Occupy Vancouver and Vision Vancouver
The right to freedom of expression includes symbolic speech. The tent community of Occupy Vancouver, filled with protestors and homeless people, is a symbol of the inequitable wealth distribution at the heart of the protest.
On the other hand, even symbolic expression can be regulated as to time, place and manner if those regulations are content neutral (applicable to messages of all political stripes) and tailored to serve legitimate concerns. The City of Vancouver has consistently expressed its concern regarding the health and safety impacts of Occupy Vancouver.
With two drug overdoses at the site, one of them fatal, legitimate concerns about health and safety may weigh more heavily than the right to the symbolic expression of the tents.Under Canadian law, the right of access to a public facility is another legitimate concern that can be addressed by regulating the time, place and manner of protected expression.
While the tent cities are compelling symbols, the Occupy movement is not ultimately about the right to sleep in tents in public places that aren’t designated for camping. If it were, it would not succeed because everyone has the right to use those public places, but not forever and to the exclusion of others. Right now, the attention centered on the tent community is displacing attention on the real issues of the movement.
The real issues of the movement appear to be largely if imperfectly captured by the unofficial list of 60 demands put forward by some of the Occupants. In looking at those demands, the unfolding tragedy of the Occupy movement’s effect on the City of Vancouver becomes apparent. While the City is taking serious heat during a crucial campaign period, only one demand is within the City’s legal power to implement.
Item 13 demands that records of meetings with "lobbyists and influence peddlers" be open and that the content and expenses of such meetings be made accessible to the public. While the City could possibly go farther, it has already responded to the need for greater transparency and increased public information with its Open Data Catalog.
Federal issues include progressive taxation of wages and capital, shifting subsidies from fossil fuel and nuclear energy to renewable resources, sales taxes that fully account for the costs of products to society at large, and closing down the tar sands. Provincial issues include a living wage, ending the logging of old growth forests and repealing corporate personhood.
Meanwhile, where the City does have jurisdiction, it is actively pursuing goals that spring from similar values, particularly in the areas of food security, homelessness and sustainability. One of the Councillors, Andrea Reimer, knows homelessness and life on the streets from direct experience. That experience inspired her participation with Vision Vancovuer. Mayor Robertson has treated homelessness as a key issue during his tenure, and will discuss his record and goals in a free public debate with Candidate Susan Anton this Monday night.
In the USA, the Tea Party managed to turn its outrage into electoral power. Occupy Vancouver puts itself at risk of doing the exact opposite: reducing support for a city administration that is an ally in the Occupy movement’s long term goals. It is a shame that the issue of whether the tents can remain indefinitely threatens to derail the critical work of building political alliances among persons, parties and movements that are truly committed to economic justice and a sustainable world.
Last night, my family read and discussed Occupy Vancouver’s unofficial list of 60 demands and found ourselves largely (although not entirely) in support of many of the demands. Occupy Vancouver’s success in spurring discussion, engagement and activism is amazing and heartening. Occupy Vancouver can build on its successes by putting electoral politics that support social justice and sustainability at the center of its future strategy and continuing to focus public discussion on its long term demands. Tents can be used symbolically and strategically without dividing otherwise like-minded people.
Electoral politics actually do provide us with a meaningful tool to shape the world. They aren't the only tool, but they are one that is necessary to the success of Occupy Vancouver and the success of the majority of us who want an economcally just and environmentally sustainable world.