What happens when the power structure of a city makes decisions based on fear? When city hall hands over power to neighbourhood business organizations and the excessive demands of police are just automatically implemented by city bureaucrats?
Well, we’re in that situation right now.
In the paranoid aftermath of June’s Stanley Cup riot, city hall ordered publishers to remove their newspaper boxes around the Vancouver Art Gallery four days prior to the launch of Occupy Vancouver.
Order given, the very next day a committee composed of downtown business reps, police, fire and city engineers unilaterally decided to expand the so-called danger zone to Burrard St at Pacific Ave and Hastings St at Hamilton St — essentially the entire downtown and, not coincidentally, roughly the boundaries of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Area (BIA).
Without consulting the publishers, or even the city manager, city staff sent its fleet of trucks to seize newspaper boxes.
Only after Xtra Vancouver defended its readers’ Charter rights to access their own community media — and long after it became clear that Occupy Vancouver participants were peaceful — did city hall relent and release the boxes for return to the streets (at the publishers’ expense).
Despite the fears of some business people, the macho swaggering of NPA mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton calling to break up the protest, and Vancouver police officials’ preemptive warning that the protest could turn violent, the Occupy Vancouver gathering has been peaceful — like almost all the Occupy protests occurring worldwide.
The police department’s unfounded advance warning was akin to labelling the protesters as criminals-in-waiting. In reality, they have been ideal citizens — people participating in making their voices heard in a democracy because they are profoundly concerned about the direction that society is taking. They deserve medals, not slander.
You can see why downtown BIA types might panic after a couple of newspaper boxes were thrown through merchant windows during the Olympics and again during the riot. But those who would do that will find something else to throw if you take away the boxes.
It’s more unfortunate to see senior police officers living in their deepest fears — and so clearly over-reacting — rather than using their judgment.
But it’s downright criminal when city officials allow business organizations and police to call the shots rather than rationally considering the situation. There was nothing in the New York or other North American demonstrations to suggest violence was coming to the Art Gallery and surrounding streets. There was every reason to hear out the BIA and police concerns and then decide what limited actions might be needed.
Because this isn’t merely about a couple of hundred boxes being removed from city streets. It’s about active citizens exercising their rights and being treated like criminals.
It’s about the Charter rights of readers to easily access their media of choice. And the Charter rights of publishers to be able to reach their audience. And the rights of minority communities, who are hardest hit by these excessive actions because of the already limited access to their cash-poor media.
And it’s about violations of Supreme Court of Canada decisions on administrative law. The court required every government agency taking actions for a public good to keep those actions to the minimum required to rationally address the issue at hand. So not only the Charter, but also administrative law requires government to take rational action, rather than excessive measures based on fear and worst-case scenario brainstorming.
Vancouver citizens and officials need to learn from the Stanley Cup riot. And then move on. We have hundreds of gatherings of people yearly in this city, and two or three of them have gone wrong in the past 20 years. We all, but especially our government and police, need to calm down, act rationally and respect our Charter rights and the rule of law.