Occupy Vancouver takes to the streets
Demonstrators say they won't leave encampment peacefully
Hundreds of sign-waving Occupy Vancouver protesters took to the streets of downtown Vancouver on Sunday.
Police estimated about 300 people took part in the march, which they described as peaceful, though they advised motorists to avoid the downtown core.
Earlier Sunday, police issued a news release warning a group of a dozen masked protesters dressed in black and carrying flag poles had moved into the Occupy Vancouver encampment. That news sparked concern among officials, who remembered the riot sparked by similarly masked anti-Olympic protesters in February, 2010.
Sunday's march came after protesters vowed they would not be peacefully removed from the lawn of the art gallery following the death of a demonstrator. Ashlie Gough, 23, was found unresponsive in her tent at around 5 p.m. PT on Saturday and taken to hospital, where she was later pronounced dead.
An official cause of death has not been released, but a worker with the tent city says it was a drug overdose, the second in three days, although the first was not fatal.
Following the news of Gough's death, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said Saturday night Occupy protesters would be forced to leave as soon as possible. He said it's clear the encampment is no longer safe and has to go.
"As mayor, I’ve said repeatedly that the city would directly intervene only if there were health or life safety issues," Robertson said in a statement released Sunday.
"Although initially the encampment had few issues, its physical structure has now deteriorated to the point that there are imminent life safety risks, identified by the Vancouver Fire Department and other city staff who have been attending on site."
Gregor said the safety concerns include the enclosing of tents with flammable tarps, evidence of propane use within the encampment structures and increasing use of intravenous drugs.
"The Occupy Vancouver protest can continue. The tent encampment, as it stands now, cannot," Robertson said.
"An ongoing Occupy Vancouver protest movement that expresses itself publicly can do so without an encampment on public space. I fully expect that the Occupy Vancouver protest — one whose issues of inequality, affordable housing, and social justice resonate with myself, and so many of our citizens — can and will continue."
Robertson has not said how quickly he will move to get rid of the encampment.
City manager Penny Ballem said Sunday that city lawyers are looking for ways to shut down the encampment, including using fire bylaws and the city's Trespassing Act, but she would not commit to a time frame.
The protesters say it won't be easy.
"No, we will not agree to go peacefully, shut down," said a protest organizer identified only as Kiki. "As we said in our press statement … we will be here and you can expect us."
'Disgusting political opportunism'
Protesters challenged the mayor as he spoke with media at the site on Saturday, saying he should do more to help the homeless and those struggling with drug addiction.
Demonstrators such as Sasha Wiley argue the death is just one of many that happen across the city everyday.
"That [Robertson] would try and use this as an excuse to end a legitimate, peaceful assembly where people are using their constitutional rights and freedom of expression to demand systemic change to prevent problems like this is frankly kind of disgusting political opportunism," Wiley said.
Police have said they would prefer the city get a court injunction against the protesters before they're asked to clear the site in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. But Const. Jana McGuinness said police will be prepared to move in regardless.
"When we do that, it will come with obviously lots of discussion, and that discussion will include people that are down here at the protest site," she said. "We're hoping for co-operation should that time come, and when it does come, we want it to go smoothly. We don't want to see anybody get injured."
'A real tragedy'
A vigil was erected at the southeast corner of the art gallery in Gough's honour.
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"It's a real tragedy. This woman has died very suddenly. She was found by people who cared about her, from what I understand, and it's just a tragedy all around," McGuinness said.
By Sunday afternoon, tributes were pouring in from friends and family on Gough's Facebook wall.
"A new star is born in the sky above," wrote Benoit Hallis. "RIP, sister, and keep shining on us. Let the memories of your smile and love for all of us be the strength that will overcome our sorrowful hearts."
Darleen Prebble, who identified herself as Gough's mother, wrote: "I have just lost my baby girl. We must not judge a book by its cover because if we did, we wouldn't have really known my daughter."