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Occupy City Hall

November 10, 2011

Wednesday afternoon was very interesting.  You can get a sense of what happened from these news outlets: Leader PostCBC and CJME

Of the three above, I can only credit CBC with being on site from noon until the final protesters left City Hall at 4:50pm. 

The noon-hour protest (see here) was never meant to extend into the building.  The group, however, found its way inside.   There were some tense minutes that ended in a long, uncomfortable, wait for the end of the working day.

  

The rally outside began a little after noon, with about 60 people and media gathered around the bust of Gandhi on Queen Elizabeth II plaza.  Various speakers came forward but among the different voices there were three clear demands to the City:

1.  To return the port-a-potty city officials had taken from the park.

2.  To return power to the park.

3.  To allow the occupiers to remain in the park.

The occupiers cite the United Nations General Assembly vote to affirm the right to safe, clean drinking water and sanitation as a basic human right as a fundamental reason to allow their port-a-potty (99percent).  The other document that the occupiers use to affirm their camp is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, specifically the right to peacefully assemble.

There were many copies of the Charter being handed out during the rally and one, marked in Red, declared the Charter the groups’ ‘camping permit.’ It was this copy of the Charter that lead people into City Hall. 

While the speeches continued outside, a small group met with Bylaw Enforcement head Dwayne Flaman to talk about the demands. 

The occupiers returned from the brief meeting and related that Mr. Flaman reiterated the City’s concern for the health and safety of campers (raising the question why sanitation was removed if their concern is health and safety) and if the group wishes to have a port-a-potty they must file a permit. 

The problem occupiers have with the permit  issue is that three weeks ago, members of the organizing committee met with the city to discuss obtaining proper permits.  According to the occupiers, they were informed permits filed would be rejected, but, in order to allow the protest, the city would not enforce the bylaw as long as the camp was orderly. 

With little prospect of doing more than following the permit process, people began to step away from the rally as the noon-hour was coming to a close. 

Here comes the Charter

Some suggested the group present the Charter to mayor Fiacco inside and the crowd agreed.  Once assembled inside, around 12:45pm, the crowd, now about 40 people was met by commissionaires, private security and 7-8 police officers who hovered around the entrance ways to the interior of the building, most particularly the bank of elevators.  No one was going up to see the mayor.  Soon, senior managers from City Administration were on hand to speak with the protesters.  It was made clear that the mayor was not available and showing up on mass is not how things are done, one must make an appointment.  

This seems like a fair enough point. The mayor could have thrown the occupiers a line, come down and accepted the document in person, but of course that involves the relinquishment of power and giving-in to the impudent masses.  I can see how that’s on precedent the mayor and his staff would not want to set.   

Interestingly enough, while the highest ranking members of City Administration dealt with people looking to speak to their elected officials, Councillor Clipsham made a brief appearance.  It seemed he was in the building and happened,unwittingly, onto the scene.  Unlike at Design Regina’s open house, he did not take twenty minutes to talk to the assembled about participatory democracy.  It was unfortunate that the longest-serving councillor and ward rep for Victoria Park declined to speak or even mediate.

The administrators agreed to present the mayor with the Charter and asked spokes people to come forward and give their contact information.  One by one, most protesters stepped forward and placed their names on the Charter. 

 

During the signing, a rather novel event happened, children from the Prairie Sky School came by City Hall to deliver cookies to the occupiers.   A little after they entered, people were finished signing the document and the senior staff members told the protestors City Hall was a place of business they were causing a disturbance and so they should leave. 

Some people did leave but others questioned how their presence was not conducting business with the city?  Isn’t City Hall a public space?  A chant rose for about a minute as the arguments flew; “the whole world is watching.”  The room was escalating to something.  The administrators backed away and the tension ebbed.  It was clear that mayor would not come down today, it was also clear many protesters felt they should not and would not be kicked out of a building with a bust of Gandhi in front of it.  By 1:10pm the wait began.

