Support the VMC, donate today!
Support the VMC, donate today!
On Saturday, November 12, 2011, a crowd of some 200 took to the streets from the Occupy Vancouver site to march for social housing and autonomous spaces. Promoted as a “tour of inequality and excess in a city of glass,” one of the main mobilizing themes was “housing is a right, not a commodity.” More radical voices called for the establishment of autonomous social spaces and housing, against state control or influence. About 10 protesters wore the 'dreaded' black masks, so maligned of late by city and police officials. There were approximately 12 cops that followed the rally, including four on motorcycles and a couple of bicycle cops.
Having heard that the rally was to start at 12 noon, I arrived to find a small group at the Vancouver Art Gallery (site of OV) and eventually learned the rally was now scheduled to start at 1:30PM. Waiting in the pouring rain, and later finding shelter next to the food tent, I had ample time to ruminate on scheduling problems at previous OV-associated events.
Eventually, after a brief introduction by organizers, the march moved out towards Burrard Street and then north to the waterfront area, the site of several new condo developments. Stopping at the intersection of Burrard and Cordova Streets, some participants spoke out against housing as a commodity and real estate speculation that leaves some 70 percent of the condos in the area vacant (while hundreds sleep on the streets or in shelters throughout the city). The crowd listened and joined in a few chants as it was lashed with cold rain and wind coming off the harbour waters.
As the protest passed the new Fairmont Pacific Rim complex, a hotel with corporate storefronts, the crowd was asked if they wanted to occupy the hotel lobby. Soaking wet from the rain, the crowd enthusiastically endorsed this proposal and began making their way towards the lobby entrance, taking the long way. The cops also made their way to the lobby entrance, arriving in force ahead of the main group of protesters. As hotel staff locked the doors, more speakers were heard addressing the struggle for social housing and against the rampant gentrification of Vancouver.
While the speeches were being made, I discussed the attempted lobby occupation with one of the masked protesters, who described it as a mistake to publicly announce actions. “This just alerts the cops and makes us less effective,” he said.
After the speakers at the Fairmont Pacific, it was then announced that we'd make our way to the Woodward's complex, the former department store that is now a major base for gentrification in the Downtown Eastside. Woodward's was occupied by activists in 2001 and also saw a months-long tent city after the violent eviction of the squat by riot police. Today it is a condominium with corporate storefronts and just a few units of social housing.
As we approached W2 marching down Cordova Street, I wondered if the cops would also move ahead and lock it down. But they didn't, and we moved through the doors into a large, open, space inside the building. While the crowd dried off and warmed up, there were more speakers, including representatives from the Downtown Eastside Neighborhood Council.
As I listened to the speakers, I couldn't help but notice the massive photograph looming over the indoor courtyard: a re-enactment of the 1970 'Gastown Riot', when the cops and hippies clashed in the nearby Gastown district. A hippie underground in the 1960s, Gastown is now a high-scale yuppie tourist market that borders the Downtown Eastside.
After the W2 'occupation', we moved across Hastings Street, to the former site of the Red Gate. Here, one of the former members of the artist's space explained how it had been regulated out of existence by city hall, and then evicted when the owner sold the building to developers.
After this speaker, the protest moved east on Hastings Street, and then 1 block south to Pender Street, arriving at the offices of Bob Rennie, a major real estate developer in the Downtown Eastside. Police quickly lined up in front of his offices, and no effort was made to enter. But to the right of the offices was the Everything Cafe, also owned by the Rennie family. Protesters began flowing into the cafe, eventually filling it.
Police at first hesitated to enter the cafe, and when they did stayed near the doorway, observing. The officer in charge then muttered that there were “too many people” and abruptly left. Some in the crowd immediately questioned the accuracy of this, as no accurate count had been made nor were there any signs posted specifying the number of people permitted to be in the cafe. After five minutes or so workers in the cafe announced it was closed. Shortly after, a man, apparently the manager, arrived and ordered the mob out, to no avail.
After perhaps ten minutes of occupying the Everything Cafe, an agitated man dressed in a business suit arrived and attempted to force his way into the cafe while demanding police evict the protesters. When asked who he was, he claimed to be the owner (reportedly the son of Bob Rennie). After struggling unsuccessfully to force his way in, the man then pulled the fire alarm, which was located next to the door. A police officer grabbed the man and pulled him away.
By now, several more patrol cops had joined their cohorts in policing the rally. They stood outside the cafe and did nothing but observe.
With the fire alarm now ringing inside the cafe, it was generally agreed to move on to the next, and final, stop on the march. This was the 100 block of East Hastings, at the site of the former Pantages Theatre, now demolished ruins awaiting the construction of a new condo development. As the rain continued to pour down, the final speakers were heard, including local residents from the Downtown Eastside.
As the crowd dispersed, a group of six officers also left and headed east on Hastings towards Main Street. When they passed the entrance to the Carnegie Center, they spotted one of the formerly masked protesters and chased her inside. In the lobby of the center were more comrades, however, who confronted the police as they struggled with the woman. Numerous patrons of the center gathered around, several voicing complaints against the conduct of the cops. Surrounded and outnumbered, the police abandoned their effort and withdrew.