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How Occupy Vancouver Occupies My Mind

An Analysis of Occupy Vancouver, Week 1

by Zig Zag

Occupy Vancouver poster
Occupy Vancouver poster
Decolonize Canada flag, Occupy Vancouver
Decolonize Canada flag, Occupy Vancouver

Also posted by Zig Zag:

Despite having attended the Occupy Vancouver site at the downtown art gallery almost every day since its inception, I'm still not sure what to make of it all. My initial skepticism of the new movement has both diminished, and yet at the same time been reaffirmed. Confused? Then you haven't experienced Occupy Vancouver.

First established on October 15 at the Vancouver Art Gallery during a rally of between 4,000-5,000 people, Occupy Vancouver has grown to over 100 tents. At any point in time there may be from 150 to 300 people at the site. There are numerous committees who meet daily, organizing a kitchen, an info booth, a library, on-site security, as well as daily workshops on a broad range of topics. There is an open mic and near constant rants, performances or music being played throughout the day. Power is provided by the art gallery, and three portable toilets were provided by the Council of Canadians (their maintenance is funded by the Canadian Auto Workers). There are still several City of Vancouver personnel who patrol the site, apparently acting as both a security and surveillance element for the city. Since the first few days, the police presence has been greatly scaled back. A week after it began, it is rare to see police on site.

The movement is very diverse politically, with causes ranging from 911 truthers to marijuana advocates, from environmentalists to vegans. It includes street punks and university students, rainbow coloured hippies and others wearing camouflage fatigues. The anti-corporate message of the protests, seemingly obscured by the random political causes represented, is nevertheless fairly clear (despite media commentary that there is no focus whatsoever to the mobilization).

While diverse in political causes, the gathering is far less diverse in its social and class composition. It is predominantly the white middle class who have flocked to Occupy Vancouver, as appears to be the case with similar occupations throughout North America. The occupations have also attracted large numbers of wingnuts (like moths to a flame), including conspiracy mongers and irrational hippies.

It is the socio-economic composition that determines the methods adopted by the Occupy movement, as well as the response from the state.

The movement is reformist and does not seek radical social change, despite some 'inflammatory' rhetoric occasionally heard in slogans. Along these lines, it is strongly committed to pacifist, 'non-violent', actions. Allegedly inspired by the revolt in Egypt, pacifist organizers of the Occupy movement have rewritten history, portraying this as an example of non-violent resistance (never mind the relentless attacks on police that occurred, including the burning down of police stations).

There is also a significant pro-cop element among the movement's ranks, including some who are willing to call police and have people arrested. Members of the on-site security detail called police on a drunk male causing a disturbance one night, and during the October 22 Run on the Banks action one participant told police standing outside a bank that they had better intervene because protesters occupying the bank were getting rowdy.

Aside from such examples of outright collaboration, there are also many who naively think they can reach out and touch the souls of cops, as if “love power” could somehow overcome firepower (i.e., a photograph published in The Province showing a protester hugging a cop, or the slogan “Police are the 99%”).


Lack of Repression

As noted, the socio-economic composition of Occupy Vancouver determines not only its methods but also the response from the state. Mayor Robertson has repeatedly stated that Occupy Vancouver can remain so long as the protesters are peaceful and do not disrupt downtown businesses. He has also indicated that another pretext for eviction of the camp would be health or safety concerns. Even though this tolerance was stretched with the October 22 Run on the Banks action, the city appears to be extremely hesitant to forcefully shutdown the encampment at this time.

This approach to Occupy Vancouver is in marked contrast to recent tent cities and building occupations. In February 2011, an attempted tent city at the Olympic Village condo site was shutdown before tents were even erected, with the city using a new bylaw preventing the setting up of structures on city property. When the protest attempted to set up on a nearby empty lot, police obtained authorization from the owners to shut it down as well. Attempted squats of empty buildings from 2006-07 were almost immediately closed by police, including one action that saw the deployment of the crowd control unit in full riot gear. The only recent exception was the Olympic Tent Village established in February 2010 during the Olympic Games.

