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Occupy Vancouver movement needs to alter direction

The weekend death of a female protester at the Occupy Vancouver site has done incalculable damage to a global protest campaign that suddenly finds itself at a crossroads.

It would appear that both the public and civic leaders who have been struggling with what to do about the Occupy encampments are losing patience. Increasing problems at the sites are now overshadowing Occupy's root cause and tarnishing the image of the entire movement. Its future gets cloudier by the day.

The deteriorating conditions at the Vancouver encampment, meantime, appear to have left Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson with little option but to close the site down, something that to this point he has been loathe to do. But the death of 23-year-old Ashlie Gough of Victoria from a suspected drug overdose – two days after a young male activist nearly died from the same thing – has created a public health emergency that Mr. Robertson ignores at his peril.

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With 12 days to go before voters go to the polls in a civic election, Occupy Vancouver has become the No. 1 campaign issue in the city and a referendum of Mr. Robertson's leadership.

In recent days, the Vancouver camp has adopted a harder edge. Some members of the media who have shown up have been roughed up and shouted down. The mayor was verbally accosted by several protesters when he appeared Saturday evening to speak to reporters about the death.

The camp is now a rabble of homeless youth and others drawn to the free accommodation, food, clothing and other supplies that can be enjoyed at the site. People presenting with serious mental illnesses are also said to be arriving at the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Many of those originally attracted to the camp by the promise the Occupy movement represented, have since left, turned off by a leaderless structure that makes any progress slow and the increasing presence of insurgents with no vested interest in the cause itself.

It is a story being played out at Occupy sites across North America, where in some cases criminal elements have surfaced. Fights have broken out at some of the sites and drug use is often rampant.

Public support for the protesters is sinking. Even in Vancouver, a city with a rich history of political demonstrations, sympathy for the occupiers has been evaporating. There is a growing sense that the protesters have been given ample opportunity to make their point and are now overstaying their welcome on the popular public space they are occupying. People may support the group's message but not its tactics.

The death of a protester will now prompt even more cries for Mr. Robertson to end the occupation.

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Until now, Canadian mayors dealing with Occupy camps, from Toronto's Rob Ford to Calgary's Naheed Nenshi, have chosen to take a wait-and-see approach. Like Mr. Robertson, they have been reluctant to precipitate a course of action to close the camps that could end in violence and bloodshed as has happened in cities like Oakland. It would appear, however, that strategy may have run its course for some.

On Sunday, bylaw officers and city police in Victoria roused Occupy campers there and handed them letters advising them they had to vacate the premises by today. If they refuse to go they will be given tickets for violating city bylaws that prohibit 24-hour camping in public spaces. If the protest continues, the city will seek an injunction to have the campers removed.

An injunction is something Mr. Robertson is also considering. It's not as easy as it sounds. The courts set the bar for granting an injunction extremely high, especially when freedom of speech is involved. If the mayor went to court and had his application turned down, it would make it even harder to get it on a second attempt.

Having said that, a woman's death at the camp would now seem to give him all the legal ammunition he needs.

Mr. Robertson is evidently prepared to let the protesters keep some of the structures they have erected, such as those housing libraries, clothing supplies and first-aid, but only if the tents go. In other words, Occupy can continue using the site to protest during the day but not overnight.

So far, Occupy protesters virtually everywhere have refused to end their round-the-clock vigil. Some mayors are hoping the encroachment of sub-zero temperatures will end the protest camps naturally. That's a great strategy until the first person dies of hypothermia.

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No, it would seem that our political leaders are going to be forced to deal with the illegal encampments sooner than later. More and more of the 99 per cent that the occupiers purport to be campaigning on behalf of are demanding it.

If Occupy hopes to become any kind of agent for change, it needs to alter direction now. With no one seemingly in charge, the movement is in critical danger of running aground.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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