My Interview with Occupy Vancouver protester & supporter Lauren Gill

Posted: November 28, 2011 in Uncategorized

After 5 weeks of camping out at the Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, Occupy Vancouver took down their tents and ended their encampment exactly one week ago. On Friday November 25th I visited a peaceful Occupy Vancouver protest outside Telus Science World where Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper opened Science World’s $35-million “regeneration upgrade project. While avoiding Prime Minister Harper’s reckless motorcade I was able to sit down and talk to Lauren Gill, a strong support and protester with the Occupy Vancouver movement. Here’s what she had to say.

Hi Lauren how’s it going?

Lauren Gill: Good, pretty good.
 
What does the Occupy Vancouver Protest and movement mean to you?
 
Lauren Gill: I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. I think that when I first heard about Occupy Wall Street and saw the amount of people that were willing to stand up against governments, bank bailouts, and capitalism but just the amount of people that were willing to mobilize and dedicate that much energy into social justice. It’s something that in my life time I’ve never seen before. I’ve heard about it in the peace movement from my parents generation, but in terms of my generation the only activism that I’ve ever been involved with and really seen at least in North America was in Vancouver. The housing movement, the anti-war movement but nothing to this extent or this scale. It was really inspiring to watch the occupy movement start and especially from a Vancouver based magazine which is something people often forget. Ad busters were the first people that put the call out for Occupy Wall Street. Thousands and thousands of people mobilized and it just spread like wildfire. As someone who’s been involved with direct action front of the housing movement it was really really… inspiring to see this many people who are willing to put their legal status on the line or take that extra step in terms of protesting. I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been pretty difficult and frustrating at times but overall I’ve loved the movement. It’s been a beautiful experience for me.
 
What are the top 3 demands or goals of Occupy Vancouver?
 
Lauren Gill: I think that the top 3… it would only be my opinion. I know lots of people with lots of different opinions. I think real estate speculation is Vancouver’s Wall Street personally so affordable housing, the housing crisis that’s going on in Vancouver. I would say below that is general poverty. Canada is the only G8 without a national social housing program. We have the highest child poverty rate for the 7th or 8th year in a row. I think that the gap between the 1% and the 99% and the growing disparity in wealth has been a huge focus. I would say thirdly the bank bailouts have been a pretty big focus because most people don’t understand Canada also had bank bailouts. I’m not sure what the figures are but it was quite a lot of money. It wasn’t to the extent of Wall Street but it was definitely a lot of money; money that could have gone towards education, housing, treatment centres.
 
When did you join the Occupy Vancouver Protest?
 
Lauren Gill: I was at the first organizing meeting. When we first joined there was a group of us kind of before October 15th. There was a group of us who’ve been organizing in Vancouver for years and there was a lot of new people, new faces that had come up. To be honest I was a little bit hesitant not knowing who the people were and what their politics were and whether or not I wanted to organize with them. There was a group of us who have been organizing in the city that had met even before that to discuss what is our place in this movement. I know for myself I kind of went in with my back up and I wasn’t sure what exactly was going to take place… but that first meeting that we went to there were 250 people at W2 just to organize the occupation. As someone who’s been involved with a number of occupations we’ve never seen numbers like that. We’ve had maybe 5 or 10 people who are organizing. There are still great successful actions like the tent village during the Olympics and the South Fraser perimeter road block aid… but none of them have lasted this long and have  had this many people that are willing to stay in it and continue to dedicate their time and volunteer their time to organize for it’s been like 5 weeks now.
How often have you slept at Occupy Vancouver?
 
Lauren Gill: In the beginning stages I slept there every night. Near the end of the election I was exhausted and really sick so we ended up staying at home for the most part but I’ve been down on site everyday.  
 
Are you employed and do you have a roof over your head?
 
Lauren Gill: I am. I work for the government in complex mental health and addictions. I actually have 3 jobs and I do have a roof over my head although that wasn’t always the case. When I was a youth I was homeless and in and out of safe houses and shelters so I do have experience living on the street but I currently have the privilege of having a job and a roof over my head and relatively good health.   
 
That’s really a big misconception that the public thinks about Occupy Vancouver’s protesters. What do you think?
 
I would say that I think that misconception is when people say ohhhh it’s just a bunch of homeless people. Well I think it’s fantastic that homeless people are organizing. Those are the people that are most affected by the issues. Aboriginal Women, people who are homeless, people who have mental health addictions. I know there’s been a lot of  criticism around the drug use down there but those are people that are very marginalized and it’s so inspiring to see those people organizing to make the conditions of their own lives better.
 
