Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne compares the "major problem" of loitering in 1968 Vancouver to the 212 Occupy movement.

When the former mayor of Vancouver known as Tom Terrific died at the end of January, he had been absent from the news for forty years; a whole week passed before word of his death percolated into the media, and local pundits began expressing their surprise that “the public” (as the media often calls itself) had been unaware that Tom Terrific was alive all these years.

In a few days the shade of Tom Terrific would have faded away forever had not a video clip from the CBC archives begun to circulate via links in emails such as the one I received from a friend who was not yet born when the mayor known as Tom Terrific was elected. Have you seen this? my friend wrote: Amazing on so many levels! I clicked the link and there was the mayor of Vancouver known as Tom Terrific, standing next to the fountain in the courthouse square downtown with his hands in his pockets on a grey day in March 1968, discoursing on the subject of loitering and the rights of decent people. “We’ve got a major problem facing the city,” says the mayor to a man from the CBC who wields a foot-long microphone in one hand. The microphone has that look of the past, of the year 1968; and immediately we understand a level of interest in this video clip is precisely the look of the past; the courthouse square too has a look about it, which is almost the same in the black-and-white video of 1968—but grainier—as the look it has today, in colour, and no longer a courthouse but an art gallery; and the square in front of it is now the art gallery square, otherwise unchanged and taken over by Occupists, who managed to hold on to it for five weeks in the fall of 211, before their eviction on the order of the current mayor, who was three years old in 1968 and is known to ride a bicycle to work.

The mayor known as Tom Terrific is saying that we’ve got a major problem. “We’ve got a scum community that has organized, has decided to grow long hair, has decided to pretend to be hippies. They should be charged, and taken, and incarcerated, because not only do they have rights, but I think decent people have rights too.” Another level of interest is the forthright way that the mayor known as Tom Terrific expresses himself, a mode of political speech unheard of these days. He tends to stumble on diphthongs, but carries on unfazed. “Any lazy lout that lies down on the sidewalk, obstructs the traffic, should be charged with louting,” the mayor says. “I mean loitering, and I fully concur with what’s happened so far.” But what is it that has happened so far, with which the mayor fully concurs? I had to rewind the clip several times to find a partial answer by inference, from references to matters before the court and the case you have in mind: “the arrests were made because they were lazy louts who were loitering on the steps of the courthouse,” says Tom Terrific, “and they had no business doing it, and I fully support what was done, and you can have legal technicalities or you can have whatever you want, we’ve got a major problem facing the city.”

The problem on the mayor’s mind seems to be more than loitering, defined, via Google, as standing around without apparent purpose in a public place, obstructing other persons: these loiterers, or hippies, or loiterers pretending to be hippies: “every do-gooder group in town is trying to support them now,” says Tom Terrific. “Support should go to our good youth, our boy scouts, the church, the religious groups, the decent children.” Behind the mayor, shadowy forms of passersby glide out of focus across and up and down the courthouse steps, some with umbrellas, some wearing hats; most of them are men; many appear to be going somewhere, which gives them the look of not loitering. We are assured by the mayor that he is not loitering: “First off,” he says to the man from the CBC, “we are not loitering—right now, we are at work, both of us, we are trying to put on a show.” He never looks back at the people in the square who are looking at him and not putting on a show; Tom Terrific speaks for the camera, for the viewers who are not in the frame. We can say that he withholds his gaze, he speaks to people who own television sets, and of course now in 212 he speaks to us, who are his future. The camera shifts and ragged jets of water from the courthouse fountain spew into the air on one side of the frame and then the other. The mayor’s hair is slicked back, damp from the rain or the spray from the fountain. Tom Terrific looks like an ordinary enough dad of his time in a dark suit, white shirt and narrow tie, in 1968; in fact, he looks as ordinary as everyone else in the frame: the ordinary is itself a level of interest here.

Behind the mayor on the courthouse steps, a police officer with his hands on his belt sidles into view, out of focus but ostensibly at work policing the scene; from the right side of the frame, that is, from stage left, a tiny apparently elderly woman in a fur-trimmed coat and a cloche bucket hat with a bow in front edges into view and takes a position downstage centre, where she remains, unmoving and fully visible, with a purse and umbrella in her hand, staring grimly into the space between the mayor and the man from the CBC with his long microphone. “This is a group of society,” the mayor is saying, in measured rhythms, “and it’s not a racial group, as of their own choice, who chose to drop out of society, onto society,” he says. “If our country continued this way, in the next two generations, there wouldn’t be a country,” he says.

The mayor is clearly prepared to go with his oration for the full six minutes and forty-seven seconds ticking off slowly in the little window at the bottom of the screen, making it feel as if 1968 minutes are longer than minutes are today; one wants to jump ahead; I clicked to the end of the clip and an image of Jesus Christ filled the frame; I pre

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at geist.com.



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