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Why Occupy protesters were allowed to stay longer than others

Squatters gather outside their tents that surround the now vacant Woodward's Department Store building on the downtown eastside of Vancouver Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002.

Chuck Stoody/ The Canadian Press/Chuck Stoody/ The Canadian Press

The best way to end a protest camp is not to let one start in the first place – that was the lesson the city learned earlier this decade.

After dealing with a four-month squat in and outside the empty Woodward's department store in 2002, along with homeless camps in several parks in 2003, the city's legal department concluded that quick action is crucial.

That's why the city has busted up protest camps with great alacrity in the past two years. One, during the Olympics, was taken down after two weeks. For a planned protest camp earlier this year at the Olympic Village, the city got an injunction in a single day to prevent a camp from being set up on private land near the village.

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But police and city officials didn't follow that same approach when the Occupy Vancouver protest got under way on Oct. 15 and tents started going up.

Police did nothing that day or the next. City managers started negotiations with protesters about leaving, but didn't set an ultimatum.

And it wasn't until Monday that city managers issued the first written request for the protesters to evacuate.

City staff and the mayor have said one reason they didn't prevent tents from going up immediately was because of the massive crowd. With 4,000 people at the initial Saturday rally, police couldn't go in and start fighting with people to take down tents.

But clearly, Mayor Gregor Robertson was also swept up by the sentiments of the day that viewed this crowd of camping protesters and their cause as being on a higher plane.

"There are very legitimate concerns about equality, climate change and the state of the world that almost all of us share and we are willing to see what a global protest like this might precipitate," he said on the Monday after it started, indicating he was prepared to let the camp stay.

Even Councillor Suzanne Anton, now basing much of her campaign for mayor on attacking Mr. Robertson for not shifting the camp, said at the time that she supported the protest, although she was "not happy about the tents being up."

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Ms. Anton says she was not more outspoken at the time because she assumed city staff would make sure the camp came down.

"I was on the park board when we were dealing with all those other camps. Since that time, the city has been very strong in not letting the first tent go up."

She says she would have issued an order to move the tents on the third or fourth day, not the 23rd, as city manager Penny Ballem did.

In 1991, campers took over part of the Vancouver Art Gallery plaza protesting against Canadian involvement in the Iraq war. It took the city a month to get an injunction, which resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that tents were barred on the plaza.

But protesters discovered that injunction didn't apply to any other land in the city. The 20 campers moved to the lawn of city hall in late February. Then-mayor Gordon Campbell threatened to get another injunction to get them off the lawn.

They left two weeks later, however, before he had to go that far. They maintained at the time they weren't leaving because it had snowed, but because they were encouraged by the recently declared ceasefire in Iraq.

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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