Do you think it’s alright for protesters to occupy the Vancouver Art Gallery thus not allowing the public to use the out-door space?
 
Lauren Gill: I think that if that were the case, if we weren’t allowing the public to use it, then no. But that community that we created down there was one of the most welcoming communities that I’ve ever seen. If you look at it now there’s nobody hanging out there. Nobody’s walking through. There’s the same old people who sit on the steps smoking  pot. It’s not like there was a community there that was really displaced. It was more of a community that was built on and created down there. We had a food tent, a medical tent, and a housing system. We created all this and people came in as a result of it. We had over 100 visits  to the medical tent everyday. We handed out over 300 meals a day to people so I think we actually increased the public’s use of that space.   
 
Do you think violence would have occurred if Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson let Vancouver Police come in earlier to break up Occupy Vancouver?
 
Lauren Gill: I know that Occupy Vancouver came to consensus that it was a non-violent movement that people didn’t intend to assault the police. That wouldn’t have been helpful in any way. Having said that, you can’t really control the actions of the police and I know that what we’ve seen across the United States and in parts of Canada is that the police have gone in really heavy handily. There was a death of someone recently from pepper spray in Wall Street.
 
How long would you and your fellow protesters have remained at the Vancouver Art Gallery and Law Courts if the injunctions weren’t issued?
 
Lauren Gill: I’m not too sure. People are volunteering their time. I’ve personally dropped out of school to do this and I know there are a lot of other people who’ve dropped out of school or they’ve cut down on their work hours. It’s exhausting. People get really burnt out and I was surprised it lasted that long but people seem really dedicated. I personally would have liked to have seen more of a roaming tent city but that didn’t happen; and the other thing is, just because we were displaced from the Art Gallery, we did move to the court-house and to Grandview Park; and I know there are plans to take other spaces, so I’m not too sure how long it would have lasted there. 
 
The Falun Gong protest on Granville St. has to be taken down and setup each day.  Could Occupy Vancouver have done that?
 
Lauren Gill: Totally!! I think some people probably would have been in favour of that, but I believe that the tents were integral to the movement 24 hours. Not only because they’re homeless people that were actually sleeping in them but also because it’s no longer occupation. Occupations don’t take place from 9 to 5. To have the government tell you can only protest during  certain hours and that you only have rights during certain hours is outrageous. I just think people didn’t want to conform to that… although we did pack up and go, we moved to another location. The fact that it bothered people is essential. If it didn’t bother anybody we wouldn’t get any attention about the issues. I’m not opposed to it. There was a statement saying sorry if we’ve inconvenienced you we’re just trying to change the world. That’s something people have been saying across the occupy movements and I think it’s really important to inconvenience people because people are being inconvenienced all the time. In terms of the tents, for me, one of the many reasons that I was down there was because Vancouver has bylaws that make it illegal for someone to erect a tent even if the shelters are full like this year. The province refuses to fund the shelters. There’s not enough affordable housing for people. People should be able to at least provide shelter for themselves and they can’t. They’re criminalized as a result of it. For me, I was really there as opposition to that bylaw in the first place.
 
Where will the Occupy Vancouver Protest and tent encampment show up next? I’ve heard Stanley Park and Granville Island.
 
Lauren Gill: I’m not too sure. I know that there is an occupation happening on the 29th. It’s not Occupy Vancouver but it is in solidarity with the occupy movement. It’s happening in the downtown eastside. It’s called Occupy Pantages Occupy the hood. I know that there are other occupations that are going to be taking place next week.
 
Does that mean the tent encampment is done? Are we not going to see anymore tents popping up somewhere?
 
Lauren Gill: I think you will. I’ve actually stepped away the last two days, away from organizing, so I’m not 100% sure what the plans are. But I know that there’s probably a small group of people. What we’ve kind of done, at least during the court move, is we had a small group of people that we relied on to make a decision and we all just had blind faith in them that it would be a good location. I think that there’s probably a group of people that are planning something currently but I’m not 100% sure. Like people say, you can evict a tent city but you can’t evict an idea. People are still willing to come up with more ideas in terms of tent cities. The injunction only applies to the Art Gallery and to the Law Courts and they didn’t do the overall blanket injunction which they wanted. I’m happy that they didn’t. As someone who’s involved with the occupations, I feel terrified. I thought ohhhh this is going to set precedent for the organizing in Vancouver in terms of tent cities. I’m really glad that didn’t go through.
 
