#OccupyVancouver: Ashlie Gough and the Right to the Future

Ashlie Gough, only 23 years old, passed away November 5th 2011 during a weekend visit to Vancouver from Victoria. Ashlie passed before her time, and there is nothing more upsetting, more infuriating, than people passing before their time. This lost future has registered public attention because the overdose occurred at a political protest camp — Occupy Vancouver. In some ways, this tragedy was a chance accident in a unique situation. But it is also true that overdoses are far more common in Vancouver than anyone would hope, and than many would prefer to acknowledge.

During the 1990s, the number of lethal overdoses in Vancouver skyrocketed, with hundreds dying every year. Hep C and HIV reached epidemic levels in the injection drug-user (IDU) community, and people across the city feared that the epidemic would spread. In 1997 the Vancouver-Richmond Health Board called a state-of-emergency. The emergency situation was felt most strongly by those in the Downtown Eastside, who saw their friends and family passing away at an alarming rate. In 1997, community organizers filled Oppenheimer Park with 1000 wooden crosses, each representing a preventable overdose death. Over the next three years, another thousand lives were lost, so in the year 2000 the community planted 2000 crosses.

These thousands of lost futures traumatized the community, but also galvanized the community into action. The time of waiting for government to act was over — it was time to take pro-active measures. Organizers began experimenting with illegal needle-exchanges and safe-infection sites in the Downtown Eastside. An epic political battle erupted between proponents of harm-reduction on the one hand, and business improvement associations on the other — depicted vividly in Nettie Wild’s film Fix: Story of an Addicted City. Eventually, public opinion shifted in favour of harm-reduction, and both Mayor Larry Campbell and even Premier Gordon Campbell came to support Insite as an institution.

Preventable lethal overdoses were not the only lost futures. Women and young women were murdered and went missing from the Downtown Eastside every year, but authorities showed almost not concern, despite an endless stream of evidence and first-hand reports. This struggle is ongoing. One year ago, on September 15 2011, 22 year-old Ashley Machisknic fell to her death from the window of the Regent Hotel. Community members believed Ashley had been murdered, and held an overnight occupation of the police station demanding an investigation. As a result, a hotline was established to report violence against women. Just this past Sept 17 2011, on the eve of the annual DTES Women’s Housing March, Verna Simard fell from her 6th storey apartment, again at the Regent Hotel. March organizers dedicated the day to Vera, another life lost before its time. To this day, Occupy Vancouver is standing in solidarity with those protesting the sham Missing and Murdered Women Inquiry at 701 West Georgia Georgia.

Life-expectancy in the Downtown Eastside is well below the rest of the city, and it is well understood by everyone in the community that these tragedies are the result of systemic violence — legislated poverty, lack of appropriate and affordable housing, ongoing colonization, daily exploitation of women, and criminalization of addiction. These are the “hidden tensions” that underlie our society, and which cause so much inequality and injustice.

Once each year, on November 11th, Canadian society mourns those lost in the World Wars. But in the Downtown Eastside, the community mourns those lost every day in the “war on the poor.” Each month, at the close of Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council general meetings, the members, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, form a large circle, hold hands, and, led by an elder, take a moment of silence to honour community members who have died in the struggle for equality and justice, who have passed before their time. People quietly call-out or whisper the names of community members who have passed in the struggle. Finally, all raise their arms together, saying in unison, in solidarity: “all my relations.”

The poor of the Downtown Eastside do the work of mourning on behalf the whole city. This mourning cultivates an insatiable desire for equality and justice, a commitment to end once-and-for-all the “negative peace,” to quote Martin Luther King Jr., in which young lives are lost without reaction from society-at-large. The only way to end the negative peace is to shine a spotlight on its negativity, to break the conspiracy of silence around injustice, to “bring it to the surface.”

When the larger society is in denial, sometimes advocates must engage in non-violent direct action. For example, in Vancouver we have a crisis of housing affordability, which creates homelessness. People are forced to sleep on the streets, but the state, embarrassed at its failure to solve the crisis, has recently passed laws banning tenting in public spaces — to ensure that homelessness remains hidden from public view. This bylaw is unjust, and the only moral thing to do is to break it by pitching tents. At that point, the powers-that-be inevitably blame those engaging in direct action for disturbing the peace. But the peace is an “obnoxious negative peace,” and those pitching tents are the messengers —  beating and evicting them is reactionary. As Martin Luther King Jr. said:

Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

It is not the organizers of Occupy Vancouver who decided what “the issues” are, or who drew up a set of pre-determined “demands.” The issues were already there, and the protest simply opened a fissure through which the nightmare of reality bubbled through. The “tension” created by Occupy Vancouver is the tension of a city forced to deal with its problems.

In fact, the form of the Occupy movement — a physical occupation, a tent city — is arguably most appropriate in Vancouver as compared to anywhere else. Perhaps that’s why the idea for #occupy originated in Vancouver. Here, the 1% reproduce their wealth by pushing housing prices so high that the 99% cannot afford to live in our own city. Here, the most basic right to shelter is precarious. As a result, Vancouver has a long and rich history of tent cities. The form of every tent city protest always transforms the hidden reality of the housing crisis into a political crisis. It makes every isolated instance of homelessness a collective issue. Instead of overdoses occurring in an alleyway or SRO, they happen literally in the town square, in the heart of the city, like a stake right through the heart of this city. There is no question of ignoring the lost future.

The current Vancouver administration has run a tight ship focused on sweeping Vancouver’s injustices under the rug. Now the 1% are desperate to put the genie of homelessness back in the bottle. For the 1%, this year’s civic election will be about who can hide our problems most effectively, who can protect the unaffordable status quo whilst cloaking its symptoms. But we cannot let it be about that. It has to be about who will address the root causes, who will walk us down off the ledge of unaffordability, who has the courage to look the developers and their political parties in the eyes and say “you have had your chance, you have failed, your time is up.” It has to be about who has both the courage to admit that our people are dying on the street every single day, and has the courage to do something about it. The answer is that right now no parties can do that. Last night’s “Last Candidate Standing” event at UBC Robson Square proved that only grassroots organizers, not professional politicians, are capable of articulating the issues that face our city. The last three candidates standing were all Occupiers, and the victor was 22-year old Lauren Gill, who electrified the room by tackling every issue head-on with uncompromising clarity, confidence, and passion. Gill ended the event by calling for a minute of silence for her friend of 5-years, Ashlie Gough, who was the same age as Lauren. The minute lasted an eternity.

As Vancouver’s current ‘moderate’ administration strategizes to descend upon Occupy Vancouver with an army of lawyers, firefighters, and police, let us conclude with the remainder of the previous quote from Martin Luther King Jr.:

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

The Occupy Together movement, whatever one’s opinion of it, is profoundly inspired by Dr. King’s call to expand the civil rights movement to all facets of human existence, to wage non-violent revolution against the global forces of economic injustice. In Vancouver that means a thoroughgoing decolonization of society, protection of our natural resources, and a ‘right to the city’ for all. All of these things might be included under one name, which Occupy Vancouver blogger (and SFU professor of poetry) Steve Collis called the “Right to the Future.” The Occupy movement is, in large part, about the younger generation coming together to preserve the future of our societies and of our planet. Vancouver is a perfect example of a city that ignores its young. There is nowhere for us to live, there are no jobs for us, and Vancouver’s mining industries are busy destroying the planet for us. It’s time for the young people of this city to organize to wrest control from the 1%. Let us, together, establish a positive peace, where none of us shall pass before our time.