Drug Prohibition, Criminalizing Poverty, and Internal Displacement in the Lower Mainland

Experiences from Alliance Against Displacement

On May 4th, 2019 the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users hosted a panel Imperialism, The Drug War, and the War on the Poor. The purpose of the panel was to explore how imperialism, the forced expansion of capitalist economy into the third world, is connected to the daily lives of poor people and drug users in Western countries. Alliance Against Displacement was asked to present on how the drug war and the war on the poor operate in our anti-poverty struggles with homeless people in the Lower Mainland. – Volcano editors

We have been taught from day one that we live in a society governed by the impartial rule of law, that governments uphold “law and order” fairly, and that police protect citizens from crime by enforcing the law. But we know that the construction of “crime” is arbitrary: rules are made by the rulers and they serve their interests — protecting private property and business profits. The legal and enforcement apparatus of the state is not impartial; it works to “serve and protect” the interests of those with power and to establish and maintain an unjust and unequal social order through state-sanctioned violence.

The legal regime of drug prohibition and the criminalization of poverty and homelessness are clear examples of how state power is used to punish those seen as threats to the order of property and profit.

Clearing the Surrey Strip

In Surrey, a homeless encampment grew along the two blocks of 135A in Whalley, which became known in the media as “the Strip,” and became a visible manifestation of the homelessness crisis. On this street there were shelter, food and health resources accessible to those who set up tents. At first, the space was managed by social workers connected with Lookout Society and the Front Room drop in. As the encampment grew, police and bylaw came regularly to the Strip, trashing belongings that seemed to have been abandoned, doing drug busts, dealing with reports of assault, and searching for people with outstanding warrants. Over time, these enforcement visits became more frequent.

Then in December 2016, the City of Surrey launched its City Centre Response Plan, which included the imposition of a Surrey Outreach Team on the Strip that was comprised of 12 RCMP and 4 bylaw officers, who would be present on a 24/7 basis. The City’s response to deep poverty and homelessness was NOT the construction of housing and an increase in resources, nor was it an outreach team of social workers, healthcare providers and housing advocates – it was outreach workers with guns and a monopoly on state-sanctioned violence. It was a strategy of intense surveillance, harassment and containment; it solidified the equation of poverty and homelessness with criminality and dangerousness.

The homeless encampment on 135A resembled an outdoor prison or a refugee camp, where police kept track of everyone who lived there, knew of their comings and goings, interrogated visitors, and vetted everyone who provided any kind of service to residents of the Strip. They arrested street-level drug dealers, assisted bylaw theft of people’s belongings, harassed people with accusations of theft or petty bylaw infractions, and forced homeless people living elsewhere onto the Strip so they could watch them. It was an unabashed strategy of criminalization, and it deepened social stigma and hostility toward people forced to endure and survive conditions of premature death. It established the practice of using overt police power to manage and repress the social conflicts created by the market forces of capitalism.

It is noteworthy that the implementation of the Surrey Outreach Team coincided with the final approval of a massive development plan for the area. The Surrey City Centre Plan was approved by council in January 2017, and it lays out a elaborate development scheme for the whole area, including 135A. The removal of the encampment from the Strip was essential to push this plan along and encourage large-scale investment in the area.

After the implementation of 160 units of temporary trailer units, BC Housing announced the first of the 5 projects was scheduled for Cloverdale. Business and property owners in the area opposed it vehemently and it was cancelled. The reasons they stated were that having people formerly homeless living nearby would negatively impact their quality of life, diminish property values and undermine public safety. The association of homelessness with criminality and danger that state management strategies produce is then reproduced among its residents and the result is further social exclusion and hostility.

In 2013, Surrey’s Master Plan for Housing the Homeless proposed 450 units of housing, 360 of those to be new construction plus purchased and renovated buildings. These 360 units, the report calculated, would cost just over $41 million. Needless to say, most of those units weren’t built, but over the same period, the RCMP budget in Surrey increased by $41 million.

The role of the police is to serve and protect the interests of businesses and property owners, and to secure the power of the ruling class. It’s no surprise that the Surrey Board of Trade annually hands out police awards, and this year the Surrey Homelessness and Housing Society gave its “Heroes of the Homeless” award to the Surrey Outreach Team – a recognition that was no doubt assigned without any input from people who endured daily police repression on the Strip.

Raiding Anita Place in Maple Ridge

Police blockade of the Anita Place “exclusion zone” viewed through the fence around camp, March 23, 2019

Anita Place Tent City was set up May 2, 2017 because the province was going to shut down a low barrier shelter, bowing to pressure from local residents who despise homeless people they consider are all drug users and criminals.

Within a week, bylaw raided the camp without city council approval, but it was resisted by camp residents and supporters.

There were two efforts by the City to obtain a court injunction to close down the camp failed because up to that point courts were reluctant to close down tent cities without some form of housing in place. Instead, the camp was placed under fire orders and inspected weekly by fire and police. Despite a few meager and insufficient resources from the province, the city provided no help to assist tent city residents with enough resources to comply with fire regulations; all heating devices were banned but nothing was offered as an alternative.

The tent city was an organized community space, with the establishment of a camp council, weekly meetings, decision-making processes. It was a vibrant site for harm reduction and community care. In nearly two years of operating, there was only one overdose death at the camp.

In the fall of 2018 Mike Morden campaigned for Mayor on his opposition to the camp. His election brought renewed city efforts to shut down the camp. Relying on court rulings in Sanaach and Nanaimo that saw injunctions to dismantle tent cities granted on the basis of fire dangers, the City of Maple Ridge applied for court injunctions that included compliance with fire orders and regulations, verification of “official occupants”, and total enforcement powers by police. The judge granted these orders in February 2019.

Anita Place Tent City was the overdose prevention site of Maple Ridge; since it’s closure Jason Gilbert (Mohawk Jay) died of an overdose, and people there agreed that he was the first casualty of the camp closure. Without the camp people will keep dying and will experience the harassment and surveillance of cops and bylaw as Ridgeilantes and the mayor organize opposition to housing.

Former residents of the camp say there is a lot more danger on the streets. The repressive and hateful actions of the mayor have emboldened resident hostility towards people who are homeless and who use drugs. Being scattered and alone make people more vulnerable to public hatred and violence. In the words of Audra Simpson, “States do not always have to kill; its citizens can do that for it.”

Parliament and the Mass Mob: prohibition, criminalization, and dehumanization

Drug prohibition and the criminalization of survival strategies for people who are poor and homeless puts people at risk of state-sanctioned and vigilante violence. The stigma and dehumanization that attends criminalization sets people outside of society: to be feared and despised, to be policed by cops and bylaw, and by institutions and workers within the structures of social management (housing, health, income, etc.), to die prematurely.

People who are poor, who use illicit drugs and who are homeless are contained, controlled and removed from the colonial and capitalist social order, an order that both produces the conditions for their existence and then criminalizes them. We need to do away with this order; we need to continue to organize and expand our power against the power of the state, its cops, courts, and prisons, and its vigilante supporters; we need to fight for other worlds where needs are met and human lives can be lived creatively together.

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