Strathcona sexual assault reveals the safety of some women is worth more than others

endviolence-copyOn Thursday March 26th, a woman in Strathcona, Vancouver, was attacked and sexually assaulted by a stranger in her home. During the assault, a man walking by heard her screams and was able to intervene, allowing the victim to escape. The assailant, Caleb Heaton, was later arrested at the site and now faces seven charges, including aggravated sexual assault, breaking and entering, robbery, and unlawful confinement.

Since the assault, there has been an amazing outpouring of support for the victim. Almost three hundred people joined a march in solidarity with the victim the day after the assault. A go-fund-me campaign, under the name “Strathcona Cares,” raised $27k in one day, and over $50k overall, towards supporting the victim.

This is how violence against women always should be responded to – with outrage, care, support – and yet sometimes these rare instances of community support can tell us about the silences that overshadow it. The victim of the Strathcona assault, like all sexual assault victims, deserves all our support. Yet these moments of publicity and public outrage also have their own way of speaking a language, and their own unspoken means for indicating which lives are (and which lives are not) worth mourning and rallying behind as a community.

Safety for whom?

The horrifying sexual assault might have been a chance to strengthen the movement against violence against women in the neighbourhood and to stand in solidarity with women in the Downtown Eastside who have been fighting for decades to gain justice for murdered and missing women. Instead, the response has led to (and in some cases increased) the call for those very same policies of the status quo that put low-income women in the area at risk of violence and displacement.

In the wake of the attack, many Strathcona residents raised concerns about women’s safety. At a community safety meeting with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), many residents linked the concerns about women’s safety to concerns about the presence of people “with mental health and addictions” in the historically working class neighbourhood. At the same meeting, several residents made calls for increased security and policing in the area despite the fact that the area is already patrolled by a private security firm hired by the local business association.

In response to these concerns, the VPD ensured the Strathcona residents that “the VPD has already increased its patrolling in this neighborhood.” Policing and funding for private security, added to the bloated budgets for ever-growing police departments, is often framed as a way to ensure safety for women.

Yet in this rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood, safety is not a neutral word. Like so many other terms that get thrown around with ease, safety is a word with its own history and its own specific meaning, inexorably bound up with narratives about who belongs to the neighbourhood and who doesn’t, who’s threatened and who’s a threat.

In Strathcona today, perhaps more than in any neighborhood of Vancouver, safety is directly mobilized to justify gentrification and the displacement of low-income persons from the neighbourhood. This double-meaning of safety was made explicit in Strathcona’s 2010 Community Vision, which directly links the reduction of low-income people in the neighbourhood with increased safety for the growing middle and upper-class residents moving into the area.

According to the Community Vision, the addition of market housing and densification in Strathcona “will dilute the proportion of persons who are drug addicted or mentally ill” and “improve the norm for street behaviour, reduce crime, make the streets safe for everyone, and make it easier for people to break free of cycles of addiction and poverty [italics ours].” Goal three of the community plan, under the heading “Regain a Healthy Balance,” even outlines six strategies for how to “dilute the over-large proportion of community people who are addicted, in recovery from addiction, or mentally ill.”

In this context, it clear that when it comes to defending the rights and security of women in Strathcona, it always comes down to the same question: which women? The women who have now reason to be afraid to walk Strathcona’s streets, because of increased police harassment and anti-poor sentiments, are the same women who are more likely to be the victims of violence: police violence, colonial state violence and gender and sexual violence.

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