Occupy Turns Sinister

In Vancouver, where the Occupy movement began, a young homeless woman is dead of a suspected heroin overdose, the camp has become an unsanitary eyesore strewn with refuse and drug paraphernalia—and the mayor says he’s shutting the protest down.

11.07.11 3:46 AM ET

With the death of a young woman from an apparent heroin overdose in Occupy Vancouver’s tarpaulin-covered encampment, some in the city where the movement began are wondering whether what began as something idealistic has turned into something dangerous and dark.

Even former supporters have begun to sour on the Occupy demonstrations. “Those who agreed with part of your protest got the message the 1st day,” tweeted Clay St. Thomas, a local actor and radio host. “Since, you’ve alienated and antagonized. Pack it up.”

The mood in Vancouver, whose Adbusters magazine inspired to the Occupy movement, has shifted dramatically since the death on Saturday of Ashlie Gough. Protesters who knew the 23-year-old, who was from Victoria, on nearby Vancouver Island, confirmed she was homeless.

Gough’s death followed a non-fatal heroin overdose by an American man at the protest site on Thursday and began a political firestorm in a city known for its tolerance and liberal politics. Bidding for re-election this month, Mayor Gregor Robertson is now vowing to close down the encampment, near the city’s main art museum.

“I think the protest on the really important issues that many of us are passionate about is being undermined by a tent camp and the issues around the right to camp on public space, which is really unfortunate,” Robertson told reporters. “It’s not a question of when the tents leave the site, it’s a question of how. We’ll look at the next steps to enforce health and safety on-site and make sure bylaws are followed.”

In Victoria, another calm and beautiful Canadian city, local officials have run out of patience, cutting off protesters’ access to power and water. A Capital Regional District spokesman said protesters did not have permission to use the power outlet.

Victoria police spokesman Constable Mike Russell said the “demographic of that camp” has changed over the past couple of weeks. “We’re certainly seeing a lot of people that we’re very familiar with down there using it as an excuse to party.”

For many in Vancouver and Victoria, the shadowy side of the protests is a deep disappointment. An anti-capitalist poster produced by Adbusters in July, featuring a ballerina standing on top of the bronze bull of Wall Street, surrounded by protesters, kicked off a movement with few clear demands but the potential to inspire people all over the United States and beyond.

At the Vancouver Art Gallery, the protests became one of the city’s tourist attractions. Tents, kitchens, and barricades emerged just as the late summer days were turning cooler. Organized rallies started off with participants from various backgrounds—unions, small business owners, students—and most of them lived nearby.

After a day or two of camping out, many felt like they had made their point and went back to their lives, back to work, back to their families. One of the messages in Vancouver was the urgency of voting in the upcoming civic election.

“There’s nothing neat and tidy about disenfranchised young people trying to find their voice,” said local radio host Ian Power, who works near the gallery and walks past the site nearly every day. “It’s not a question whether I agree or disagree with the Occupy movement, rather that the right to public demonstration is preserved. Let their voices be heard so that we can engage all who will listen in meaningful dialogue. Let’s demonstrate by example a better way to effect change within our community. Perhaps that’s a challenge too big for our all too short attention span? Remember to vote. It’s a good place to start.”

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But before long the permanent residents of the tent city started to resemble a troubled and well-known part of Vancouver’s population: the homeless people who live largely in the downtown east side, a few blocks away from the gallery. Vancouver has long had one of the most serious heroin addiction problems of any North American city. Dozens of homeless residents took over Occupy Vancouver within the first week. They had access to water, protected living space, food—and, it seems, drugs.

As the weather, scene, and crowd quickly changed, local fire officials starting taking note and cracking down on the protesters. The first orders came from the fire chief to take down the tarps, which were trapping “deadly smoke.”

The camp now is now an unsanitary eyesore, strewn with garbage, drug paraphernalia, and rats looking for leftovers.

“Has #OccupyVancouver’s time run out?” tweeted Karm Sumal, editor of Vancity Buzz. “Seems like many at #VAG [the Vancouver Art Gallery] have forgotten what they were protesting about.”