The class anxiety of Ridgeilantes: Uncovering the shared roots of homelessness and anti-homeless hate in Maple Ridge
For those anti-displacement activists who showed up to support the low-income community at a BC Liberal-organized meeting about homeless shelters, the outpouring of hate from Maple Ridge homeowners was jarring. As we sat in the lobby folding the 300 leaflets we brought to distribute (titled “Let’s push out poverty, not the poor”) we heard one of first speakers begin his speech by saying, “using Narcan to stop overdoses enables people to keep using drugs.” The jaws of the activists dropped, but the women there from the Maple Ridge low-income community didn’t flinch. Tracy, one of the women who founded the 2015 tent city on Cliff Avenue said, “yeah, that’s normal.”
That night two things were on display: the hatred that low-income people in Maple Ridge face every day, and the profound courage, steadfastness, and unity of the low-income community. The meeting was organized with microphones at the front of the isles in the Baptist Church. To speak, the three women from the tent city stood in line in front of those 600 who filled the pews and absorbed the thunderous applause and cheers whenever a speaker mentioned the “danger” of “mentally ill addicts” and the City’s disregard for “the majority tax paying citizens.” But when they reached the mic, each of them – Mama Bear, Eva, and Tracy – testified to the love and care in their low-income community, that they depend on each other to survive.
We know that anti-homeless hate is a big problem. And we know low-income people’s resilience is stopping their displacement-by-harassment. But to fight anti-poor hatred we need to know why it is on the rise, what it represents, and how it is supported by government structures. New York geographer Neil Smith calls popular anti-poor hate “revanchism,” a reference to the fears felt by the newly formed French capitalist class in 1781 that the working-class Communards were going to take their new state power away from them. In revenge (revanche) for taking power in Paris in the Paris Commune, the young bourgeoisie sent their police and military to massacre the Communards. Unlike the NIMBYism of Yaletown penthouse dwellers, the revanchism of Ridgeilantes seems rooted in their anxieties about their own economic and social insecurity, and their unrealized feelings of entitlement as homeowners in Maple Ridge.
Roots and flowers of Ridgeilante hate
In the summer of 2015 I was part of a group that tried to organize a neighborhood BBQ at the Cliff Avenue tent city in Maple Ridge. Homeless people at the tent city wanted to thank their neighbours for their patience, which seemed incredible to me because those in houses near the tent city were a major source of stress and tension for the camp. We made some invitation fliers and I went out door to door to invite people to the BBQ. Most of those I spoke with didn’t like the tent city, but their reasons surprised me. Every homeowner on the block around the tent city had connections to the street – family members who are homeless, a difficult history with addictions, or on the edge of poverty and losing their jobs and homes. More than property values, their main anxiety was what it meant about the social status of their families that the homeless were camped on their street.
The roots of revanchism in Maple Ridge are in the erosion of economic and social security that working-class people have experienced in the Fraser Valley since the bubble of postwar white prosperity burst in the 1980s. Beginning in the mid-’80s, the economic policy turn referred to as neoliberalism has meant the loss of stable industrial jobs in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, where often temporary, non-union, service sector jobs have become the norm. Culturally, it has meant the markers of urban belonging transformed from masculine symbols of what you produced to financial wealth-based symbols of what you can consume. When Ridgeilantes complain “Maple Ridge has more shelter beds per capita than other municipalities,” and hold signs calling for “Mayor Read, listen to all your citizens,” they are saying that they feel devalued, that their citizenship is incomplete because, unlike in wealthier towns closer to Vancouver, the police and City aren’t shielding them from the visible poor. When they see visibly low-income people from their kitchen windows it causes them anxiety; poor people in their town are evidence of their own social marginality.
People staying at the Rain City homeless shelter have experienced the flowering of these anxieties first hand, both as shelter residents and as residents of the former Cliff Avenue tent city. I met a half dozen people who said they had bottles and eggs thrown at them from cars, and that they had been shot in the back with frozen paint balls. A young man with visible physical disabilities told me he feels he’s in danger when he’s alone in public. “Ridgeilantes are scary,” he said, “They throw rocks and when they hit you they either stop or then they go totally crazy. I never know what they’re going to do.” Another man, who said he tries to look out for people more vulnerable than himself said that a woman was hit with a pipe in the alley by people who came to harass the shelter residents. He said that he was in the fenced in yard outside the shelter when someone was suddenly bearsprayed through the fence and he heard the person running away shout out, “I got one!” Shelter residents say this climate of hate is attracting organizing hate groups; they say they’ve seen the white supremacist group Soldiers of Odin gather in the alley behind the shelter, threatening people.
In the swamp of revanchism, politicians smell opportunity
It is not inevitable that working class anxieties about social and economic security be directed against low-income people, as symbols of their imagined “rock bottom.” But politicians from all major political parties have played to these anxieties and affirmed that low-income people are legitimate targets for their angst. When Ridgeilantes rallied against BC Housing’s plan to buy a hotel for 60 transitional housing rooms, the BC NDP housing critic David Eby supported their “outrage,” mischaracterized the housing as a shelter and also mischaracterized Ridgeilante demands to “reopen Riverview” for “forced detox” as earnest concerns that “people with severe mental illnesses” would not receive enough “intensive care” at the proposed Quality Inn housing. Eby’s intervention centred the Ridgeilante mob as the aggrieved party in Maple Ridge and affirmed the revanchist myth that there is something wrong and dangerous about low-income people, not capitalism and austerity.
More damaging has been the BC Liberal withdrawal and denial of basic services. Twice in 2016 the Province promised and then dropped plans for social housing and a new shelter, citing (and legitimizing) Ridgeilante protest as the main reason. One man in the homeless shelter told me that anti-homeless hate activity comes in waves. “Sometimes people are really nice, they say good morning and offer me money.” He said he missed the regular free BBQ that workers at a transmission shop used to host for low-income people. And while things had cooled down recently, he said, “Since the Province announced that they’re cancelling the shelter it’s started up again. I’ve had bottles thrown at me whenever I’ve been on my bike.” On top of lacking housing, food services in Maple Ridge have been drying up, homeless people are denied access to the Food Bank, and the police have announced plans to “red zone” the entire downtown core for “repeat offenders,” which is a message of police-enforced spatial segregation of the poor. Consistent with this trend that government withdrawal of services is interpreted in the cultural atmosphere as affirming the dehumanization of low-income people, the night of the politician organized hate-fest at the church on January 31, the Rain City shelter hired security guards to protect the shelter against a possible mob attack.
Strategies of resistance
Cultural Studies theorist Stuart Hall warned activists to not be dismissive of the rise of hateful cultures in the working class – these cultures and ideologies are information about powerful popular feeling. The BC Liberals and BC NDP are competing to play to these feelings in their ugliest forms; their work exaggerates how powerful anti-poor sentiments are in Maple Ridge. Low-income people testify to the dangerous hate that surrounds them, but they are also careful to point out that many people are kind, and that the people who are sometimes most vocally hateful are, at other times, just neighbours. The truth is that the line between the employed and unemployed working class in Maple Ridge is blurry and uncertain. That intimate proximity is a source of anxiety and trepidition, but it is also where there is potential for a fight against a shared enemy. To end anti-poor revanchism in Maple Ridge will require paying attention to the common roots of working class anxiety and extreme poverty, while opposing with maximum force the hateful flowers of that anxiety, as well as the police red zones and BC Liberal and NDP austerity cuts that all place our people in danger.