperate people back from the brink, get critical witnesses to come forward, or even negotiate the return of hostages. And it’s how we should resolve our concerns with peaceful protesters camping in a public square.
That said, Occupy protesters have taken over public space for their own exclusive use, and have used their numbers to overwhelm public debates that others have come to hear. The Occupy leadership model does not lend itself to dialogue with the broader community, which largely supports their aims but is losing patience with their methods. Those seeking a respectful response from our whole community have an obligation to do better.
These demonstrators are for the most part Vancouverites. Whatever their methods, the Occupy Vancouver members are citizens passionately pursuing a better society for all. This objective deserves attention and respect.
In Vancouver, the Occupy movement gives voice and visual presence to our acute affordability issues. It provides a window to the real and harsh reality that too many of our own citizens, including children, face every day. I saw this most acutely in one very memorable moment during this campaign in East Vancouver. A woman rose at the end of an all-candidates meeting to speak in anger that she was not hearing any answers for her. In her forties, she provided childcare for 3 families, made under $11 an hour, and was living month to month in a part of town where speculation and gentrification are driving up rents. This hardworking woman is pitching headlong into irrecoverable poverty while 3 families depend on her so they can work themselves.
What is to become of her? No one can say. What is to become of Vancouver if hardworking people like her can’t make it?
The demonstrators of Occupy Vancouver are fighting for this woman’s dignity and for the dignity of thousands like her in Vancouver who have no voice. I hope we can all remember to put their interests first, and to see our challenges with Occupy Vancouver in this broader context.
Let’s put our most vulnerable citizens and the working poor front and centre, and we will reach a peaceful resolution that can serve the long-term interests of all. Whatever the outcome, we share a city and a future. Let’s take the best care of both that we can.
As Lao Tse said more than 3000 years ago, “What is in the way, is the way.”
For an independent and collaborative approach to public engagement, please vote Sandy Garossino for City Councillor on November 19, 2011.