It’s no secret that they want us gone: Vigilante arsons follow on the heels of the City’s assault on Anita Place

Within a week of the City of Maple Ridge cutting power and heat to Anita Place tent city and deploying dozens of police, bylaw, and fire officers to confiscate heaters and propane from residents, three homes have burned down at Anita Place, all within 24 hours.

Since it was founded in May of 2017, there have been six fires at Anita Place, but in the past day, there have been three. At an emergency press conference called at the tent city today, Alliance Against Displacement member Dave Diewert asked, “Why is the City enforcing the removal of heat in the middle of a terrible cold spell and forcing people into conditions of suffering and premature death? How do we explain these fires?” There are two explanations: one, that Ridgelantes were emboldened by the City’s militarized assault on the tent city and are carrying forth that spirit with arson attacks, and two, that the City’s injunction was a miserable failure that wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars removing propane tanks when the only viable approach to fire safety is harm reduction.

The City’s failed injunction

By the City’s own admission, its attempt at enacting fire safety has failed. Unsurprisingly, the tactic of taking people’s only sources of heat in subzero weather is an insufficient deterrent, as people will inevitably improvise with whatever resources they have to stop from freezing to death. As Dwayne Martin explained at today’s conference, it’s human nature to try to survive. Tent city residents have been declaring this to the City from day one: that unless they are provided with a safe source of heat, they will have no choice but to rely on unsafe methods. The abstract threat of burning to death weighs less on a human body than the slow torture of freezing. Rather than adopt a harm reduction approach to the question of fire safety, however, the City continues to refuse all responsibility to its homeless citizens and instead spent last weekend criminalizing and punishing tent city residents.

Ridgelantes follow the City’s lead

Justin described the fire that destroyed his home and everything in it: “Last night was a horrible night. I came back to my structure to go to sleep and in a matter of seconds there was smoke and flames coming down from the ceiling, wrapping around the walls. It was a nightmare. A complete nightmare. I tried to get out of there as fast as I could but my door was jammed. I literally had to rip my way out of there because of this. And it doesn’t make any sense. We had all of our accelerants and ignition sources removed from our tents. There was no reason this should have happened unless it was foul play.”

He went on to ask how one of the other tents, which was unoccupied and had no ignition sources in it, could possibly have caught fire. Although residents have repeatedly expressed that they believe that most of the fires onsite were vigilante arson attacks, to date the fire department has not made any comments on the causes of any of the fires at Anita Place. Each of the fires has struck a structure or tent alongside the east or west fence lines of the camp, both of which run alongside roads. Justin pointed out that the Genesis security guards installed by the City, which have been there 24 hours a day since last week, are there to police residents, not protect them. He watched guards standing around one of the tents that burnt down yesterday laughing: “Standing around the wreckage of a homeless person’s home who had just lost everything, laughing. It’s not right. I lost my home, somebody could have lost their life, and all because of what? Because of everyone’s hatred toward us? Their ignorance? We’re not homeless here by choice. We ended up here and now we’re going to fight for our cause.”

Despite their banner of “fire safety”, it was clear to residents that the City’s goal with the injunction is to make life at tent city as unliveable and uncomfortable as possible. Justin identified the arson attacks as a seamless continuation of the City’s criminalization of the camp. “It’s becoming more and more uncomfortable and they’re trying to remove us. These are terror attacks from Maple Ridge residents against Maple Ridge residents. All we want are homes. We want to be able to survive and get our heads straight and go back to normal living, not have to live every day in fear and constantly rebuild because people are coming in and setting fire to us and freezing us to death.”

Housing and heat are the only solutions

Anita Place residents are being forced to choose between freezing to death or burning to death, whether because the City’s actions stoke grassroots violence, or because they have no option but to improvise unsafe sources of heat that put their lives at risk. The only long term solution that can remedy this is housing, and the only short term solution is the immediate provision of safe heat and electricity onsite. Residents demand that the City immediately respond to the life safety emergency at Anita Place not by returning to court for an even more draconian court order, but by providing an electrical grid that residents can use to power electric heaters. And they demand that BC Housing purchase the rental apartment building, St. Anne’s Apts, currently being constructed across the street from Anita Place in order to house Maple Ridge’s tent city residents, homeless people, and modular tenants.

When asked what he would do now, Justin emphatically said, “I’m starting over again, I’m building. I’m not leaving. They’ve thinned us out but we’re going to keep fighting for what we’re fighting for. I’m not leaving.” Dwayne joined this sentiment, explaining that “we’re fighting for people who aren’t even out here yet. The odds of people coming out here is growing every day.” In the face of both state-sponsored and grassroots attacks on their survival, Anita Place residents are doubling-down on their fight for housing.

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