The city’s bid for a quick end to Occupy Vancouver’s downtown protest encampment has stalled in court, virtually ensuring the sea of tents will be in place when municipal elections take place a week Saturday.
The encampment, now into its fourth week, has emerged as a major election issue, with Mayor Gregor Robertson under fierce fire from challenger Suzanne Anton for allowing the occupation to continue.
Although Mr. Robertson called last week for the tents to be gone, the city’s application for an injunction to clear the site was put off until next Wednesday by Madam Justice Anne MacKenzie of the B.C. Supreme Court. She set aside three days to hear the case.
But Judge MacKenzie did respond to concerns over fire safety at the crowded encampment on the plaza of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
She directed protesters to comply with a number of orders from the city’s fire department by 2 p.m. Thursday. Requirements include removal of all tarpaulin enclosures and unoccupied tents, and at least three feet of space between the remaining tents.
In the past week, the encampment has been rocked by a near-fatal drug overdose, the onsite death of 23-year-old Ashlie Gough and a violent confrontation between police and protesters over a barrel fire, blessed by aboriginal elders as “a sacred flame.”
In affidavit evidence presented to the court, city officials and police said conditions were deteriorating rapidly at the protest site. They pointed to rats, filthy water, intoxication and widespread drug use.
Police Chief Jim Chu also chimed in this week, urging “legitimate protesters” to leave because the site was being infiltrated by trouble makers intent on violence.
But on Wednesday, Judge MacKenzie agreed to give lawyers for the protesters more time to prepare their case.
Vancouver lawyer Arthur Grant, an expert in constitutional and civil-liberties law, said that was a wise move by the judge.
“She is trying to mediate the fine line between security of the public and safety, with the constitutional right to protest,” Mr. Grant said.
“It’s not a setback for the city. The judge just realizes the importance of the issue.”
In a statement, Mr. Robertson said he would have preferred an immediate injunction, but welcomed the court’s recognition of life safety issues, adding that staff will continue efforts to have the encampment ended “in a sensible manner. The Occupy protest is free to continue, but the tents need to go.”
However, Ms. Anton said all structures should have been dismantled long ago.
“They never should have gone up. Once they were up, they never should have stayed up, and now there’s a [court]delay. This is a gong show,” she said.
There is no need for a court injunction to end the encampment, she said. “We have city bylaws in place that are being violated, and the city has the full authority to go in there right now.”
At the protest site, which began Oct. 15 to support the Occupy Wall Street movement against corporate greed, occupiers toiled in the drizzling rain to comply with the fire-safety orders.
Protester Yann Savard said tarps and unoccupied tents are being removed, while large dome structures are being erected to provide safer housing for occupants.
Earlier, in court, a lawyer for one of the protesters warned of an Oakland-style confrontation if police and firefighters move in to start moving tents around on their own.
“That is a recipe for a repetition of Oakland … a recipe for confrontation,” said Jason Gratl, referring to violence that has flared in the U.S. city during and after a nighttime move by police to clear out Occupy Oakland tents from a park.
He was arguing against attaching an enforcement order to the interim, fire-safety injunction, noting that protesters, themselves, agreed at their general assembly Tuesday night to comply with week-old fire-safety orders.
“They should be given time to do so. Here’s an opportunity to step back and calm matters down.”
However, Judge MacKenzie’s interim injunction does authorize police to move in to assist firefighters if they encounter resistance while ensuring that fire hazards are removed.
With a report from Aleksandra Sagan