The mayor of St. John’s, N.L., says tents belonging to some of the most persistent Occupy protesters in North America will be removed if demonstrators won’t leave a downtown park before Wednesday.
Dennis O’Keefe has asked Occupy protesters in Harbourside Park to leave by midnight.
Otherwise, he says city parks staff will arrive early Wednesday morning to pack up the camp and return items wherever occupiers want them to go.
Demonstrators set up tents in the seaside park last October as the Occupy movement against corporate greed swept the continent.
While other Occupy camps were dismantled by officials in Vancouver, Toronto, Halifax and other cities, St. John’s allowed a few diehard protesters to stay all winter.
O’Keefe says he has offered city hall space for Occupy meetings, but it’s time to get the park ready for summer events.
Occupy NL found its own way to welcome the Crystal Serenity cruise ship as it docked in St. John’s Sunday, the first such ship to arrive this year in the capital city.
A large banner with the word occupy displayed in all-caps greeted the ship from the hiking trail leading to Signal Hill. According to Occupy NL member Jon Parsons, the event was held to highlight the cruise ship’s status as a symbol of inequality — tickets for the 25-day cruise from New York to Rome range from $7,810 to $41,000 for a penthouse suite.
The arrival of the first cruise ship to St. John’s in 2012 also coincides with the City of St. John’s eviction notice for Occupy NL, a group that has camped in a corner of Harbourside Park since last October. Early last month, the city told the group to vacate the park by May 15.
“A lot of us are certainly of the conviction that the timing of this is linked to our tourism industry, the appearance of the city and the image that’s being sold of the province,” said Parsons.
As for the community support Occupy NL has received over the last seven months, Parsons said he has been blown away by how widely the group’s message promoting social and economic equality has spread.
“I think that the support has been amazing from the community. We’re not (the) small number of people that we may seem to be. There’s a lot of supporters out there. People providing material support, people just thinking and talking about some of the issues that we’re trying to raise. It’s all a victory.”
Occupy NL is the last remaining outpost of the global occupy movement in Canada to exist in a public space. Most other protest sites across the country were cleared last fall. A general assembly event to mark the eviction will be held Tuesday evening at the park starting at 7 p.m.
Parsons said while the city has previously voiced its support of the occupy movement’s aims and goals, it seems prepared to remove the group from Harbourside Park as the lucrative summer season approaches. Harbourside Park itself plays host to music and theatre events during the summer months.
“It’s certainly been vital to the movement,” Parsons said of the Harbourside Park camp. “It gives us a space to meet and talk and think about new ideas. But it has also been a very important symbol of the movement. It is a form of protest in itself. We forget sometimes that it is illegal to camp in the park and to be set up there as we are. It’s a form of civil disobedience. It’s not just people hanging out there — there’s a purpose to it.”
That might have been the case, said St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe, but it’s time for the camp to move out of the park.
O’Keefe said he delivered the message personally in a meeting with Occupy NL members last Thursday.
“We had a very positive meeting, a very good meeting,” said O’Keefe.
“I indicated to them that we appreciated what they had done to profile the cause of social justice. And that the many things they feel need to be remedied in our society were indeed things that need to be remedied. Many of them are issues that will take a long long time — but if we don’t start somewhere it will never happen,” he said.
But the mayor added that while he was “proud” of the city for letting Occupy NL stay in the park and that city council “agreed in principal with many of the things they stood for,” it was time for them to move on.
“I simply said we would like them to respectfully return the park to us just as we respected their right to get the word out about their principals and their programs,” he said.
If the tents do come down on Tuesday, Parsons said the movement will continue to exist through its community events, online presence, and general assemblies, which have been held at the park, the Anglican Cathedral on Church Hill, and Memorial University.
“They can’t take the space away,” said Parsons. “The space is always there ... there’s no losing of the space.”
Whether another space will be set up to serve as the base of the movement, Parsons said that’s an issue that’s yet to be settled.
“No consensus has been reached on what the appropriate thing to do is, and that’s the lovely and frustrating thing about horizontal decision making,” said Parsons, who noted Occupy NL takes a pacifist and non-violent approach when it comes to protesting.
“Nothing outrageous will happen (on Tuesday),” he said.
O’Keefe said he was confident Occupy NL would continue to show the good judgment the members have displayed over the past year — and pack up. He even offered the city’s help moving stuff if need be.
“If it doesn’t? Well we’ll have to deal with that when it comes,” he said.
“We’re prepared to deal with it. And we’ll deal with it sensibly and sanely, but it will have to be dealt with. It’s time. They had the park for seven or eight months — they used that time properly and respectfully ... and now it’s time for them to turn it back to us.”