Rev. Gary Paterson called Occupy Vancouver protesters "friends." He waded into the audience to calm the most disruptive ones. He even sang, “We are gentle angry people,” to cool the tense atmosphere.
But Monday night the St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church minister couldn’t completely quiet disgruntled Occupy Vancouver protesters’ jeers and disruptions at the most raucous mayoral debate so far of the civic election.
Top mayoral contenders Mayor Gregor Robertson and Coun. Suzanne Anton debated affordable housing and homelessness at the forum organized by the group End Homelessness Now, but the focus often turned to crowd control.
Many in the packed church were frustrated they couldn’t talk or hear about the issues after protesters hijacked the event.
The protesters marched on the church waving placards hours after the city served notice to them to remove tents and structures at the Occupy Vancouver encampment at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Monday’s notice followed the sudden death of 23-year-old camper Ashlie Gough on the weekend. A hearing on an injunction to remove the structures was set for Tuesday after the Courier’s deadline.
Paterson, whose partner is Vision Coun. Tim Stevenson, was patient with the protesters while trying to maintain order. Disruptions included periodic “mic checks” where a protester would yell a question or comment that was repeated by other protesters, as well as taunts such as “Why should we believe you?,” “Lies” and “Tell the truth” directed at Robertson and Anton.
“It’s really important we hear people and wrestle with issues of homeless and affordable housing and if a church isn’t involved in that it’s missed the message of Jesus,” Paterson told a handful of reporters after the debate. “So people came with passion and concern and we try and hold the space open and together. I was concerned about people being considerate of one another... I sympathize with, I identify with, and I agree with many of the concerns and questions people of Occupy Vancouver come with. I may disagree with the style in which they try to lift these questions up, but I also respect that there is anger and hurt.”
Paterson said the debate went “OK,” although he was troubled when shouts drowned out questions and answers.
“That makes me sad because the issues were really important that they brought up…my one sad moment was when at the very back of the church at the beginning there was one of the big [protest] signs and a [protester] was on one side. He said we’re on opposite sides. I thought that’s a false dichotomy. I want to see us on the same side and to figure out a way we can talk, dialogue, push each other.”
During the debate, Anton said her campaign is about leadership and argued previous NPA-dominated councils did much of the “heavy lifting” on homelessness and affordable housing.
If elected, she promised to focus on creating permanent homes for more people.
“A [homeless] shelter is not a home… For Gregor Robertson, shelters are mission accomplished. For me it’s not. For the NPA it’s not,” she said.
Anton also said she’d cut red tape at city hall and work with provincial and federal governments to move affordable and social housing projects forward.
Robertson said he’d leverage city property to create more housing and added that that affordable housing for seniors and aboriginal people is critical. He said he backs a “24/7” women’s shelter in the Downtown Eastside, and cited the need for a rent bank.
“There are 670 fewer people on the streets than six years ago,” he added. “Our job is not finished until no person is forced to sleep outside.”
After the debate Anton, who wants Occupy Vancouver tents and structures removed, walked into a hostile audience and faced a young protester who told her, “You’re a terrible person.”
Mayor Gregor Robertson told reporters in a scrum at the back of the church most Vancouverites are concerned about issues raised by Occupy Vancouver, but the nature of those at tent city has changed since the tent city emerged in mid-October.
He wouldn’t commit to a timeline for removal of the tents and said it was “troubling” when one protester mentioned the word “riot” during public question period.
“It’s very troubling to hear about people talking about riots,” he said. “All of us are still very sensitive about what happened on June 15 and being mindful of that and dealing with the Occupy situation we do not want to see that degenerate into violence. That’s been my focus to find a peaceful resolution to it. We’ve seen it go off the rails in other cities [that have] taken a heavy-handed approach. I don’t want to see that happen in Vancouver.”