If you keep at it though, you might just get that blanket injunction.
 
Lauren Gill: Yah your right. But I think we also need to be aware that there are occupations that are happening every day and tent encampments that are happening every day. The homeless person that’s sleeping under the Georgia Viaduct, whether or not he knows it, is making a political statement. Ann Livingston of VANDU (Vancouver Area of Network Drug Users) brought up this point about an occupation taking place at the Northwest corner of Main and Hastings. There’s a lot of Aboriginal people that stand at that corner and those who are consistently trying to displace them from that corner and they refused to leave. I think there are still occupations and, although that might not be a political statement, it is in a sense. I think their occupations there are happening all the time.
 
There have been a few controversies at Occupy Vancouver. Have you seen any illegal drugs or illegal drug use at the Occupy Vancouver encampments?
 
Lauren Gill: I’m not going to lie. I’ve seen illegal drug use down there. I’m personally anti-prohibition so I don’t think it should be illegal in the first place, just because I think the criminalization of drug users is not a solution. It’s not going to help the problem at all. I also think that Occupy Vancouver is a microcosm of greater society. We see drug use everywhere and I know with Ashlie’s death it shook a lot of people up on the site and it was also an excuse for politicians to use to shut down the site. We saw last year alone 125 confirmed overdose deaths in Vancouver, so this happens. I work in mental health and addictions and I know that this is not something that’s an anomaly; it happens all the time. For me, it really grounded me and the reasons why I need to be there. We need to look at the systemic reasons as to why people are using drugs in the first place. There was a lot of people who were trying to push prohibition on site saying you know we shouldn’t have any drugs on site and I think that’s a really dangerous stance to take because you’re going to further marginalize the most marginalized people in our movement and push them into the alleys and push them into clubs where they’ll overdose alone. We saw a man that overdosed on site and a medic that I know  saved his life just a couple of days earlier and that was never reported. There was no coverage of that man’s life being saved and I know that Ashlie’s family doesn’t want to put focus on it.
 
Did you know Ashlie Gough. What kind of person was she?
 
Lauren Gill: I can’t really comment on Ashlie necessarily, but I know that her family did put out a statement saying that Occupy Vancouver is not aligned with her death, it had nothing to do with her death. Ashlie was just coming from the Island to visit for a day and it just happened to happen there. They were quite upset with the politicians using it to politically grandstand as well.
 
How did you win the last candidate standing election and the right to run for a Vancouver City Council seat?
 
Lauren Gill: Yah I don’t know how I won the last candidate standing. It was pretty surprising to be honest with you. I think that a lot of people with the corporate media, the government, and people who hold a lot of power in our city and a lot of influence are opposed to Occupy Vancouver but the people in Occupy Vancouver and the people in the city, those who were attending last candidate standing they were extraordinarily supportive and you saw that in terms of how they voted there. I think everyone who was there was fantastic. I don’t necessarily know why I won but it was pretty amazing. It was really honouring. I never really thought I would run for city council and like I said I was homeless 5 years ago and drug addicted 5 years ago. To be clean and to be in a position where I can run for city council, let alone win, it was huge!! I totally cried when it happened and it was such an honouring experience.

You had 4,682 votes but didn’t win. If you had won a Vancouver City Council seat, what changes and ideas would you have brought?
 
Lauren Gill: There are a lot of things. As a city councillor and as an independent I don’t know how much power I would have had in City Hall but I think that it’s really important for the municipal government to have a strong political backbone in terms of standing up to the provincial government. Some things like the 224 units at Little Mountain that were demolished. The city didn’t have to sign that demolition permit. They could have put more pressure on the province to keep those homes open and they didn’t. The heat shelters for example, the province has refused to fund the shelters this year and it’s the City’s responsibility to bring light to the crisis that we’re facing in Vancouver and not to say that’s okay you know our people will suffer this winter. I mean, No, that’s absolutely unacceptable. The other thing is we have a 1.2 billion dollar property endowment fund and the last time we tapped into was to pick up on the over-spending of the security budget of the Olympics. That’s land that could be donated to non-profit agencies that could get core funding to build housing on those sites. There are many different things. I would have cut the STIR program (Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing) that developers are getting incentives to develop and in turn our city’s just becoming more and more unaffordable.
 
