SOCIAL CONFLICT IN EAST VANCOUVER
(Published September 2008, Coast Salish Territory, Vancouver)
In early August, three new houses on Gore Street in Strathcona, East Vancouver, were splattered with paint and one was spray-painted with the words, “Die Yuppie Scum”.
“It’s too early to tell what the motive was,” said Vancouver Police Department (VPD) spokesperson Constable Jana McGuinness in the daily newspaper, 24 Hours. “But certainly there’s a feeling of unrest living there right now.”
An ambiguous and deceitful statement about a completely unambiguous and overt attack on a property, a process and a specific sector of society. But what else could be expected from those whose job is primarily about protecting the property of the haves from the have-nots and maintaining the order of a system of exploitation?
Around the same time, in the same neighborhood, the words, “Welcome 2 Hell”, “out yuppie”, and “Sup Yup!” were written on the white picket fence and “Sold” real estate sign outside a house.
Someone on the internet asks, “How do they know it was bought by yuppies, huh?”. A valid question, considering that a high-paid unionized worker could easily afford a mortgage on such a home. Yuppie used to mean young urban professional. Does it now mean anybody who qualifies for credit? And who are the urban professionals in this case: the real estate agents, the buyers or both?
Again in August, somewhere in the city, probably the very same ‘hood, graffiti appeared on a mailbox claiming, “Condos are War.” This gets a bit closer to the root of the conflict. Maybe the problem isn’t so much that some people can afford to buy a home (usually to the profit of a bank through a mortgage) as it is the reality that most people can’t and have to pay rent to those who can afford more than one.
Is the “feeling of unrest” a result of the recent paint attacks or are these small actions a response to another kind of unrest already going on in East Vancouver, which has always been going on, that of development and re-development, at the whims and profit of the already rich? And where have the rich always gotten their money from in the first place, if not from exploiting both the natural resources of the land and the social class of people who have nothing else to sell but their own labour, who have to work to pay rent to their landlords?
Near the end of 2007, a poster appeared on poles in Strathcona condemning the practice of house-flipping, “the real estate game of buying, fixing up and reselling houses,” forcing current residents to move, “often to unaffordable places far away”. It ends by declaring, “This is Class War.” Here we find another important element of the conflict in the lucrative practice of speculation, something also very popular in the condo market, where it’s called “assignments.”
Resistance in Strathcona to the invasion of the wealthy is nothing new either. According to an interview in the book, “Opening Doors in Vancouver’s East End” (1979), residents in the ‘40s who didn’t like westsiders coming in to the ‘hood and “slumming it” would drive up to Kerrisdale, break windows and then go back to Strathcona to wait for the fight to come, “but they never did come too much after that, because they were afraid.”
In spring of this year, a controversial poster first appeared on Commercial Drive in East Vancouver, encouraging a so-called yuppie couple to move away and exclaiming, “No Redevelopment of Grandview Park”. In this case it seems that the term yuppie is used because of the couple’s expressed desire to cleanse the ‘hood of undesirables.
This was in response to an article in the Courier newspaper based on an interview with the couple who live across from the park. The poster criticizes the couple’s attempt to use the news article to spread fear-mongering, paranoia and lies about hard drugs, illegal protests and the weekly mobile soup kitchen that visits the park. It also points out that the recent redesigns of Victory Square park and Victoria Drive park barely made a difference other than making them look uglier. In the newspaper interview, the couple, Maingot and Flipse, said the park has gotten so bad recently that they’ve been thinking of moving away. The poster reminds us that many regular people have already been forced to move away from the area because of yuppification.
The poster drew a seemingly confused response of its own, with other people tearing it down or scrawling on it the sentiment that everyone is welcome on Commercial Drive and that the poster constitutes harassment. Someone else disagreed and wrote on it that they thought it was funny and true. Yet another person wrote-up and posted a new poster in support of the first, while somebody else posted over top of the original with a poster rant against it, again lauding so-called personal attacks. The Republic newspaper chimed-in too and also derided the first poster’s supposed personal attack.
