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The People United
by Mary Conquest

Many of the protesters assembled at the B.C. Legislature on February 23rd went home with hoarse voices. The sore throat I was already nursing from camping on the Legislature lawn restricted my chanting. I skipped the usual “Fill-in-the-blank has got to go! Hey hey! Ho ho!” and the ever-fashionable “Three word chant! Three word chant!” But there’s one that always gets me. Call me a romantic, but I can’t resist joining “The people, united, will never be defeated!” Sure it may take some tear gas, a martyr or two, maybe a few Bastilles, but leaders can’t go where a population won’t follow. The trick, then, is for the people to stand united. I am beginning to understand how hard this will be.

* * * * *

It is February 9, 2002 and Camp Campbell has been up for four days. It started after the student protest against the newly thawed tuition fee freeze. About ten activists set up camp, threw down stakes left over from the rally, roped them together and started to build a community. Now we have four-man commercial tents with state-of-the-art goretex flies and we have shelters built from two-by-twos and tarps. The largest structure is is a tarp tent kitchen, which doubles as a residence for overflow guests. The tables inside bear an impressive spread of donated goods - breads, cheese, chilis, coffee, juice boxes. Beside the tables, separate boxes have been labeled for garbage and recycling. There is a playful atmosphere as we discover that it’s much more fun to giggle at the state than to smash it. At the entrance to our roped enclosure, someone has driven a palm tree branch into the ground and set up the headboard of a dismantled bed, painted with the words Camp Campbell, written in a childish script over an idyllic lakeside backdrop - the perfect summer camp welcome. Beside the threshold of our space, a poster board and school desk offer pamphlets and information bulletins, explaining our little get-together on the Legislature lawn. Someone has added a sign on union posterboard urging ‘let’s vote Gordon off our island’.

The plan is to take protest rallies one step further by providing a visible 24-hour opposition to Gordon Campbell’s agenda. This agenda includes cuts to legal aid and welfare, frozen health care funding, ripped up collective agreements, tuition fee deregulation, massive job cuts to civil service in the name of smaller governement - and the largest cabinet in B.C. history.

I’ve only been here two days, and already feel the emotional connection a camp veteran warned me about. “You’ll think about it all the time when you aren’t here. You’ll scheme on how to get donations, how to improve the camp, how to make it successful. And you’ll only feel at home once you’re back on the lawn.” She’s right. I am amazed by the number of cars honking as they go past, by the donations of food and supplies that pour in. At a local kiosk, the clerk recognizes me as a protester. As I count my change, deciding between a coffee and a muffin, she stuffs a bag full of pastries, gives me a large coffee, and says, “go ahead” with a conspiratorial grin. I thank her as graciously as I can without giving her away to the customer who has just walked in.

Back at the camp, we have erected a geodesic dome. No one knows what we’ll do with it, but it boosts the group’s confidence. With a lot of patience, daily meetings are now a place where the campers, be they students, homeless people or labour activists can share ideas. After two days of meetings we’ve finally managed to get - with the help of a talking stick - one person speaking at a time. These are small victories, but they’ve kept me going.

* * * * *

A few feet from the barrel fire, I shift my weight from one foot to another, trying to relieve my aching soles. The wind feels like it has entered my skull and is biting my inner ears. I hold my scarf tight under my chin and squint up into the sun so I can see Kenny. His face is wide and flat and pock-marked, half covered in black hair. His mustache is crusty and curls around smiling lips. Long hair hangs, gnarled on one side into the beginnings of a dread lock, down the front of his army jacket. It’s early in the morning and I feel optimistic, surprised that we’re still here. Then Kenny tells me I’m a yuppie hippie. I ask him what he means.

“Dude, yer just like, yer one of the students.”


“So you guys come in here and you stir shit up, and, and when the cops come, you can just fuckin’ go home, and sleep at home. You’re here til it’s uncomfortable.” He scans my face tentatively, and continues. “Yah. Yer just like, just like a fuckin, yuppie hippie. You’re gonna go home, and we get arrested, and no one gives a shit about us. Dude, if we get the shit kicked out of us, no one’s gonna notice cause we’re a bunch of homeless people. You won’t stand up for us. You’ll go to your comfy bed, dude.” He looks around, adding a few more ‘dudes’ to punctuate the silence that follows. I stand still, staring into the sun, feeling hot water rise up to my eyes.

“Oh dude, I made you cry.” He rests his hand on my shoulder.

“No, it’s OK.” I blink away a few tears, then look up at Kenny. “Cause you’re right. I mean, I have a choice. I have a home to go to, and you don’t. I know that, and it sucks. That’s why I’m here. And it’s true - I don’t know if I’m willing to get arrested. I’ve got a lot at stake. I don’t know what good it will do. Maybe I am chicken.”

