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Occupy Vancouver has lost credibility

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

I am really disappointed and angry that I must even have to write this entry.

After a heroin overdose at the Occupy Vancouver site earlier this week, today marks a death, apparently from another overdose. The first turn of events underscored my own tepid support for the OV movement. Defiance of the request of the fire department to clean up the site made my support that much cooler.

This death signals the end.

The Occupy Wall Street, or OWS, movement is one that is firmly based on the economic and political injustices that the current corporate structures and systems are waging on ordinary people.

The OWS is the start of an unstoppable awakening that is taking place across the United States by Americans that their government, their economic system, are at odds with them. Especially in the United States, no matter where you turn, no matter how you try to limit your exposure to big business, corporate interests have either skewed or else completely corrupted the system.

There is not a single sliver of American society and its economy that has not been touched by a corporate agenda, corporate interest, or even corporate largesse.

There has been a withering plaint from Wall Street that these ‘ruffians’ have no cohesive message, that they have no specific demands. The simplistic conclusion is that they are capitalist-hating socialists. While there may be a few dyed-in-the-wool socialists among them, most- if not the overwhelming majority of them- are actually capitalist. What else do they truly know?

My guess is that they want the current corporate structures and systems dismantled so corporate actors have as much sway on public policy as religion, or the environmental movement, or even the ballot box- if you can imagine!

Quite honestly, in principle, they are not asking for much. There was a time when corporate interests were just another piece in the jigsaw puzzle. That time was before Charles Erwin Wilsons infamous 1953 quote, “Whats good for GM is good for America“.

How hard would it be to simply go back to a time when corporations were actually accountable to the society they were created to improve? If you ask me, it is indeed possible to establish Rousseau’s Social Contract between society and the corporations. The OWS is a focal point in the awakening of the American consciousness to achieve that goal.

And from the OWS movement in New York City, came dozens of Occupy movements across the United States and others in foreign lands too. While things arent quite as bad in other places, such as the U.K. or even here in Canada, there is still plenty enough to lament and hence to protest.

Significant protests have grown across the globe. In London, senior clergy have resigned at St. Paul’s Cathedral because of harsh reactions to protestors peaceful actions. Protestors effectively shut down the port in Oakland California during their general strike this past week.

News of physical clashes with police are becoming commonplace- if you know where to find the reports- underscoring that the establishment is getting both weary of these pesky gnats endlessly demonstrating as well as beginning to understand that these same demonstrators are out for long-term and significant change.

The stakes are getting higher with every passing day and with every violent confrontation instigated by security forces, acting in defence of the status quo.

And then there is the protest here in Vancouver.

The Occupy Vancouver version was particularly symbolic, in part, because Vancouver is the birthplace of Greenpeace- the Mother of all Occupy movements. More importantly, it was here in Vancouver that the whole idea was floated. I so wanted the Occupy Vancouver protest to be worthy of Kalle Lasn’s Adbusters call to action.

But on the OV’s first weekend, on a sunny Saturday, when thousands of people came together to stand up and be counted, wanting and wishing this to be the moment for change, I couldnt help but look over the list of speakers and feel a sense of derision. Yes, there were some very credible voices in the line up- among them, an old grad school friend of mine, Seth Klein of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

But almost the rest was a shopping list of pro-drug activists ranging from Marc Emery protégés, to screechy blow-hards like Betty Krawczyk.

Honestly, if that is the best that we can produce in Vancouver as high-profile speakers at a moment when change is in the offing, then clearly, when Mr. Lasn called for 20,000 people to descend on Wall Street, even he knew it was pretty futile to expect that kind of traction here in Vancouver. And sure enough, the thousands who turned out for the OV weekend in October are gone. They’re gone because the protest does not represent them.

I do think that this protest has been different from many we have seen in the past. Yes, homelessness is a long-standing issue here. Yes, there is the question of the permanence of food banks and why they are necessary. Yes, we have seen a significant decline in the quality of life in the region in my lifetime. And Ill even admit that yes, there is a need to do something different regarding the laws around marijuana and services to overcome addictions.

But what good will, whatever kind of message, or messages, the protesters were trying to advance here in Vancouver, they were all undermined by the heroin overdose. They were utterly wiped from the consciousness of the city by the death.

I do not presume to be able to pronounce exactly what the protests are aiming to achieve but I can say this: Whatever the point of Occupy Vancouver, anarchy is certainly not it. Personal self-destruction, or the enabling of such action, is most definitely not one of its goals. That the Occupy Vancouver movement has not distanced itself from drug abuse is a serious flaw.

Then enabling the behaviour by saying that it was good the first overdose took place at the OV site rather than in the DTES, is so wrong on so many levels.

In reports following the first overdose, the medic who saved the persons life apparently had the gaul to say that the person was safer in the camp than in the DTES because help was at hand. This kind of justification-after-the-fact is appalling.

It turns out that the INSITE clinic is in the heart of the DTES.

Taxpayers have paid millions both fighting and defending the clinic. To the consternation of conservatives everywhere, the burgers of this fair city overwhelmingly support its existence and its goals. It is there, in all its glory, in the DTES, so that people dont overdose and if they do, there is someone there to get them to safety.

So to that medic: Do not even try to guilt Vancouverites over the overdose… and you’d do best by keeping your mouth shut over this death.

That one overdose not only undermined the OV movement, the person responsible for the overdose, and that would be the addict- nobody else-singularly destroyed the credibility of the occupation. The medic merely added yet another layer of guilt onto the addict’s emtional pain, and managed to insult everyone else in the process.