Why are authorities tolerating Occupy Vancouver? The main reason appears to be a fear that violent repression will radicalize the movement and potentially expand it, as occurred after the mass arrests of some 750 people in New York in late September. The possibility that forceful eviction of the camp could result in small-scale rioting also looms over the head of authorities, who are still recovering from the June 15 Canucks' riot.

The movement appears to have a broad level of public sympathy and even support, another reason for the tolerance of government and police to the various occupations (overall). Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson stated that,

“The tents have been a big part of these protests across the world. Almost all cities are taking a wait-and-see, tentative approach. At this point the judgment is the best thing is to let the protest continue as (long as it) is clean and doesn't disrupt business downtown” (“Cops' budget strained by protest,” by Erica Bulman, 24 Hours Vancouver, October 20, 2011).


The camp and its sporadic protests can be tolerated because they pose little threat or disruption to the economic system. By appearing to be so tolerant, the authorities also enable the collaborators in the movement's ranks to reaffirm the use of reformist and pacifist methods as being 'correct'. Some have interpreted this tolerance as proof of the righteousness and (love) power of their movement, an illusion that springs from the naivete of many participants.

There are, however, clear indications that tolerance for the camp has its limits. Robertson's continued reference to by laws and health & safety concerns were the first. Just days into the occupation, the city announced that the costs for Occupy Vancouver were nearly $500,000, with some $390,000 for policing (and most of this spent on the first day). The result was a predictable increase in calls for the camp to be dismantled.

No doubt city officials and police are receiving tremendous pressure from downtown businesses to shut down Occupy Vancouver. Charles Gauthier, the executive director of the DVBIA, has been very vocal against the movement, stating that “Their language sounds a little inflammatory and I think it puts a lot of people on edge...” (“Cops' budget strained by protest,” 24 Hours, October 20, 2011).

Gauthier also advised that Occupy Vancouver should relocate to the grounds of city hall if the city was going to be so accommodating to them.

Another concern for city council and current mayor are the upcoming civic elections, scheduled for November 19. Any serious incident at Occupy Vancouver could potentially affect the outcome of the election. The very fact that the city has tolerated Occupy Vancouver up to this point is being used by Suzanne Anton to portray Robertson as lacking leadership in not shutting it down. Anton is challenging Robertson in the Nov. 19 election as a member of the right-wing New Partisan Association (NPA).


Oct 22 'Run on the Banks'

On Saturday October 22, one week after Occupy Vancouver set up camp, a “Run on the Banks” protest action was held. Based on a similar action at the Occupy Wall Street, people with accounts in selected banks were to enter a branch office and close their accounts (a phenomenon that occurs during financial crises when citizens begin withdrawing their money).

During the days leading up the action there was very little promotion, most of it through word of mouth. There were no posters nor was the action highlighted on the Occupy Vancouver website. In fact, it almost took on the character of a rumour. Earlier in the afternoon, however, Dr. David Suzuki, a well known environmentalist celebrity, was scheduled to speak. His well advertised presence at the art gallery drew up to a thousand people, a fact that helped swell the ranks of protesters for the Run on the Banks. Estimates of the number of people who participated range from 250 to as many as 750.

The march left the art gallery at approximately 2PM, stopping first at a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada, which was closed. Eventually the march wound its way through the downtown, stopping at several banks that were open and which were quickly occupied by scores of protesters, some of whom actually closed their accounts.

The Run on the Banks was significant because it was the first major street action since Oct. 15. It was also significant in that the police presence was extremely low, with just a handful of cops deployed to monitor the march and redirect traffic. Police made no effort to block access to the banks until the very end.

The last bank targeted was the Toronto Dominion branch located across the street from the art gallery, on W. Georgia. Here the bank was completely disrupted, with protesters carrying portable stereos and dancing on counter tops, unplugging computers and phone lines, etc.

At this time, motorcycle cops entered the bank and attempted to close the door but were unable to when protesters struggled to keep it open. A standoff then began with cops positioned at the doorway and protesters massing there to prevent them from closing the doors. The cops stopped any more people from entering, including genuine customers, while allowing protesters to leave. After about 45 minutes, the last protesters exited the bank.

Despite the provocative and disruptive nature of the protest, police and media were happy to report there were no arrests nor vandalism of any kind. Despite repeated provocations by some militants, police were clearly instructed to take a “hands off” approach. It is as if the city and police want to avoid any incidents that will force them to take action against the camp at this time.


