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By noon on 26 February 2011, people anticipating a tent city filled the wide sidewalk outside the Pantages at 144-156 East Hastings Street. A series of short speeches set the mood. Especially vivid was an account of how condo king Bob Rennie is reported to have looked across rooftops toward the Olympic Village project to declare, "My Village!" (Rennie has just relaunched his marketing effort.)
Then a crowd of about 200 headed north on Main Street, some with equipment-laden buggies. Destination, Olympic Village – with a brief pause to call attention to the area where developers chomp at the bit to condoize Chinatown and bury the street in shadows. As marchers headed west toward False Creek, an anti-Olympic arrestee surveyed the throng and exulted: "Biblical!"
Going past Science World, the group then skirted the Olympic Village on Ontario, turned west on 1st Avenue, and went along Manitoba to enter the plaza. As music blared, tents and canopies began to pop up. Around the edge of the area, orange plastic fencing suspended itself from temporary human posts. At least twice, yells and jeers drowned out an official who tried to issue orders through a bullhorn. Toward the saltwater to the north, a gathering of police vans and engineering trucks emblematized the infrastructures of control.
After some discussion, activists picked up assembled shelters and other equipment and hauled their show two blocks to an empty grass field east of Manitoba and north of 2nd Avenue. The new terrain offered a little more shelter from wind that was driving icy precipitation across the open expanse of False Creek. Set-up commenced, and soon tents and canopies stood scattered across the western end of the field. Orange fencing created boundaries to the north and east.
A park bench toward the rear of the area served as base for a food station, which distributed sandwiches. Later on, under a nearby canopy, urns dispensed hot coffee and tea.
At all times, groups of police roamed at will throughout the area. Incidents included an allegation of public urination, objections to presence of propane tanks, and an admonitory tour by a fire department official.
Police brought in the owner of the private property, already having displayed their eagerness to enforce any request for dispersal – a request they obviously solicited. (It seems likely that the "owner" of this field enjoys the scam of paying next to no property tax in return for providing a grassy space – usable by the public only until that status becomes inconvenient!)
After a ten-minute warning to leave the area, the tent city group discussed its options. Several time extensions proved necessary. Eventually a decision was reached to dismantle and meet up elsewhere. As large tarps were folded, accumulations of snow pellets pooled in their hollows, and winds billowed them like sails.
Police probably overheard talk of reconvening in warm public space at nearby Creekside Community Centre. When the group reached that location around 3:30 pm, police stood lined up in front of a locked-down main entrance. (The sign on the door said open 9 to 5 on Saturday.) Meanwhile, acceptable members of the public could be seen continuing on with their frolics in the gym.
Now numbering around 70, the group reconvened for an extended period under the gazebo near Science World. Police surveilled from vans in the parking lot and from a distance on the seawall. Several groups traversed urban wasteland to reach the McDonalds on Main Street. Who would have thought that a McDonalds could be more public and hospitable than a community centre?
The tent city contingent headed back toward the Olympic Village. At this point the ground had gone white with accumulation of snow. As the group once again turned the corner at Ontario to head west along 1st Avenue, at a point midway along the block, someone opened up a door into the building. People surged through the entrance. A police van sped up to the scene and disgorged a squad. With no verbal warning, police assaulted at least one bystander on the sidewalk, acting like a football team racing for a touchdown. A few minutes later, a cop was offering to call an ambulance for the older person whose back had been thrown against the corner of a brick wall!
Twelve activists occupied raw retail space (perhaps the Urban Fare reported to have abandoned a situation that has slid downscale?) and used masking tape on the inside of the glass to call for "Homes Now!" Supporters outside drummed on a 45 gallon steel barrel that should have been warming a tent city. A lasagna supper appeared to feed the group of 40 to 50. Fresh faces arrived to take the places of others who were leaving.
The original gathering of supporters on the west side of the block could peer through blue-screened glass and make out some of what was occurring inside. A male police officer, checking the ID of a young woman, was seen to unnecessarily place his right hand on her left shoulder as she stood quietly, hands at her side. Shortly afterward, she sat briefly on the bare concrete floor, with her legs crossed.
At various points around the entire block smaller groups formed and reformed. Accordion music enlivened one of the gatherings. One occupier was released through a door on the south side of the building. Information had been taken, and a follow-up letter from the police seemed probable.
Eventually two groups concentrated outside the grills enclosing garage openings to north and south at the east end of the block. Police on the scene numbered at least two to three dozen. (At that ratio, each pair of protesters was matched by one officer!)
Inside the garage, police officers milled around and fooled with plastic bags full of personal belongings. One arrestee was left to stand handcuffed for a long while behind the van. An officer at the south entrance said that all occupiers faced two charges, breaking and entering and trespass. Around 7:40 pm the police van left the garage, hauling the arrestees off to the police station.
This reporter then headed for home, ready to unwrap (five layers and long johns) and unwind after walking and standing in subzero conditions since noon.
A report posted by Murray Bush at Vancouver Media Co-op on the same day concluded the story in timely fashion: "All eleven activists were released late in the evening without charges." One of the arrestees reports that the last individual left custody around 9:30 pm.
Conclusion #1: There are no public spaces in Vancouver – at least not for all publics. When McDonalds provides the city's most welcoming venue on a cold winter day, something is getting weird.
Conclusion #2: Back-of-envelope accounting indicates policing costs of at least $15 to $20 thousand to repress tent city activities on February 26. [Update of Feb 28: A person at the scene reports this fact obtained through conversation with police – $80 per hour for a 9 hour shift.] A sustained campaign might make it more financially rewarding for the City of Vancouver to direct resources toward housing rather than policing. (At City Council on the evening of February 17, Geoff Meggs put a price tag of $250 million on housing the homeless. That is about 3% of spending on the Olympics, and about half of the funding so quickly designated to reroof one amphitheatre.)
Conclusion #3: Vancouver's overarching policy of enforcement looks like KIQ – Keep It Quiet. If the Olympic Village is to look like a safe haven for a tsunami of offshore money, it cannot be tainted by occupation – or even the stigma of repression of occupation. (Recall the Vancouver Police Department criterion for a successful Olympics, as expressed by commanding officer Steve Sweeney: A truly successful staging of the Games would be measured by visitors having no recollection at all of the policing effort.)
Video by Sid Tan: 2011 Olympic Village Tent City
Story with photos by Matthew Van Deventer: The Short Lived Occupation of an Empty Department Store
Personal recollection by arrestee: Working in Immanence
Video by Stephanie Law: Tent City Won't Be Silenced