The tolerance of North American cities for the Occupy protests need not be limitless, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is justified in formally asking the protesters to leave on Monday, setting in motion a legal process that could result in a court-ordered expulsion.
It doesn’t take a philologist to recognize that “Occupy” suggests civil disobedience. Typically, those engaged in civil disobedience accept their punishment as a means of provoking social change. But cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto have tolerated the Occupy protests for a variety of reasons, including their novelty, a respect for freedom of speech, a sense that letting off some steam is healthy, and a fear that larger protests or violence could erupt if cities try to close the protests down.
In Vancouver, a death from a suspected drug overdose, and a near-death from the same cause, are discomfiting. In Toronto, there is talk that RVs will be brought into St. James Park (half of which is owned by a church, and half by the city) to “winterize” the protest. It is justifiable, fair and constitutionally permissible for cities to say enough is enough, and look for a way to quietly conclude the protests, or move them on to a mutually agreed space.
There is no constitutional right to “occupy.” If there were, ethnic Tamils, aboriginals or anyone who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed one morning could block any road or highway in the country. There are reasons that tents and RVs are not normally allowed in public squares or parks. One excellent reason is that the square or park is lost to its original uses – taken by force, monopolized. That is anti-democratic. The Canadian tradition is to discuss, argue, protest, but not to use force.
That is not to say that the protests are not well-motivated, or democratic in spirit, just that many among the supposed 99 per cent the protesters claim to represent have very little time for them, because they act like a law unto themselves.
The protesters have had time to make their points. Perhaps some larger point can be made only in the act of occupying. But if that is the case, cities will have to move, sooner or later, to assert the law.