The democratic ideal of “freedom of speech” is exposed as a sham when impersonal attacks on poor and working people in the media are unquestioned but a defensive and retaliatory poster against such attacks is vandalized and covered up.
Perhaps everyone is welcome on the Drive, but certainly some are more welcome than others. How else could it be when Fusion Security guards, paid for by the Business Improvement Association (BIA), patrol the street in a pack of four, harassing buskers, panhandlers and people selling their wares in the park? The fact that yuppies moving in or renovating homes raises rents and forces people out is ignored and when mere information about the process is posted it gets suppressed.
But re-development hasn’t been the only point of contention on the Drive recently. The question of who is welcome on the Drive was brought up yet again when a group of four fascist skinheads tore down a sign related to a queer pride event in Grandview Park on June 28. A group of five people, mostly women and queers followed and confronted the fascists, with one woman telling them, “get the fuck off Commercial Drive” and pulling sunglasses off one of them and throwing them to the ground. This provoked the biggest fascist to punch the woman in the face, provoking in turn a group attack on the fascist. His friends joined in, one of them getting the worst of it, and after a brief fight the fascists took off, only to get arrested by cops who didn’t lay charges. Most onlookers also did nothing to intervene or said the fascists should be ignored.
The incident was followed by a queer protest outside the Vancouver jail two days later and a poster put up on the Drive entitled, “Girls & Queers versus Nazi Skinheads, Fight it out on the Drive,” describing what happened and why some involved in fighting the fascists don’t want to go to the police about it (one of the reasons the cops say they released the fascists without charges). According to the poster, one woman said afterwards she only wished she’d thrown the first punch. If we look the other way, said the poster, they’ll just hit us when we’re not looking.
One foolish person wrote on top of the poster that video-taping the fascists would be more effective than fighting them, begging the question of, “effective at what?”. Realistically, if some people want the fascists out, they’ll have to force them out, not just observe them. What’s the use of merely recording and sharing information if nobody is going to act on that information?
The Commercial Drive area also has its history of social conflict. In 1990, it was the Frances Street squats and its barricades and paramilitary police eviction, followed by smaller-scale public squats on Broadway in 1993 and Salsbury in 1997. In the late ‘90s and after the Seattle anti-capitalist riot of 1999 there was a graffiti and window smashing campaign against yuppies and corporate businesses on the Drive.
The Community Policing Centre installed in Grandview Park met opposition from the beginning, escalating into graffiti, paint bombing, window smashing and eventually some attempted arsons, until they moved out of the park and further down the Drive.
More recently, windows have been smashed a couple of times at the Royal Bank on the corner of First in response to the bank’s partnership with the 2010 Olympics. The probation office near the park has had its locks glued, its walls painted with slogans and its front window smashed in solidarity with prisoners such as John Graham (an indigenous warrior extradited from Vancouver to South Dakota in December as part of an FBI frame-up), French anti-capitalist/anti-prison rebels, hunger-striking prisoners in Germany, and the Spanish anarchist prisoner Amadeu Casellas who was also hunger-striking and recently won some concessions. The action in solidarity with the French rebels also included the painting over of surveillance cameras outside of two businesses across from the park. “It was reported in the news, that when a bus was burned and tagged ‘Riot Now’ on Commercial Drive last Halloween, investigators said the footage from the surveillance cameras across the street did not reach far enough to capture the perpetrators,” states the internet communication about the action. “The cameras targeted with paint must be these very cameras.”
Royal Bank branches in other parts of East Vancouver have also been attacked since September 29 of last year, when the first such action took place, connecting the struggle against Olympic repression with an international day of solidarity with anarchist prisoners in Europe, Gabriel Pombo da Silva, Jose Delgado and Marco Camenisch. Also on this same day, a house was squatted for the night in order to discuss prisoner solidarity and anti-capitalist resistance in Vancouver. On July 22 of this year, according to an anonymous internet posting, a work truck belonging to US company Peter Kiewit and Sons was torched in East Vancouver because of the company’s contract to expand the Sea-to-Sky highway (the major route connecting Olympic venues between Vancouver and Whistler). Another Kiewit truck had been set aflame in May for the same reason (as well as the death after incarceration of indigenous elder/warrior Harriet Nahanee, who was jailed for taking part in a camp-blockade against the project).
