Only low-income community organizing will make the DTES a Social Justice Zone

social-justice-zone-heartFor many years low-income community groups and residents in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) have fought for a place at the planning table, mobilizing around slogans like “nothing about us without us.” But after two years of working on the City’s DTES Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) we know that being at the table is not enough. The first draft of the City plan makes it clear that the DTES LAPP is dominated by Vision Vancouver’s agenda and major real estate developer interests. But there is another way to look at this problem than as a pure defeat: if the DTES is to be made a Social Justice Zone, then it will not be proclaimed by City Hall, it will be made by our low-income communities.

Look at the history of the DTES. The Missing and Murdered Women’s Commission of Inquiry was not a gift from above. Mobilized DTES women challenged and changed the colonial and sexist system that is killing Indigenous women. The government was forced to scramble to contain the power of this movement. They created an inquiry that ended as a sham. Needle exchanges, harm reduction peer support programs, and Insite were government programs that followed, and institutionalized, the initiatives and civil disobedience campaigns of low-income DTES drug users. Even the LAPP was initiated by City Hall to subvert low-income DTES residents’ planning on their own terms. In these cases and many others, it was the poorest and most oppressed people in the city who were acting together and making destiny and change by their own, collective, hands. The government was reduced to chasing after them, offering reforms and deals, meeting some demands and silencing others, desperate to steal their energies and break up their unities.

The low-income community’s Social Justice Zone plan continues this legacy. The low-income community representatives at the LAPP planning table formed a caucus within the city process and produced their own 5-point plan. The city is scrambling to absorb it, remove the points that threaten the status quo, and steal the vision from the community.

The part of the City’s draft plan that is most influenced by the low-income community is the proposed zoning in the Oppenheimer District (60% social housing, 40% market rental). This zoning could protect this part of the DTES against gentrification and displacement by blocking condo development and dampening real estate speculation. But this action alone will not fulfill the spirit of the Social Justice Zone plan, which puts people before profit and declares the DTES a sanctuary for people who are stigmatized, criminalized, harassed, deported, and unwanted in the rest of consumer-culture dominated Vancouver.

The Oppenheimer District anti-condo zoning is not a whole solution, but it does create an opportunity for social justice organizing. The government of Canada uses borders and trade agreements to keep poor people out and usher big money through. The anti-condo zoning in the Oppenheimer District can be the opposite; it can be a border to keep big money out and help people struggling for social justice stay, organize together, and expand those struggles through the rest of Vancouver and beyond, to collaborate with the struggles of communities facing displacement threats around the world.

The next step in the low-income community’s Social Justice Zone plan is to outline together the actions that we will take to strengthen our struggles against capitalism, colonialism and displacement, and against racism, sexism, homophobia and other violence within our community. The Social Justice Zone plan is really about making change ourselves; not only is there nothing about us without us, there is no justice without us.

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