While Mayor Robertson's initial statements on Occupy Vancouver were that they could remain as long as they wanted to, under certain conditions, one day after the Run on the Banks action, he expressed a more oppositional tone:

“Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city has kept a close eye on the activity downtown and that protesters' behaviour and compliance with city bylaws will dictate the outcome of the protest. “We would like to see the tents come down,” Robertson said, but the VPD and city staff have agreed that physical intervention is not the answer.

“We have been watching other cities... across the world, and we do not want it to end like it did in Melbourne [Australia],” he said, noting Melbourne police's forceful removal of occupants from the city square camp last Friday. He reinforced that the health and safety of protesters remains a priority. Robertson did not offer a timeline as to when the protest will end; however, he strongly asserted it will come to an end.”

(“No end in sight for Occupy Vancouver,” Kendra Wong, Metro News, October 24, 2011)



How will it all end? It is likely that there are factions in the city administration and police who hope the camp will whither away with colder, wetter weather as fall progresses into winter. With a smaller camp a show of force may be all that is necessary to shut it down when there's only a couple of dozen campers present. At such a time, a fabricated health or safety threat could be used as a pretext for police action. This has been the case with previous tent cities established in Vancouver.

Even if it is incoherent, there is a highly politicized space now existing in the downtown shopping, financial and tourist district. While 911 truthers are still going on about Tower 7, people are talking about the economic system, the environment, the state of the world, etc.

Occupy Wall Street and its copy-cat solidarity actions are the manifestation of a growing consciousness among the population. That many Occupy Vancouver participants are naïve and maintain strong illusions about the nature of the capitalist system is natural, considering their socio-economic status and lack of experience. Nevertheless, more and more people are becoming politicized through the increasing levels of social conflict and crises now gripping the world. That (mostly) middle-class youth in Vancouver are mobilizing is a good thing, and part of a global phenomenon of unrest. Now all they need is a reality check, which will undoubtedly come sooner rather than later.

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I'm not so sure about the reality check



I've been involved with the Occupy Brisbane (Australia) web team, and have been to two GAs there which brought up issues like how to relate to the police. Quite a lot of the (IMO) naive statements about the police were repeated.


However I'm not even so sure about the reality check. If, for instance, the police were to shut down any occupation, I am sure a signiificant minority will claim this was because negative thoughts by other campers made negative actions by the police manifest.


As to the privileged status of many occupiers - the problem goes deeper than that. There are plenty of resources online for economically/culturally/socially privileged people (like me) to get a reality check. But there seems to be (at least here) a significant strand of thought that is hostile to any idea that the Occupation is political, that sees artificial divisions such as race, class and gender as the major problem today, and that is therefore hostile to discussion of race class and gender oppression because such discussion perpetuates those divisions.



Inciteful observations and

Inciteful observations and compelling conclusions!  Thanks for posting!

I was just wondering if you

I was just wondering if you could point me to the by-law that was inacted in advance of the Olympic Village protest last year?


not a cop-hugger

Thanks for this Zig Zag and thx too for your comment David J; I definately feel yer pain.  At last night's GA here it was clear there were several members of said class and demographic who were very much opposed to, even genuinely scared by the mere idea of, aknowledging First Nations rights to the unseated land we are occupying, because "ownership" is "not real" and to have to ask permission (through the traditional channel of Elders) of the First Nations is actually  "racist" (because the land "belongs to everyone" and  "screw what my ancestors did, it has nothing to do with me"- I am directly quoting).

It's beautiful but it sure ain't pretty.  If you think about it, OF COURSE this damaged, half-crazed / half-brilliant group is what Revolution is going to look like in the belly of the sick beast itself, where kids form their political analyses by watching the Smurfs Next Generation where we're all the same colour and we'll wear identical recycled nylon suits in rainbow varieties because legacies of oppression don't exist and race "isn't real" and staying positive and "inclusive" toward the cops will make them our friends (at least until they show up in riot gear to hospitalize me and/or some of my friends, as just went down in Oakland, apparently with Occupiers still trying to hug the police as they started lobbing tear gas).  That we're here at all and that we keep trying shows how urgent the hour has become. 




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