Friday, November 4, 2011

Occupy the Language - The Song Remains the Same

by Janine Bandcroft.  photo of Billy Bob at Cridge Park, 2005, thanks to Pete Rockwell.

Remember back in 2005 when the Cridge Park homeless encampment was shut down by police and fire officials after it degenerated into a filthy prostitution and drug den?  That’s when many of us, who watch the street scene with caring eyes, realized a bit about how city politics works.  With a bit of help the camp could have succeeded.  It did succeed in providing a safe place for homeless people to gather, create community, and support each other.  After a couple of weeks, it began to attract some, shall I say, more difficult inhabitants.  And that’s when its troubles began.

The homeless campers, occupying public space in solidarity with David Johnston’s determined campaign to assert the right to sleep, dealt with the people using illicit drugs, and the drug dealers, as best they could.  It was, after all, public space, and their struggle for justice was intended to include everyone who is marginalized by the dominant culture.  As I recall, the druggies and their “girlfriends” were invited to set up camp at the same park, but at some distance from the other homeless campers.  Some of those had day jobs, and appreciated a good night’s sleep.  Their jobs didn’t pay enough to keep up with the rising cost of living in our fair city, and at Cridge Park they found food, camaraderie, and a safe place to leave their possessions during their work hours. 

The Mayor at the time, Alan Lowe, took a strategic wait and watch approach.  The corporate media began to report about the degeneration at the camp, how it was unsightly and a blight on our picturesque tourist economy.  The city did nothing but wait.  They might have offered assistance in the form of porta-potties, garbage and recycling pickup.  The police might have better policed the public space and dealt with the lawbreakers.  Instead, they won their waiting game.  The corporate media succeeded in painting all the inhabitants with the same brush, public opinion turned against the camp in its entirety, and it was shut down. 

A lawsuit was subsequently launched, Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms upheld by the Supreme Court of BC, and a bylaw restricting camping in public places by homeless people when shelter spaces are full was found in violation of our collective right, as Citizens of our home on Native Land, to life, liberty, and security of person.

Fast forward to the People’s Assembly (Occupy Victoria), an important part of a global revolutionary call for systemic change.   Some of the players have changed, but the song remains the same.  I dropped some more food off at the kitchen this morning and learned that several people using illicit drugs, and drug dealers have moved in.  Their presence has “changed the vibe,” and sensitive artists and musicians, some with expensive gear, are not feeling as comfortable there anymore. The only 24/7 bathroom, conveniently located in the square, is being used as an injection site. 

The situation has become so urgent that police have been invited to do their job - police the park, and deal with illegal behaviour as they would if it weren’t otherwise occupied.  The illicit drug users have been invited to set up their tents outside Mayor Dean’s window, to be sure he’s aware of the challenges these young revolutionaries are faced with.

I asked the People’s Representative, stationed at the time in the kitchen, whether the Cool Aid Society, or any other of Victoria’s many social service agencies, have sent their workers to the camp to help deal with the problem.  My friend said she’s trying to find time to reach out to them.  So far they’ve attempted to deal with the situation internally.  It is a public space, they want to be inclusive, it’s difficult to ask people to leave, but at the same time these are young people attempting to create a family safe space where they can discuss the challenges their generation faces as the global capitalist experiment reaches its natural end.  These are not professionals with the necessary skills to deal with mental health issues that excessive drug use evokes.   

On my most recent radio broadcast of the Winds of Change (alternating Thursdays from CFUV), I spoke with Bill King about these very issues.  I guess nobody’s listening.  Or nobody cares.

Surely “the authorities” are aware of what’s happening to the camp.  Someone is watching it closely enough to notice that David Johnston was there, and ordered him removed.  (David was sentenced to 60 days at Wilkinson Jail for daring, ten months into it, to break a court order that he stay away from the square for a year.  I received a note from his mother today saying he’s to be released December 4th, in the meantime would appreciate visitors or mail from the Assembly at 4216 Wilkinson Road, Victoria, B.C. V8Z 5B2.)

Here’s what will happen if the People’s Assembly Occupy Revolution doesn’t receive some support from those who are elected and/or paid to serve our community:  as Christmas approaches the corporate media will report that the camp has deteriorated into a drug and prostitution den, and the construction of the first ever skating rink at Centennial Square will necessitate its removal.  It’s Christmas, after all, a time for children, and the good people of Victoria can’t be expected to feel safe among such unsavoury characters. 

I’ll bet I’m not the first one make this prediction, though my words of caution aren’t accompanied by a quiet but celebratory glee.

And this blatant and deceptive betrayal of justice will be remembered by more of us than watched it all happen at Cridge Park in 2005.