Kenny snorts dismissively, then lowers his voice. “I used to live like you do. On a big fuckin’ ranch.”

I smile, thinking he and I aren’t so different. “And I used to eat at a soup kitchen.”

“No way dude, which one?”

* * * * *

The media comes every morning and most evenings. The camp has lasted over the weekend, and most of us expect it to be cleared before Tuesday’s throne speech. We wait and field questions from TV news anchors, print reporters and CBC radio. When the Times Colonist arrives, most of us are still asleep or eating porridge. I take the interview, somewhat reluctantly. The reporter shivers whenever the ocean breeze off the Inner Harbour seeps through her ice-blue track suit. I’m dressed in five cotton layers, oblivious to the chill.

She begins with typical questions. Why are we here? What do we want? When will we leave? Then the line of questioning turns towards who ‘we’ are. Are you just students and homeless people? Are you the same people from Spiral Island? -- a squat for homeless people that was shut down because the building was deemed unsafe. Do you have problems with drugs or alcohol? Is there tension between the students and the homeless? Are there any people here who are mentally ill?

I recognize her line of questioning - divide and dismiss. When we are presented to the public, broken into constituencies, we are much easier to shrug off. Students are perceived as naïve and idealist, excited about changing the world but frankly misled, and poor people, well - they’re always complaining about something. I feel goaded, and I’m offended. She came to write a story about a group of homeless drifters and a few idealist students who really don’t know why they’re here. I steer each question around to the reasons for this protest. The manipulation of question and answer comes easily; I surprise myself. As my lips move, my mind wonders if creative responses are all it takes to be a politician. I’m not completely honest. I withhold the tensions that are starting to split the camp and tire the campers. I tell myself that she has an agenda, and I have one too. As much as possible, I use the media to the activist’s advantage.

When she leaves I predict her story will be slanted, not in our favour. I’m pleased that I haven’t given her any quotes that will help dismiss us as voiceless stereotypes in the public eye. The front page of next day’s Times Colonist describes a scene of ratty tarps and cardboard flooring, a student protest taken over by the homeless and their dogs.

* * * * *

On the lawn, I watch campers take on roles. Some cook or clean, some facilitate meetings, some challenge each decision, some take care of everyone else. Like most, I play many roles, some of which I choose, many of which I don’t. I am a protester, a student, a woman, a person with a home, a strategist, a media watch-dog, a councillor, a cynic, and a defender. My identity transforms with each action and interaction, usually depending on the eye of the beholder. Sometimes - like when I was given free food at the kiosk because I was seen as a protester - this is to my advantage. Most of the time it’s not. These identity shifts happen everywhere, but I notice them more here, stripped of the rules of conduct that usually govern my life. I overhear sexist and homophobic jokes, and struggle with the urge to confront the tellers, at the risk of sounding overly-sensitive or preachy. I’m constantly aware that my status in the group will change the second someone decides I’m too uptight. In the classroom, on the job, or with my friends, certain words and actions are unacceptable. Here, every rule is tested.

* * * * *

On Valentine’s Day, I take the bus straight from class to the Inner Harbour, and walk to the camp. I slept at home last night. My sore throat and cold have developped into a nasty ear infection. Forgetting my puritan commitment to roughing it, I succumbed to the lure of flannel sheets and central heating. The dome is newly covered by a blue tarp. I enter it, looking for friends. I see some familiar faces, but mostly it’s a different crowd. They all look about fifteen years old. The number of new arrivals is enouraging, until I see what they’re doing. Hunched in a circle, they have an overturned tin lid into which they’re cutting up pot leaves. They fill two baggies and start rolling joints. Outside the dome, tourists approach with their cameras, taking in the local colour which, at the moment, appears to be green.

Before Camp Campbell was set up, organizers asked permission to pitch tents on Songhees First Nation land. The Songhees band representatives agreed, on the condition that there be no drugs, no alcohol, and no violence. I leave the dome to find David, who has been here for a long time and knows the rules. He is crouched by the fire, holding his hands out to the warmth. He greets me with a woodsmoke-scented hug. I ask him about the dome.

“Well, they just feel that they should have the right to smoke up.”

“What about our agreement with the First Nations? They’re being disrespectful. Why don’t they cross the street and smoke up? The last thing we need is to alienate people who agree with our protest.”

“Well, then there’s the issue of the inherent immorality of banning pot.”

