Surrey rallies against police power as a new abolitionist campaign takes to the streets

“Communities Not Cops: Divest From Police, Invest In People” – this was the theme of a rally and march that took place last Saturday, November 24th, organized by the newly formed Anti-Police Power Surrey (APPS). The rally disrupted the narrative, amplified by the recent municipal election, that crime is a growing problem in the city and the only possible response is to increase police presence and budgets. As APPS asserted, this story falls apart when we consider the day-to-day activities of police officers: they surveil and harass homeless people, arresting them for daily survival activities; they enforce the catastrophic war on drugs, responsible for countless deaths; and they terrorize racialized and Indigenous communities, profiling and brutalizing young people of colour with impunity.

Doug McCallum and his Safe Surrey Coalition were victorious in the recent municipal election. As the party’s name indicates and its website confirms, the “one overpowering concern” of the Safe Surrey Coalition is public safety, and expanded policing is their single strategy to address it. Immediately after the election, McCallum began to take steps to implement one of his main campaign promises: to replace the RCMP with a larger municipal police force – an undertaking that will cost millions.

By calling for divestment from policing, APPS is fighting against the current. Organizers were prepared to face opposition to the rally, even hostility, but instead found that our message resonated. As we set up placards outside Surrey City Hall, a passerby stopped and said, “The police are brutal. Once they broke my ribs just because I wouldn’t sit down. The ground was wet, so I kept standing up, and then the police attacked me.” The rally heard from a number of speakers representing struggles that, on the surface, may appear disparate, but are tied together by the thread of state repression. We heard how the Surrey Outreach team, composed of police and by-law officers, targets homeless communities; how the so-called “War On Drugs” is really a war on drug users; how police wield racist carding practices against Black and Indigenous people; and how the CBSA works with police to criminalize temporary foreign workers and racialized migrants.

The last speaker before we started marching was a member of the Prison Justice Day Committee, Meenakshi Mannoe. She offered a vision of abolition that centers communities targeted by police violence, especially Indigenous, Black, and Punjabi communities. In contrast to the message expressed at the Wake Up Surrey rally in June, where protesters held signs that read “Hello Politicians Got Any Action?”, Meenakshi argued that communities – not politicians – hold the solutions to the violences they experience. She insisted, “It is about connection, community, and working towards liberation through our relationships with each other.”

In a response to the APPS rally, the editors of the Surrey Now-Leader published an opinion piece that first concedes bloated police budgets are “a legitimate target for critics,” but then denounces the APPS call for divestment as “puerile.” They write, “To suggest we should cut back on spending on police because the crime rate isn’t so bad is puerile. How do they think it got that way?” Without any basis, they mistakenly conflate correlation with cause and simply assume that more cops equals a reduction in crime – a claim that APPS member and criminologist Jeff Shantz refutes. Jeff says, “Almost all criminologists agree that ‘crime’ rate declines are not attributable to police, but to a range of intersecting community factors.”

The Surrey Now-Leader editors write, “When you are being victimized by crime, you call police. Who else are you going to call?” But we know that the police do not end violence. Laura Paul, an organizer with the group Bread, Roses, and Hormones, spoke at the rally about police violence against trans women. She said, “370 trans women were murdered last year. Where were the cops then? The reality is that cops don’t make us safe – they are killing us.”

As we marched from City Hall to the RCMP station on King George Boulevard, a woman named Pat joined us. She took the microphone and described the police brutality she sees every day in Whalley. Pat told the crowd, “Just a few blocks from here, I saw the police headlock a distressed man. He was screaming, ‘What did I do?’ – but the cop just threatened to lock him up.” Standing in a circle outside the RCMP station, we ended the rally with a moment of silence for all those who lost their lives at the hands of the police, as well as those who died because of the violent social order that the police serve and protect.

Despite public fears around increasing crime, crime rates have actually fallen in Surrey over the past five years. In early November, Maclean’s published a report on the most dangerous cities in Canada based on 2017 crime statistics. Surrey ranked 47th on the overall crime severity index, 63rd for serious crime, and 100th for youth crime – behind sleepy Victoria in every category. Yet police budgets continue to expand, fueled by residents’ fears of gang violence that politicians, police, and media relentlessly stoke.

The messages expressed at the Communities Not Cops rally pushed in the direction of police abolition, and the radical social change it requires. Massive funding for policing comes at the expense of social programs and resources, like community centres and youth programs, which could actually address some of the root causes of violence. As APPS wrote in pamphlets, press releases, and posters, “By divesting from the police, we can invest in real community solutions.” But a world without police is a long way off. Taking the work of abolition seriously means connecting with people directly affected by police violence and repression, building the collective power necessary to one day abolish the police, and creating the community we’ll need to keep each other safe in their absence. Marching down King George Boulevard was a first step.

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