Meanwhile, condo development continues at an incredible pace all across the city and is particularly devastating in the shrinking ghetto of the Downtown Eastside (DTES), where welfare hotels are evicted and parks cleared of tents, drawing only minimal protest.
This situation is mostly ignored by those who don’t live there, unless it’s perceived as shifting crime outwards. But the more people looking for homes, the more landlords can charge for rent (like the job market, where the more people there are looking for work, the less the boss has to pay them in wages). So an eviction or a development anywhere is an injury to the exploited and excluded everywhere. And how many people are just one paycheck away from the DTES anyway? And where else are poor people going to go as housing disappears in the ghetto?
The poverty industry and its activists in the DTES promote social housing as the alternative, but it’s social housing projects like Woodward’s and Little Mountain (Vancouver’s oldest social housing site) that are being used as the building blocks and justification for much larger condo developments. In the case of Woodward’s, the successful sell-out of its condo units on the first day of sales resulted in increased investor confidence in DTES development, sparking a further sell-off of welfare hotels, leading to hundreds more lost units than will be replaced at Woodward’s or anywhere else in the near future. And social housing planned to be built years from now will do nothing for the people being evicted right now or the hundreds evicted over the past decades, since before Expo ‘86.
The 2010 Olympics are pointed to as worsening the process of yuppification in the DTES (and all over Vancouver) since they serve as an advertising event encouraging investment and development, as well as an excuse to cleanse the streets of the poor for tourists. This process of social cleansing for the games even extends to the Pacific National Exhibition (PNE) where a crackdown has been announced on mostly Chinese residents who wave signs on the street, selling parking in front of or out back of their homes.
The Woodward’s Squat of 2002 was one of the first big actions to challenge the games, with a banner dropped from the big W on the roof reading, “Campbell’s Olympic Shame,” in reference to the province’s premier. Then the squat was evicted repeatedly, first by the cops and then by the “Portland” social housing agency. The condos at Woodward’s were sold by Rennie Marketing, which also sold the condos at the Olympic village, and its boss, Bob Rennie, is a so-called Olympic Ambassador (because he’s Vancouver’s so-called “condo king”).
The conditions within the welfare hotels of the DTES continue to deteriorate as 2010 approaches, with bed bugs and other vermin, while slum lords are barely punished and still allowed to operate even after welfare scams and doubling-up in rooms are exposed or the roof collapses.
The provincial government pats itself on the back after recently purchasing a few welfare hotels to keep them from being sold-off and evicted for re-development. But some of the hotels were bought from a DTES condo developer and are now managed under contract with the government by a realty company he co-owns. So yet again, developers and realtors make money from displacing the poor and then make even more money from social housing for a few.
The Marie Gomez social housing complex was simply allowed to degenerate until it was shut down once and for all. In the meantime, the city pumps money into private security companies to patrol the streets as a supplementary police force, sweeping the streets of “disorder”.
So the problem with relying on or pressuring the government to provide housing is that they can just as easily take it way, run it into the ground, or use it to build condos and increase overall displacement. Government serves capitalism, not the other way around.
On August 6 of this year, in the broad daylight in the DTES, a group set on fire a police car and a sheriff’s prisoner transport van parked outside the courthouse/jail, according to another anonymous internet posting. This communiqué made a couple strange assertions that prisoners in the jail must have felt bliss because of the arson and that the gossip in the ‘hood about the act was an expression of sheer happiness. Which begs the question of how the people in the jail could have even known about it and even more strangely, how the writers of the text about the action could have known what the prisoners or people on the street thought of it afterwards. No media of any kind, corporate or independent, reported on the action and nobody who works at any of the service agencies in the area have even heard anyone talk about it. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen but does bring up questions of exactly how extravagant and exaggerated the communiqué may be, why it was written in such a way, why it claims to speak for people living in poverty in the DTES, and how they know their arson attempts were successful. An apparent intent to project strength can instead end up indicating weakness.