I look into his blue eyes and see that he is sincere. He tells me that they are digging up a garden and a compost, creating a sustainable society. My admiration for his good sense wilts. I decide there’s no point in mentioning that a camp living on donated food and borrowed time will never be sustainable. Our conversation is overpowered several times by a cheerful crowd singing sixties protest songs. With each note, sarcasm and anger rise to my brain. I save my comments about teenagers yearning for an era that was repackaged and sold to them in a commercially viable, feel-good format - an era that never happened. I save them for my friends, who I know will understand. Then I remember that I was one of those teenagers ten years ago, and my anger fades to disappointment and defeat.

This isn’t what we built, I think. I support a protest, not a bloody commune. I walk away, now playing the role of the deserter.

* * * * *

On February 23rd the Inner Harbour is packed with demonstrators. The boundary rope around the camp is gone, but the perimeter is marked by the relatively lower density of people inside the ‘campground’. Demonstrators spill into the streets all along the causeway and surrounding the Legislature, but not within the camp. From above, it must look like a bald spot on a lawn otherwise crowded with protesters holding colourful signs and styrofoam coffee cups. The division is unspoken, but clear. Chants that start within the camp are abandoned once they reach the edges. I stand in the middle of the camp area, and wonder where the unions and the rest of the students were when we set up camp. I hope they didn’t stay away for the sake of public credibility - wanting to distinguish themselves from the street community. The empty spaces around me tell me otherwise.

* * * * *

The day that the police get the order to remove the camp, I go back. I feel guilty - for leaving, for giving up, for letting go. I think I must be one wimpy revolutionary, and that I at least owe an apology to the campers I respected, then abandoned. The street community is still here. They tell me the fifteen-year-old pseudo-hippies left after a nasty windstorm. I’m quietly thankful. It’s much easier to criticize others for not uniting than to reach out to them myself. Now I don’t have to worry.

The media is back for the big day. About nine police officers stand in the camp area, looking bored and cold. Everyone waits to see what they will do. On the sidewalk, tourists and passers-by have stopped to watch. Most shake their heads at the newest addition to the camp - a circular garden, about nine feet in diameter, delineated with stones that outline the shape of a yin yang. Outsiders open debates with campers, sometimes debates so lively that police ask the visitors to leave. The protesters police themselves, aware of their precarious position, knowing that any violent outburst would be grounds for arrest. One protester has been hauled away already this morning for assaulting a CBC cameraman. When I arrive, I’m told that the cameraman refused to stop filming inside the tent after being asked three times. I’m told that the security guards were unnecessarily rough when they pinned Tom down. Everyone is grumpy; everyone is tense.

I speak with people who disagree with the camp, finding myself on the defensive again. One woman tells me to shut up. Another finishes her argument by calling my friend fat. We laugh these incidents off. But one man stays, and talks candidly about why the camp upsets him. I discover that his argument is based on the identity of the protesters. I hear all about us from someone who has never met us. We are from other provinces, we don’t have jobs, we didn’t vote, we’re scaring away the tourists, we don’t pay taxes, we have no solutions to offer B.C. My friends and I try to dismantle these perceptions. Like others I’ve spoken with that day, he tells me that I’m a ‘good protester,’ that I know what I’m talking about, but the other people in the camp are ‘bad protesters.’ They are dirty and rude and violent, and the place looks like a mess. I say that they have less to lose, that they are going to feel the government cuts first. Their passion may be less eloquent than mine, but it’s more urgent.

By the end of the day, I realize that this man and most of the people who have come to cheer the destruction of the camp actually agree with many of the reasons we are protesting. They disagree with how we’re protesting.

But on some level, I think they also disagree with who we are. Or rather who they think we are. Specifically, who the homeless are. Stupid, foul-mouthed, ugly, lazy - all words I heard that day, used to describe my campmates at a distance. All code words for poor. In the face of a public lawn claimed by the disenfranchised, the gloves of political correctness came off. I saw that ‘correctness’ was purely political. We pay lipservice to respect by saying ‘gay’ when we mean ‘faggot.’ Polite words give us a tactical advantage in our social lives and our jobs. But there is no advantage to feigning respect for the poor. Especially not when they’re ruining the lawn. Orderly labour union rallies that last for one day are good protests. Round-the -clock protests that include the street community are bad.

* * * * *

I put up a false front of unity to the media and the people with whom I debate, anyone I consider outside the activist community. I try to keep us from being divided by forces outside the camp. In the end, we are divided by forces inside the camp.

I still believe in activist unity, but I don’t know how we’ll unite. Unite is such an abstract word, so far from my frustrations, the arguments about effective tactics, the initial three-second glance that shapes my opinions of a stranger. Especially a fifteen-year-old pseudo hippie. The challenge for activists is to be honest about how we keep ourselves divided and to take down the barriers that keep us apart. To stop using our identities as stances pitted against each other. The people, united, will never be defeated. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but if the chant slogan is right, it will be worth it.


Mary Conquest sends her wishes. Good and bad.


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