Occupy Vancouver members look back at movement’s one-year anniversary

They came. They camped for five weeks. The city injunction kicked them out.

A year after Occupy Vancouver sprang up at the Vancouver Art Gallery, its members are still smarting at the city’s treatment, yet grateful for the personal connections made.

Sean O’Flynn-Magee was made a leading face of the leaderless movement when the city named him a defendant in their initial injunction application to remove the dozens of tents and structures from the gallery’s grounds.

The well-spoken political theory graduate from the University of B.C. slept at the art gallery for the duration of the occupation and says many connections were made between like-minded people eager to enact social change locally.

“The isolation that people feel in post-industrialized Western society – that’s really paralyzing,â€� he said. “When you feel alone you don’t do stuff, you don’t try to change things, you don’t believe that things can be changed.

“And so the big flag that Occupy raised and (for) the people who were able to run to it and meet their allies it was a very heartening and empowering experience.�

O’Flynn-Magee laments that in many ways Vancouver was a “tough city� for the Occupy movement to connect with because he says economic hardships felt in other parts of North America are less visceral here.

“It’s hard for some people to understand why you’d have anything to complain about, but the dream is inherently illusory and to continue playing it is not to do well for yourself,� he said. “Sure we could just put up with these property prices – we could put up with this increased regulatory framework that governs our lives, put up with the increased police presence in what is a remarkably safe city.

“Or we could not, or we could try to stop those things.�

“At some point, given the interconnectivity of the global, and even regional, economies of the world, it will hit Vancouver,� he added. “There are going to be condos that aren’t sellable here in five or 10 years, and then the sorts of things Occupy was trying to get on the table will be relevant to a lot more people.�

O’Flynn-Magee didn’t know if he would attend Monday’s one-year Occupy Vancouver anniversary party slated to begin at 11 a.m. on the art gallery grounds. He said it would be an emotional decision to return to the site and he is now busy working on a mockumentary about the power of money to corrupt “some pretty normal decent people.�

Filmmakers Rafferty Baker and Matthew J. Van Deventer’s new documentary The Occupation: The Rise and Fall of Occupy Vancouver argues that without a presence at the art gallery, the movement died.

“Obviously the relationships and the organization that developed because of Occupy is still going, but our argument is that the tent city, the physical manifestation, was the real power of the movement.,� Baker said. “That’s why it dominated the news cycle, everyone’s attention and the (municipal) election, too.�

Lawyer Michael McCubbin represented the Occupiers in their legal fight to maintain their encampment and says the city promised to work with the movement while seeking to undermine it.

“(City manager) Penny Ballem delivered a letter in writing basically saying, ‘OK, guys this is getting out of hand. You gotta go, but you can keep some of the admin tents, like the book tent and the stage,’� McCubbin recalls. “A few hours apart, the city’s lawyers were in court seeking short leave to bring a hearing to kick everything off the art gallery lawn.�

He said the city refused to divulge who was telling firefighters and city engineers to use their considerable discretion to enforce bylaws and kick out the protesters.

“What you have with something like Occupy Vancouver is an inherently political expression going on that may or may not be popular,� McCubbin said. “Particularly around a civic election, you don’t know who’s exercising their discretion and for what purpose.

“I think that can be pretty dangerous.�

McCubbin said Mayor Gregor Robertson’s public support for Occupy Vancouver faded as rival mayoral candidate NPA Coun. Suzanne Anton began attacking him for permitting the tent city.

Vancouverites’ appetite for the encampment seemed to erode after 23-year-old Ashley Gough overdosed at the site on Nov. 5, 2011. At the time of her death, the Victoria artist was visiting a group of “crusty punks� like 27-year-old Jeremiah (Germz) Baldwin.

Baldwin, whose plentiful facial tattoos inspired by his mother’s Maori heritage made him one of the most recognizable faces of the occupation, was one of the most visibly distraught Occupiers the night of Gough’s death.

“It was really a big hit to a lot of people,� Baldwin said. “It’s like a chunk of you disappears and you don’t know where it went and it takes a while for it to kick in that that void’s going to be there for a long time.

“And you try to fill it with things like alcohol or some people use drugs.�

Still, Gough’s overdose was a big wake-up call to the punks sleeping in tent city Baldwin says.

Baldwin, who rode freight trains up to B.C. from his home state of Arizona over a decade ago, is still battling an alcohol addiction. He said he began drinking to replace the morphine he was given after a car hit him as he squeegeed at Main Street and Terminal Avenue.

Today, he says he has cut down his drinking significantly and married Taylor Sevigny, 18, in September. Sevigny said the couple is trying to find jobs and move out of their small room in a BC Housing-owned Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel.

Though not well-versed in Occupy’s anti-corporatist or environmental messages the two are passionate about Vancouver’s homelessness issues and represent a tangible success story from Occupy Vancouver, according to the filmmaker Baker.

“They got two dozen people in subsidized housing, they got them off the street,� Baker said. “And it may have been just so the city could shut down the tent city, but nevertheless you got to chalk that up.�

mhager@postmedia.com

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