And now the death. After some petulant adolescent temper-tantrum defiance over the fire department’s request to remove tarps for their own safety, after the enabling drug use in the camp we now learn of someone else dying, by her own hands, of yet another overdose.

And because of this, the Occupy Vancouver movement is dead. Anybody with a brain will move on. There will be other times.

Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street, with its high goals and aspirations, with its focus of purpose and its presence of mind, will prevail. It has already made the financial world stop and watch it play out in Liberty Square Park and it will inspire successes worldwide.It will achieve a change in the dialogue between world leaders at the very least. But sadly, it will go on without the Occupy Vancouver movement.

I desperately wanted this not to be just another quasi-loser-anarchist squatter-fest on the steps of the Art Gallery manifested by a bunch of misguided idealists suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and fighting for the wrong side of humanity. But despite the efforts of a few focused activists whose intentions were right, that is what it has become. That is all this is, here in Vancouver.

And by the way, where are those focused activists now?  And where are the thousands who came out on that sunny October weekend to make change happen?

We can’t even get our protests right.

This is no time to score political points, Suzanne Anton. The less you say, the better.

By the same token, we dont need the police to clean this up: juse shut off the power, Gregor Robertson.

By next Friday, except for a few die-hard stragglers, they’ll have simply packed up and left.

Some Insight into Insite

Friday, October 24th, 2008

The riot squad marched past me in pairs on Wednesday. About forty officers, their faces tight and emotionless moved to pull down the tents and stage erected in the middle of East Hastings Street adjacent to Insite, the supervised, drug injection facility in the downtown east side. Fifty more officers kept the curious from intervening.

Insite, is a harm reduction tool in a ‘four pillar’ approach to the drug problems not only in the downtown east side but across the city: those pillars being prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and enforcement. But from what I see in the downtown east side, I wonder whose harm is being reduced?

Apparently, the organizers of the party supporting the Insite facility failed to obtain permits from the city to block two lanes of Hastings Street and to hold a concert at the tail end of rush-hour.

It looked like a classic confrontation between the police and the rag-tag community in the neighbourhood- two monolithic forces clashing over drug policy and who really runs the ‘hood. But not everything is as it seems.

While a few local residents were not so enthusiastic of the obvious police presence with their plan to break up the street barbeque and concert, a few others voiced their support for closing Insite down.

Despite what one might believe, the police in Vancouver actually support Insite, much to the frustration of some residents who don’t. The VPD disagrees with those who say Insite is a breeding-ground for continued dependence on illicit drugs: the RCMP, the current federal government and its outspoken Minister of Health, not to mention the Bush Administration in Washington, D.C.

But it’s not like the Vancouver Police Department stands alone. Both the city and the province support Insite. The entire medical establishment backs the effort. Partisan political support crosses party lines- excluding the Conservatives in Ottawa- with the NDP, Liberal and Green Parties in lock-step with each other on the issue.

While I take no issue with whether Insite is effective or not, I do start to wonder what’s up when almost everyone in authority appears to agree that it’s the only solution. Everything’s too neat, too tidy. Does Insite do what its supporters say it does? Whose voices are being silenced by the deafening and coordinated call for its continued operation?

So since our establishment fails to have this debate, someone has to ask these questions because the reality of the downtown east side is that the entire neighbourhood and its issues have been swept under the carpet for decades too long. Successive, well-meaning governments of all political stripes have fostered a flourishing poverty industry but relatively little money actually gets to those in need.

Where services ought to be provided honestly and without ulterior motives, bean-counting still reigns supreme. Unfortunately, bean-counting is what gets the cash so statistics come before services. Playing second-fiddle to an accountant when it’s your life on the line… what a wonderful path to recovery.

Whether they supported Insite or not, every activist and community member I talked to agreed that there are not enough resources to handle the demand for rehabilitation and re-location; the Treatment pillar of the Four Pillar approach seems to have been forgotten. Imagine deciding that you want to break a serious life-threatening addiction only to find that you have to wait four months for a detox space?

When addicts decide to make a change it’s a spur-of-the-moment thing. To wait four months for a detox bed and a rehab space would be like waiting a year, maybe two, for a hip replacement. It’s ridiculous to expect any success at an individual or at a policy level with a four-month wait. More to the point: it’s inexcusable.

Moreover, once people have done detox and rehab, where are they to rebuild their lives? Back in the downtown east side? That’s hardly the answer. The sad fact is that there is not enough ongoing community support and housing in other neighbourhoods and towns to help these people put their lives back together.

What mechanisms are established in outer-lying communities to support people from relapsing or even becoming addicts in the first place? How is the mental health outreach community faring in the smaller towns across the province, or dare I say, the country? How much money are we spending to get people who want to get out of the dangerous neighbourhoods and all its temptations into safer communities?

I wouldn’t even know where to find straight-up answers to these questions, never mind whether they could be answered affirmatively. Worse, I don’t think any of our governments, responsible for this humanitarian catastrophe, could either.

So while the cops bust up an unsanctioned party in support of Insite, our leaders continue to present a brave and united front that this one facility is the only viable choice in Vancouver’s supposedly unique battle with the same addictions that plague cities across North America.

There’s a fine line between compassion and enabling. Should Insite be kept open? Absolutely. I just wonder if Insite, notwithstanding the great work it is reported to do, is merely a symptom of a much more serious problem.

Does Insite actually reduce the harm on our collective conscience over our inaction? Is it possible that our politicians and other policy leaders have chosen to support Insite as an easy way out, to enable the situation because they’d rather do what’s easier, cheaper, and politically most expedient? Where are the detox and rehab treatment facilities to go along with Insite? Where is the political will to make real change outside of the downtown east side?

We may not know the answers, but I certainly know we have to keep asking the questions.