It was a beautiful sunny Wednesday morning and it was already getting warm by 9:30. I was making my way to the Vancouver Art Gallery on Canada Day. For the last fifteen-plus years marijuana enthusiasts, protesters, and other civic-minded people have gathered there to celebrate our nation’s birthday, to exercise their right to peaceful assembly, and to protest the unjust laws that prohibit the sale, growth, and use of marijuana by having an open cannabis farmers’ market, much like the 4/20 celebration held every April 20th: Cannabis Day.
But just three weeks before this year’s event the organizers at Cannabis Culture received a call from reporters asking them what they were going to do now that Vancouver city council had cancelled the event and planned to begin construction on the north side of the art gallery where attendees traditionally gathered.
The folks at CC were taken by surprise: it was the first they had heard about a change. Having worked so closely with the city in the past, people started wondering what was brewing. Was this in reaction to the massive crowd of nearly forty-thousand people who showed up at the last 4/20 rally? There was no time to make alternative plans.
For years the organizers of the protest have supplied the porta-potties and fencing, co-ordinated volunteers for security and first aid, and brought in bands and speakers, all the while working with Vancouver’s city hall, fire department, and police to insure a smooth, problem-free event where everyone goes home happy.
Each previous year the police would step back and let the event proceed without interfering, taking a very relaxed stance and attitude. They’d leave security and self-policing to the volunteers and focus on traffic control and keeping an eye out for people who’d sometimes wander into the street, asking them to step back for safety.
I reached the gallery around ten. The north side was fenced off as expected so I made my way to the south. There, the first things that got my attention were the excessive extra police and city workers standing around as if they were waiting to start doing something. What was also clear to a long time attendee of these events like myself was the totally different nature of the police this year: no longer were we dealing with the somewhat bored and slightly amused, relaxed, smiling police officer. Instead we had a beast of another colour, we were dealing with the well-known urban stereotype, the steroidal swine commonly referred to as ‘asshole cops’. There was even one member of the goon squad whose only job was to walk around all day sticking a video camera in everyone’s face.
As a few brave souls began to openly defy bureaucratic expectations by setting up tables to hand out information or sell goods, police and city crews were quick to move in and ask those involved to remove them. Many stood up and quoted parts of the election act giving them the right to set up a table anywhere they wanted to hand out information on voting. Others, like Jason Wilcox from Cannabis in Canada, laughed at them while informing them of the recent court decisions raised and supported by their group, and taunted them with legal action quoting case law and charter sections.
More tents and tables started going up, more people began to arrive.
Police accused Neil Magnuson of selling marijuana and demanded he stop. A stormtrooper line of a dozen or more police made directly for Neil and circled him as he was told he was under arrest. It was at that point, as far as I could see, when a few other activist closest to him decided to employ a tactic known as ‘Hug Power’ where protesters next to anyone being arrested hug that person. The idea is to non-violently overwhelm the police with sheer numbers, making it impossible to haul anyone off.
This time it didn’t work. The cops moved in with enough goons, quickly enough, that they had three or four activists surrounded with a ring of police while six more cops piled on Neil as well as David Malmo Levine.
The crowd began chanting ‘let Neil go’ as well as yelling obscenities, but overall the crowd remained well-behaved: not throwing things at the police or fighting with them, instead taking pictures and video.
As Neil and David were manhandled into the back of a paddy wagon the crowd — clearly upset and by this time physically distressed as some had been pepper sprayed — began to get louder and pushed the police line back across Howe St despite police demands to get off the road. At that time a group of protesters broke off from the main scuffle and, hoisting a huge anti-prohibition banner, marched to the north-east side of the art gallery at Howe and Georgia St and blocked off the intersection. Motorcycle cops took up positions in front of them. Then a group at Robson and Howe, on the south east side, learned that the paddy wagon with Neil and David were parked in the alley around the corner. They ran over there to continue the chant ‘let Neil go’, block traffic, and cause more problems for the police.
Once again thugs in black held back the protesters who soon returned to the protest area at the VAG wondering what the hell just happened.
I saw other protesters there who had been roughed up by police. Some had been hit with pepper spray, others were thrown to the ground, still others had been handcuffed or pushed around. Many of these people at protests and political events are disabled, elderly, ill, or suffering and use cannabis for medical relief from a wide range of physical ailments.
After decades of cooperation with city officials and police, with no incidents of violence or damages, what changed? With the city set to regulate and licence dispensaries, federal candidates talking about legalizing marijuana, and new large-scale licensed producers, marijuana even made June’s cover of National Geographic. Why this now?
Maybe it’s the city protecting its own interests now that it wants to start being a broker for the cannabis trade. Charging $30,000 a year for the privilege of having a storefront marijuana retail outlet frees the dogs of the War on Drugs to stamp out activists and the little guys before we get any ideas.
History repeats, bet on it.