Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Dissent loses ground on the boulevard

Vancouver Sun: Pete McMartin - Last week, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein ruled the Falun Gong must remove a shack and a row of billboards the group has maintained in front of the Chinese consulate since 2001. The letter of the law was observed. I'm not sure the spirit of democracy was.

Anyone who has ever driven down Granville Street knows the Falun Gong. They're the folks always in front of the Chinese consulate just south of 16th Avenue. They are -- let's be honest -- a weird sight, a row of utterly still people meditating on the narrow grass boulevard, mute, eyes closed, often sitting in a Buddha-like lotus position. Their passivity recalls the early Christian flair for martyrdom. Their complete silence is discomfiting. It speaks louder than any bullhorn.

And what resolve! Seven years is a long time to keep vigil of anything, and that they have kept it for 24-hours a day, rain or shine, says something of the wrongs they say have been committed against them: imprisonment, torture, the harvesting of their organs for transplants. The litany is well known.

But about that shack: It was erected to offer a bit of cover for those keeping vigil in inclement weather or at night. It sits on a grass median a yard wide. The grass median is city property.

Enter the law.

For three successive city councils, the vigil has been an irritant. According to a city hall source, the Chinese consulate has quietly made known its displeasure with the vigil to the city. Public complaints have been almost non-existent, however, (In her decision, Judge Stromberg notes that in the seven years of the vigil there have been three documented complaints to the city, and one of those came from the consul-general representing all the consulates in Vancouver.)

But in 2006, then Mayor Sam Sullivan -- remember him? fella in a wheelchair? bought crack for an addict and gave money to a sex-trade worker? -- decided it was time to enforce the law, as picayune as it was. The Falun Gong's shack had to go, Sullivan decreed. He was going to make Granville Street safe for pedestrians again, despite the fact there was room enough on the sidewalk to drive a Buick down it.

It went to court. The court weighed in last week.

"Even if they are held to constitute a form of expression, the method of expression is incompatible with the fundamental purpose of the city street," Judge Stromberg-Stein ruled. "I agree with the city that it is not necessary that structures obstruct either pedestrian or vehicular traffic, as any obstruction is illegal."

The judge granted the city right to remove the shack and billboards. The Falun Gong's lawyer, Clive Ansley, said the group will file an appeal. Why? Because the removal of the shack and billboards, Ansley said, will utterly change the nature of the vigil, and threaten its continuation since many of the vigil-keepers are elderly and need the provided shelter.

Now, I would not dare to fault the judge's decision. She was just doing her job and interpreting the law as she saw it.

But what I do find fault with?

Here, in the city of Bob Hunter and Greenpeace, of Harry Rankin, of the country's most vibrant social activism, there has been a disturbing silence. The most disturbing silence of all can be found at city hall -- you know, from the new council that considers itself so liberal. But this is a council like the other councils. They believe the democratic impulse comes with a past-due date.

It doesn't. As I wrote in 2006, the same still applies in 2009:

"A democratic government committed to encouraging democratic impulses should sometimes let its moral compass dictate its actions, not the frigging letter of the law."

Let the Falun Gong be. That shack is built on something greater than a yard-wide strip of city grass.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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