You have a lot of great ideas. Do you have plans to run for any more political positions in Metro Vancouver?
 
Lauren Gill: I would definitely. I would never run outside of Vancouver. Civic politics is where my heart’s at. I don’t know if I’m going to run again in 3 years.  I know that a lot of people are encouraging me to do so. What I really truly believe is that our strength lies in the streets. In terms of the successes that we’ve seen around direct actions in Vancouver, we’ve gotten Woodward out of it; even though I think that’s kind of lynchpin of gentrification, it’s still affordable housing that was a result of people occupying the building. We’ve gotten over 100 people housed throughout the tent cities that we’ve done. We’ve gotten the Vancouver Police Department to refuse to implement the assistance to shelter act. We’ve seen huge changes just through community organizing. If change is what we want I really feel that my strength lies in the street in organizing in my community. Having said that I think that it would be an amazing opportunity to learn how the government works on the inside and see if I can make a difference from the inside. I do currently work in the government. I haven’t had an opportunity to change much policy within there. I could see how if we had the right people in power a lot could be changed.

What are your thoughts on Vancouver voters re-electing Mayor Gregor Robertson?

Lauren Gill: That’s a good question. At one point I almost would have prefered to have had Suzanne Anton in because at least Suzanne Anton is transparent in what they’re doing. People are under the guise that Vision Vancouver is a left party and they’re not. They’re a developer party and so is the NPA (Non-Partisan Association) don’t get me wrong but Vision Vancouver’s implemented more of the NPA’s conservative policies than the NPA’s ever implemented. They’re doing things like building bike lanes, green washing, chicken coops, and token amounts of housing to people. One thing that I’ve noticed because I’ve been on the inside following them so closely is that ya they built those fourteen sites that the province bought to work with the city to develop those aren’t even finished and the same time that they were doing that they were demolishing 224 units of family sized housing. They were selling off public land and they were giving incentives to developer that were increasing the rates so it’s kind of a backwards approach and it’s this guise that they’re actually doing something and I think in terms of the bike lanes and all that Gregor has done for the health of our city if they truly wanted to improve the overall health of our city and I’m not opposed to bike lanes but they wouldn’t be building bike lanes they would be building houses for people. I think that it’s really sad to see so many progressive people backing Vision because they’ve lied to us time and time and time again. I would have loved to have seen Randy Helten get in. He’s got amazing politics and his team has grassroots organizers and they’re really dedicated to the issues and they talk to the people. To see Ellen Woodsworth lose her seat was heartbreaking because she’s such a huge support for us. Politician for the people is an interesting concept but if anyone is that it’s Ellen. She’s never gone against her word, she’s always stood behind us, she’s always consulted with the community, and it’s a really big loss for Vancouver.

What do you hope Mayor Gregor Robertson improves on in his next 3 years as Mayor?

Lauren Gill: I’d like to see them re-open the homes at Little Mountain. I would like to see them have more of a backbone with the province in terms of asking for funding around shelter. I’d like to see them purchase ten sites every year for affordable housing. Cancel the STIR program and be honest!! Be honest about… we’ll see it come out in a probably a month from now but in terms of the funding that they receive. Ya we’ll find out but they should have disclosed that funding beforehand so the people really knew whose line they were towing and that it’s the developers line that they were towing.

What else would you like to add?       

Lauren Gill: I just think it’s really important for people to know the success that grassroots community organizing has and as someone who works in social services none of us would have our jobs if it weren’t for people who were willing to dedicate their time to community organizing and put their legal status on the line. Insite; it’s this really interesting concept where when the occupations taking place people are not in support but once you see results from that occupation not only do we see support like at Woodwards but we see organizations like Goldcorp, London Drugs, and Nesters co-opting and joining in on that and benefitting off of it as well. I think that Insite’s a perfect example. Someone just didn’t write a grant proposal and they had Insite come up. Drug users and allies fought for years and years and years and when their voices weren’t heard they just opened up a safe injection site and a legal safe injection site and eventually with enough support from people it was approved and open. People forget our history that we wouldn’t have a lot of our services today if it weren’t for people like Occupy Vancouver putting their legal status on the line and continuing to fight for a better world for us and for our kids.

It’s been terrific talking with you today. Thank You very much for your time. Best of luck in the future with all your endeavours.

Lauren Gill: Thank You.

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