TORONTO - The Occupy protest is the most important democratic social movement of the last two generations and demonstrators who have taken over parks and other public spaces should be left alone, an expert in social movements said Wednesday.
As civic authorities across Canada and the U.S. move to end the various occupations, Vincent Mosco, professor emeritus of sociology at Queen's University, said the "extraordinary" movement had created a rarely seen coalition.
"When you see trade unionists, students, minority groups and others coming together, locking arms across sites in North America, what we have here is something unprecedented — at least in recent memory," Mosco said from Ottawa.
"It's everywhere — not just in large cities, but in small towns throughout Canada, the United States, Europe and elsewhere."
Mosco's study of social movements began outside the Pentagon in 1967 when 100,000 anti-Vietnam War protesters began changing the course of history.
Back in the 1970s, he said, construction workers beat up anti-war students in the streets of New York City.
More recently, construction workers went with their own protest signs and joined the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Zuccotti Park.
Earlier this week, authorities cleared the Manhattan plaza, saying the protesters who spawned the global movement in September could return, but without tents or sleeping bags.
In Canada, authorities in several cities have already ended their occupations, while others are pushing to do so.
Lawyers for the city went to B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday seeking an injunction against protesters ensconced outside the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Ben Parkin, a lawyer for the city, told Associate Chief Justice Anne MacKenzie that Occupy Vancouver is in breach of the land-regulation bylaw and said the protesters are trespassing.
"There's no dispute people have erected structures ... on the property," Parkin said. "(There's) no issue on the basic facts there is a breach."
In Toronto, the courts will hear a constitutional challenge to municipal bylaws on Friday as the city presses to evict Occupy Toronto participants from the downtown park that turned functioning mini-village after it sprang up with a few tents Oct. 15.
In Calgary, where two people were hurt in a tent fire at the Occupy site early Wednesday, protesters were under orders to leave immediately, but there was no immediate indication of compliance or enforcement.
Regina police and city bylaw officials cleared the last tents from Victoria Park early Wednesday after earlier ticketing the two remaining occupants.
In all cases, civic authorities complained the protesters were in violation of bylaws in taking over public spaces.
But Mosco, who has visited the protest sites in New York, Vancouver and Ottawa, sees it very differently.
While public areas are being "contested" everywhere, he said, most of the disruption has been the "private invasion" of such places.
"We're observing a process of commercializing and privatizing public space, and we should be outraged by it," Mosco said.
"But we don't hear about limits on public space until a genuine public movement raising significant political issues decides to make use of public space."
Mosco said he believed the movement would survive because of its significance, even if protesters end up evicted from their last remaining strongholds.
Most likely, he said, the protests would simply pop up again, either in the same places or in new ones.
At their heart, the protests around the world have taken aim at the growing gap between rich and poor.
No matter what happens, Mosco said they have already made people pay attention to issues of wealth distribution and democracy.
"That they've sparked debate is an indication that they've already succeeded," Mosco said.
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