JJ Bean is waging war on the poor. Which side are you on?

JJ Bean Coffee Roasters, a multimillion dollar corporation with 21 coffee shop locations throughout Metro Vancouver, has launched a campaign to extend the power of police and business-owners against the disorderly poor, in defense of its own profits. 

On January 20th, CBC Radio’s Early Edition with Stephen Quinn interviewed a JJ Bean retail manager, Julian Bentley, about the problem of “aggressive panhandling and vandalism.” In the interview, Bentley repeated familiar tropes used against street communities. He spoke about used needles, people “shooting up” and “passing out,” referred to “feces” and other “disgusting, inscrutable stuff.” He relied on sensational stories and imagery to stoke a moral panic around homelessness and street-level crime, which according to Bentley, police don’t currently have the power to adequately manage. Bentley offered no solutions of his own, but expressed a sense of increasing desperation, setting the stage for JJ Bean’s CEO, John Neate Jr., to swoop in and offer an answer to the crisis.

In a statement, which Stephen Quinn read on air, Neate advocates for a hotline that business-owners can call when their “business has been disrupted,” as well as “immediate City help for removing panhandlers from cafe patios and entrances and immediate help when people lock themselves into washrooms.” 

At a moment when the police abolition movement has gained renewed energy, JJ Bean is a reactionary force, lobbying for expanded police power.

Neate’s proposals proceed from British Columbia’s already established approach to the social conflict of poverty, which governments manage by legislating the behaviour of the poor and policing their interactions with the “respectable public.” The provincial Safe Streets Act, which was passed in 2004 to restore vagrancy laws struck down by Canadian courts in the 1970s and ‘80s, already criminalizes survival activities, including “aggressive panhandling.” Additionally, cities and towns across BC are expanding municipal bylaws that target people who survive in public space. What Neate proposes is an expansion of this existing regime of policing and criminalization, through closer collaboration between business-owners and police, to more efficiently push poor people out of the public and into prison cells.

At a moment when the police abolition movement has gained renewed energy, JJ Bean is a reactionary force, lobbying for expanded police power. The Vancouver Police Department has jumped on the opportunity created by JJ Bean’s corporate activism, responding publicly within hours of Bentley’s interview. On CBC’s On The Coast with Gloria Macarenko, VPD Constable Steve Addison empathized with Neate and Bentley, describing them as “justifiably fed up.” He encouraged business-owners to call 911 and said, “Police will respond to these types of issues, particularly violence and drug use.” Addison assured listeners that the VPD has heard the concerns and “will allocate more resources to the area to deal with it.”

JJ Bean’s Main Street location in Vancouver’s gentrified Mount Pleasant neighbourhood (GoToVan / Flickr)

The area in question is Mount Pleasant, which JJ Bean’s website calls “one of Vancouver’s most hippest neighbourhoods [sic].” Others describe it, more plainly, as gentrified. The proportion of the population in low-income households in Mount Pleasant was halved from 43.7% in 1996 to only 18.8% in 2016. JJ Bean, which opened its Main Street location in 1999, has been both a driver and beneficiary of the gentrification of the area. In 2017, Vancouver City Council accelerated the gentrification of the neighbourhood, rezoning Mount Pleasant to “support the innovation economy.” As property values continue to rise, driving many of the remaining low-income residents out, businesses like JJ Bean profit off of the influx of young professionals who line up to buy five-dollar lattes.

Gentrification relies on the police to remove the poor from public view by any means available to them, whether through harassment, arrest, brutality, or murder, in order to create a more favourable climate for investment. But with nowhere to go, poor people find ways to remain, survive, and resist. This is how we should understand the hostility that Bentley claims he faces from members of the Mount Pleasant street community: as acts of resistance against an invading, enemy force bent on the displacement or destruction of the low-income community. 

While his boss lobbies for greater police power, Bentley does police work for free. He profiles, surveils, and bans low-income customers. He poured water on a campfire being used by an unhoused person to stay warm in the dead of winter. Bentley listened when the police told him, “Call everyday, create a paper trail, amass a precedent, and then something can be done.” He sides with his boss against the street community, admitting, “They personally don’t like me and, quite frankly, I personally don’t like them.” 

Why has Bentley joined the war on the poor as a foot soldier? As a retail manager, he likely struggles to pay rent and afford the high cost of living in Vancouver. Arguably, he has more in common with a low-income renter who has been evicted to homelessness, than with the CEO of a multimillion dollar corporation. But Bentley identifies with that corporation, which he refers to throughout the interview as “my business,” when in reality JJ Bean belongs to Neate. Bentley is eager to side with his boss, distance himself from the street community, and shore up the limited social power he is afforded as a retail manager, which is as much symbolic as it is material. In this way, Bentley is representative of a broader white, middle-class reaction against the police abolition movement.

While Bentley’s volunteer police work and media theatrics ultimately serve the profits of his employer, he justifies them in terms of the safety of his employees. Bentley claims, “Myself, and more importantly my staff, are being consistently harassed [emphasis added].” He laments that “these problems are getting outsourced to my 20-year-old staff who are getting paid $15 an hour,” suggesting that he and Neate have the best interests of these near-minimum-wage workers at heart when they advocate for the policing and criminalization of poverty. But it is corporations like JJ Bean that create poverty in the first place. When JJ Bean baristas tried to unionize in 2011, the company responded with an anti-union drive, and its workers remain unorganized today. However the absurdity of grandstanding about workers’ safety, while paying them $15 an hour, just $0.40 above the minimum wage, to risk their lives during a global pandemic is lost on both Bentley and CBC’s Stephen Quinn. 

Workers have nothing to gain from a war on the poor that pits members of the working class who happen to be employed against those who are currently unemployed or unhoused.

JJ Bean’s anti-homeless campaign divides the world in two: on one side, the dangerous and disorderly poor, and on the other, the respectable public. Police, as well as middle-class, citizen vigilantes like Bentley, are the thin blue line that protects the public from the poor, according to this story. It is a story that calls on the exploited to side with their exploiters, colonized with colonizers, workers with bosses, tenants with landlords – united against those who threaten to corrode the whirring gears of capital accumulation. But the young, low-waged workers at JJ Bean, who are being ground up in those same gears, have the opportunity to refuse this narrative and expose it for what it is: a reactionary attempt to legitimize and expand the power of the police to manage the social conflict of poverty in favour of corporate profits and gentrifiers’ control over public space. 

Workers have nothing to gain from a war on the poor that pits members of the working class who happen to be employed against those who are currently unemployed or unhoused. Instead of siding with their bosses and bolstering their own exploitation and precarity, employed workers have an opportunity to recognize their shared class interests with street communities and stand united against police, property, and profit.

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