A few weeks ago, Victoria City Council passed a motion that reflected the city’s support for the constitutionally protected rights to free assembly and free speech as exercised by the Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria in Centennial Square. These principles are the cornerstones of a free and democratic society, and I’m proud that council acknowledged that the growing iniquity in our world by supporting this motion and the protesters gathered in Centennial Square.
A few days later, citing health and safety concerns over drug use and mental health issues associated with a homeless population that has moved into the Square, the City took steps to seek a court injunction to physically remove the encampment. Of course the Peoples’ Assembly didn’t cause the addiction, poverty, mental illness and homelessness seen in the Square, and a forced eviction will do nothing more than disburse this population back into our city parks and neighbourhoods. As such, this week I spoke with many of the city’s downtown service providers about these issues, and many have agreed to increase service delivery to those needing it most in Centennial Square.
The sudden shift from a spirit of cooperation and accommodation to one of enforcement and eviction significantly increases the odds of a confrontation between protesters and police, and this is of great concern to the many people in Victoria who’d like to see this spontaneous democratic expression end peacefully, so last Thursday night I went to the General Assembly in Centennial Square (where proposals are heard and decisions are made regarding the future of this protest) in order to present an alternative scenario to the forced eviction set in motion by City Hall. The following are a few excerpts from my proposal that evening:
“Can the Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria be a movement without martyrs? Is the only potential endgame for this protest to hold this small patch of land until it’s occupants are forcibly removed, and potentially injured or arrested? Will the shouts heard from this square over the next few weeks simply echo centuries of ongoing oppression; or can they be songs of hope, renewal and community empowerment?
As a resident of Victoria, a social justice activist, and a local City Councillor, I believe that the ideas and ideals of this protest are far stronger than the thin nylon tents that protect you from the elements, and run far deeper than puddles that occasionally dampen both spirit and possessions in this public square. I have and will continue to defend your constitutional right to gather here in peaceful protest, but I urge you to consider an alternative.
I urge you to consider the great strength and honor that comes from deciding when and how you leave this place, and the power of surprise and delight that would accompany a peaceful, voluntary demobilization. I urge you to consider the public support that would be garnered from a joint decision to simply pick up, join hands, lift your heads high to the sky, and sing a song of freedom while moving forward towards the next stage of “Occupy Victoria”, whether that be flash mobs, flash camps, general strikes, etc.
I respectfully propose to the assembly that while there may be a perception of strength in simply holding space, there is much more power – and the potential to deliver a much stronger message to those who hope for a peaceful, non-violent resolution as well as the voices who have been urging a crack down on this encampment – in deciding when and how you claim, as well as when and how you leave, this or any other place of protest.
As such, my question to the General Assembly tonight is whether leaving Centennial Square has to happen through unwanted but likely unavoidable clashes and confrontation with the authorities over the next few weeks, or whether it can happen through a conscious and compassionate decision-making process by the General Assembly? So once again I ask, can the Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria be a movement for peaceful, progressive social change without sacrificing personal freedoms to arrest and persecution, and without the need for some of you gathered here this evening to become martyrs for this just cause?”
Whether or not the city’s injunction request is granted by the courts, it is my hope that any actions taken in Centennial Square and in parks and public squares all over the world over the next few days or weeks will be informed by a spirit of compassion and cooperation, and that all involved – from police to protesters – will find the resolve to allow a peaceful end to the initial phase of this international protest.
Victoria City Council/CRD Director
Research Affiliate – Center for Addictions Research of BC