More than half-an-hour later,City Manager Glenn Davies had arrived, leading a group of staffers huddled towards the service desks to the East of the room.  Meanwhile, the occupiers grouped to the West of the entrance, consciously trying not to disturb people coming and going.  The occupiers, pizza in hand (delivered to City Hall from an anonymous order), gathered together around some tables.

Finally, at 1:45, the City Manager spoke to the group, reaffirming that the corporation was conducting business and that the noise/disturbance was disruptive.  He suggested that in the spirit of co-operation, the group could move out into the entrance way/lobby, just inside the front doors, and continue there. 

I thought that was reasonable, as did others,  however, some campers felt the City really hadn’t been very co-operative.  They felt staying inside the business area was the best way to be heard.  One fellow suggested a deal: if the city gave the port-a-potty and power, the protesters would leave.  Mr. Davies was clear he would not be negotiating.   Some occupiers left, but many stayed.

Those who had left were gathering at the Cooper Kettle to plan next steps.  Around 2:20pm, I left City Hall to see what the others were discussing at the Scarth Street restaurant. 

It was clear that two groups had formed on the issue of occupying City Hall.  Those who had left, felt that their impromptu protest was successful: the occupiers had sent a message to the mayor, avoided physical conflict and left the administration on their terms.  Those who stayed, were adamant that they should not have to leave City Hall in principle, and that waiting until the 4:45pm closing time for the mayor was the only way to show their resolve. 

Perhaps it’s not clear from the above but at this point, two hours into the occupation, the atmosphere in City Hall was such that there was a tangible threat of arrest at anytime.  Administration clearly wanted to avoid conflict, but one felt that all it would take would be a word and the occupiers would be physically removed.

I started to wonder if making the point that City Hall was public space really was worth arrest?  Was this cause the core reason of  Occupy Regina? 

This concern lead to a meeting, at 3pm, in the City Hall lobby, where both arguments were posed.  A group of about 8 decided to remain inside, the others left. 

Soon after, with just half-a-dozen or so inside, occupiers claimed Mr. Davies once again addressed those remaining, saying they could stay until close but after today, any similar occupations would be met with removal.  This lead those remaining to threaten not only coming back, but perhaps staying beyond 4:45 that evening. 

In the end, after spending time back at Copper Kettle, then actually in the occupy camp in Victoria Park (university students/community brought heaters in the late afternoon) I went back to City Hall to witness the day’s end. 

By 4:50 a commissionaire told the group they must leave and they complied, ending occupy City Hall.

Today felt like the last maneuvers in an almost month-old dance between Occupy Regina and the City.  Clearly other cities are starting to crack down.  Even the much-loved Mr. Nenshi is getting tough, with Calgary council voting away tents rather than protesters (CBC).  I’ve read comments to this effect: ‘why do they have to sleep in the park?’ ‘Since when is sleeping a protest?’

Well, I’d say organizing a small community with the City’s ‘public square’ for three weeks is a critique of the way the city and western society is functioning.  Occupy is different in that it creates a new place, rather than makes use of a space.  We saw today, that public spaces aren’t as numerous as we think.  City Hall is a place of business rather than the agora of democratic exchange.  I think that was news to some people. 

Occupy is a challenge to the social contract in this city, a polite affront to the rules we all agree to as citizens of this City.  In its way, the camp forces people to think about that social contract; the position of those who benefit the most and the least from our shared system.    

It’s understandable for the city to be wary too, since this is a challenge to its control.  So far, I’d describe the City’s position as one of benign neglect: they don’t want to stop protests, but they’ve done everything possible to misdirect and drain the group without actively being against it.  It’s benign because they’ve always had bylaws to enforce against it, had they wanted to stop it dead. 

I think that attitude is changing.  Yesterday’s attempt to shame or embarrass the mayor Fiacco will result in retribution not in some meeting of equals.  In my experience, our municipally elected officials don’t take criticism well.  I cannot imagine people taking direct action against City Hall wont go unpunished.        

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