The reason behind the timing of the arsons was stated as solidarity with hundreds of prisoners on hunger strike in Germany, as well as hunger striking anarchist prisoners such as Amadeu Casellas, Gabriel Pombo da Silva, Jose Delgado and Marco Camenisch.
“We hope this act will spark communication and create new relationships of collaboration in struggle,” stated the communiqué. But so far this has failed to happen, at least in any visible sense or outside of a small group of people. And how could communication and new relationships of struggle be sparked by two attacks carried out by an anonymous group of people who speak on behalf of others, most likely with some exaggeration? Communication and relationships of struggle come out of shared experiences, social conditions and organization, not seemingly random acts bragged about on obscure websites.
The posters put up in Strathcona and Commercial Drive, though perhaps not as exciting or nice to look at as a flaming corporate or police vehicle, do tend to share information more effectively about social conflict and create more possibilities for new communication, relationships and struggles. But even those posters are but one possible form of communication and the most relevant form of that will always be face-to-face discussion.
Ultimately, if a fight against development and repression is to grow into a force capable of really changing things it must move beyond just dispersed posters, vandalism and arson toward collective organization in struggle against the common enemy and their system. The only questions are how to do it and how best to do it, of where to begin.
Tyendinaga and Six Nations Solidarity Action
on Coast Salish Territory (Vancouver)
On April 28, 2008, about a hundred Natives and non-Native supporters marched along and blocked-off a major trucking route in East Vancouver, Coast Salish Territory, for several hours starting at about 3pm, in solidarity with the struggle at Tyendinaga and Six Nations. The march was led by elders and stopped for drumming and singing at a few major intersections, causing massive traffic jams. Banners read: “Hands off Tyendinaga Mohawks”, “OPP = VPD (They’re all gangsters)”, and “Natives Resist State Oppression”. A sign read: “Solidarity is Our Weapon”. On April 25, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) surrounded the reclaimed quarry in Tyendinaga, Mohawk Territory, drew their guns and attacked and arrested several Mohawks. In response, a road was dug up near the quarry and Six Nations people blocked the Highway 6 bypass near Caledonia with a hydro tower. Settlers in Guelph also briefly blocked Highway 6 with a burning barricade. Police at Tyendinaga then backed off.
Condo conflict across Canada (2008):
July 15, Abbotsford, British Columbia – Part of a condo complex is reduced to ashes with a fire so intense that it damages a nearby home and businesses, and injures firefighters. Three suspects are arrested and charged with arson a few days later.
July 3, Halifax, Nova Scotia – A condo complex has its windows smashed and its side splattered with paint bombs by anarchists.
June 7, Halifax, Nova Scotia – A condo development gets smashed windows and paint bombs courtesy of anarchists.
Conflict with fascists across Canada (2008):
August 28, Siksika reserve (Blackfoot Nation), Alberta – Four fascist skinheads are charged with mischief and disturbing the peace by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after attacking a mall and yelling racist slurs on a reserve an hour’s drive east of Calgary.
July 27, London, Ontario – About 30 anti-fascists from across southern Ontario come together to disrupt what turned out to be a five-person fascist protest against London’s 2008 Pride Parade. The fascists’ signs are torn-up or covered-up by anti-fascist flags and banners. One anti-fascist is arrested by police and released.
July 25, Calgary, Alberta – A bystander punches a knife-wielding fascist in the face, saving a Black woman from a racist attack by five fascist skinheads. Unfortunately, the incident prompts the woman to move back to Ontario.
July 15, Calgary, Alberta – A fascist recruiter is knocked-out by anti-fascists at a skate-park after he attacks the group, who were handing out posters against racism.
June 28, Vancouver, British Columbia – Four fascist skinheads tear down a sign for East Side Pride and are then told to get off Commercial Drive. One has his sunglasses knocked off and punches a woman in the face, receiving punches and kicks in return, as does one of his buddies. The cops release the fascists without charges.