Citing attacks on police and firefighters at the Occupy Vancouver downtown encampment, city authorities are headed for a showdown with the protesters, in the courts and on the street.
Lawyers for the city were in B.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday for a quick injunction to end the occupation, painting a vivid picture of a lawless encampment with no clear authority, hazardous fire conditions, intoxication and drug use.
Matters came to a head overnight Monday, when police clashed with protesters trying to prevent firefighters from dousing an open fire in a barrel.
Not only were police officers punched, kicked and bitten, one of them had his ammunition clip stolen, Police Chief Jim Chu told reporters.
That incident followed a near-fatal drug overdose last week at the encampment and the sudden death there Saturday of 23-year old Ashlie Gough.
An affidavit from Constable Blake Chersinoff read out in court said that he found a crack pipe and cigarettes in the tent where Ms. Gough died.
Two officers were sent to hospital for treatment of deep bites, and the ammunition clip is still missing.
An unruly, violent element has infiltrated a protest that began with co-operation and good will between occupants and police, Chief Chu said.
It was time for “legitimate protesters” to pack up and go home, he declared.
“This can no longer stand. We are issuing a public warning to those who remain on the site. It is time to leave.”
However, Chief Chu said police are not planning an immediate move on the occupation, preferring to wait for the outcome of the city’s application for a court order to have the site cleared of tents and other structures.
Mayor Gregor Robertson, whose chief rival in the Nov. 19 municipal election has criticized him for failing to move on the Occupy camp right away, told The Globe Tuesday that the initial array of activists has been displaced by “people who are looking for trouble.”
Despite that, Mr. Robertson is still hoping the city can convince protesters to dismantle their tents and turn the movement into a daytime-only event.
Although the city is seeking an injunction, the mayor said he would not set a specific public deadline for the protesters to decamp, arguing other cities that have drawn such lines have simply ended up with violent clashes.
In court, as scores of protesters crowded into the courtroom to listen, city lawyer Ben Parkin argued the need for urgent action to safeguard life and safety that he said is imperilled by rapidly deteriorating conditions at the sprawling tent city.
He called the situation, particularly fire hazards identified at the site, a recipe for disaster that could lead to a “very serious incident” involving injury and loss of life.
Mr. Parkin referred Madam Justice Anne MacKenzie of B.C. Supreme Court to a number of affidavits from city, police and fire personnel.
Constable Chersinoff’s affidavit noted that, besides the crack pipe, there was evidence of heavy smoking inside Ms. Gough’s tent, which he said was full of flammable materials.
He added: “I have seen many persons who are intoxicated by drugs or alcohol.”
The combination of intoxication, close living quarters, “a very large fuel load” and smoking could lead to a very serious fire at the occupation, Constable Chersinoff’s affidavit said.
An affidavit from city engineering superintendent Murray Wightman said he has seen rats, filthy water and fist fights at the protest site.
“It has been difficult to deal with the [occupation]because no individual is in charge,” he said. When Mr. Parkin read out his words in court, many protesters in the courtroom sniggered.
The matter was adjourned until Wednesday by Judge MacKenzie to give protesters a chance to find a lawyer to represent them.
If more time is granted for the protesters’ legal argument, Mr. Parkin said, the city wants an “interim injunction,” giving firefighters the authority to remove all structures they consider hazardous, and police the authority to arrest anyone who resists.
In Toronto, city staff say they are “monitoring and assessing the situation,” but at least one member of the Mayor Rob Ford’s inner circle says he has had enough of the makeshift campout.
“I think that what’s happen is that the protest has had its day in the media. It’s over now,” said Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. “They’re now just squatting in a park.”
With reports from Ian Bailey and Francis Bula in Vancouver, Elizabeth Church and Patrick White in Toronto