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Occupy movement ponders future without tents

City of Vancouver workers remove an unoccupied tent at the Occupy Vancouver site on the Vancouver Art Gallery grounds November 15, 2011.


Ramped-up moves to end Occupy encampments are forcing organizers to consider the protest movement's future, if any, should its most prominent symbol – a sea of tents – disappear.

A number of high-profile, protest evictions have already taken place in the United States, including the heart of the Occupy movement in New York City that originally sparked the worldwide protests.

And across Canada Tuesday, protesters in Toronto were ordered to pack up and leave their encampment immediately, Calgary occupants were given 24 hours to clear out, and in Vancouver, aggressive fire department officials took down about a dozen unoccupied tents, while shifting others to safer locations.

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Vancouver is also in court Wednesday, seeking a court injunction to have the downtown protest site emptied of all tents and other structures.

While tents in the three cities remain up, and Toronto occupants won time later Tuesday to launch a legal challenge to their eviction notices, civic resolve to rid prominent city locations of the protest encampments has clearly stiffened.

Protest supporters are now worried that an end to the tents may mean an end to their crusade against the so-called "1 per cent."

"If you remove the tents from Occupy Vancouver, we're just Vancouver," said one, identifying himself as Tom A.

Occupy Vancouver already has two working groups in place – tactics and contingency – to deal with the day when authorities move in.

Current plans are to camp somewhere else, should the downtown encampment at the Art Gallery be cleared.

Media volunteer Steve Collis said he couldn't conceive of the movement without tents.

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"It's defined as being about occupying space in some way," he said. "There are ways of moving quickly and setting up temporary encampments in different locations, where it might sit for three days or three weeks."

Others talked of switching to city hall or Stanley Park.

Those sentiments fly in the face of authorities in Vancouver and in New York City, itself, who say that protests may continue, but without permanent tent cities.

In Toronto, where a huge cheer greeted news that the city's eviction notices were temporarily stayed, protesters vowed not to leave their St. James Park location voluntarily.

But they were less insistent than Occupy Vancouver that their movement depends on occupation.

"Even if there's no physical space, there will be marches," said Charlie Bobus, 31, who has been camping out in the park.

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Matthew Webb, 34, said the evictions spreading across North America will only make the movement stronger.

"If anything, this is like whack-a-mole. The more you come down with overbearing force, the more you bring in people," Mr. Webb said.

In court, however, lawyer Susan Ursel, acting for five protesters who received eviction notices, contended that their camp is "integrally linked with the message they wish to convey."

Forcing protesters from the park would violate their Charter rights to freedom of conscience, expression, peaceful assembly and association, she told Ontario Superior Court Justice D.M. Brown, who agreed to hear further argument on the matter Friday.

In New York, protesters, still stunned by the surprise overnight police raid that ousted them from Zuccotti Park, talked about reorganizing the movement without tents.

"People are really recognizing that we need to build a movement here," said organizer Hans Shan. "What we're dedicated to is not just about occupying space. That's a tactic."

Meanwhile, police and city officials across the United States and Canada are taking to conference calls to share their experiences and varying tactics to handle Occupy protests.

Among the issues discussed, said Chuck Wexler of the national police group that organized the calls, are safety, traffic and the fierceness of demonstrations in each city.

Their consensus, according to Mr. Wexler, is don't set deadlines and don't issue ultimatums.

Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu and Mayor Robertson said they are among those monitoring developments elsewhere, which have ranged from violent, forceful evictions to benign co-operation.

With reports from Aleksandra Sagan in Vancouver, Dawn Walton in Calgary, Adrian Morrow and Patrick White in Toronto, and the Associated Press

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