Maple Ridge cops repress tent city protest, hand in hand with Ridgeilantes

At 9:30pm on Tuesday June 1st, more than two dozen RCMP officers from at least two detachments, along with bylaw officers and Maple Ridge’s contracted private security guards encircled a small protest encampment set up in Maple Ridge’s city hall park and, without a word of warning, tore apart tents, seized belongings, and arrested four activists in an unlawful act of police repression.

The demonstration, called by local homeless activist group Maple Ridge Resistance a “model tent city,” started at 3pm Tuesday with a march from a nearby park to the square outside Maple Ridge City Hall. Members of the low-income community abandoned by the BC government to shelters, temporary modular housing, and the streets spoke out and called for homes, the end of the criminalization that has caused thousands of deaths in BC by drug poisoning, and the abolition of police and police spending. The group then set up an overnight protest camp made up of about 10 tents, including one ad hoc overdose prevention site, cooked a dinner they shared together, and talked, laughed, and settled in.

Ridgelantes and police violence

All along, the protest was besieged by a mob of Ridgelantes, a portmanteau of “Maple Ridge” and “vigilante,” who cheered and heckled when speakers spoke of loved ones they lost and about their suffering on the streets and in government slums. Ridgelantes wore “Our City Our Choice” shirts, which refer to their successful blocking of multiple social housing projects in Maple Ridge, and, ironically, orange “Every Child Matters” shirts that refer to the same sort of colonial violence they wish upon Indigenous people in their city. They constantly disrupted the community protest gathering by yelling, mocking, rushing in with their phone cameras held high, trying, unsuccessfully, to provoke people in the protest camp to violence. 

One of the unhoused demonstrators, Terry, said that he saw the police working with and supporting the vigilante mob. “I saw the cops favouring the vigilantes. I witnessed them wait until after we had finished speaking, while we were sitting together to eat. We were all relaxing and talking with each other. It felt like a community gathering. I saw the cops then go over to the group of vigilantes on the other side of the park and escort them over to us,” he said. “Once the vigilantes were right there yelling at us, it felt like the cops hung back and watched. They made sure the vigilantes could insult us and provoke us, but they stayed close enough to back up the vigilantes if we fought back.”

The swarm of police, bylaw, so-called Community Safety Officers, and private security guards acted as armed and uniformed Ridgelantes in their own right. Community Safety Officers drove three trucks into the protest encampment, in between tents, and parked them with their siren lights on, interrupting the community gathering with the tension of police surveillance. And from the moment the first tent went up, Community Safety Officers distributed warning letters on City of Maple Ridge letterhead, declaring that erecting tents at Memorial Peace Park is a violation of a Parks Bylaw, and threatening the protest camp with arrest for trespass. 

It took hours for the RCMP to decide if they would support the Maple Ridge bylaw office in their repression of unhoused people’s rights to assembly and expression, guaranteed under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In the meantime, the police abetted repeated conflicts and threats from the vigilante mob against the protest camp. Kali, a young unhoused non-binary person with disabilities, said she felt like “the vigilantes have more rights than we do.” Her husband Nic said, “Two big older guys walked into our group. One of them said to me and Kali, ‘if I ever see you in front of my house I’m coming after you with a shotgun.’ I told the cops and they didn’t do anything. They just chatted with him.”

At about 9pm, under the direction of a white-shirted RCMP Corporal Slater, the RCMP called in reinforcements from at least one other detachment – Coquitlam – and stood behind a Maple Ridge Community Safety Officer wearing weighted gloves who announced that the police were enforcing the trespass letter. 

Police attack and make four arrests

The protest campers decided to avoid arrest by relocating to another park, one where Maple Ridge permits overnight camping. Municipalities throughout BC have been compelled by the Supreme Court Shantz decision to allow unhoused people to seek shelter in parks between the hours of 7pm and 9am, and Maple Ridge complied with this directive by designating some parks where night-by-night camping is permitted and others where it is not.

So, demonstrators picked up their tents and carried them to a park included on Maple Ridge’s list of acceptable sheltering parks, the tiny “City Hall Park” located on the Dewdney Trunk side of the building. City Hall Park looks like a small patch of grass but is demarcated with a plaque on the wall above that grass. This move effectively ended the civil disobedience aspect of the protest because it meant that the protest camp was no longer violating the Maple Ridge Parks Bylaw. But the police didn’t see it that way.

Tammy, Maple Ridge Resistance (RED BRAID)

Tammy just got into a room in the temporary modular housing building the day of the protest, but she had been bouncing between shelters and the street for months and had been part of planning the event so she had decided to spend the night in the protest camp. She was one of the four arrested during the police raid, and she was the most seriously injured.

Tammy was the one who noticed first that the police were getting ready to attack, and that’s why she went to pick up her tent that was still folded up on the ground. “I told people around me, look out the cops are getting in formation. They were counted out in rows all around us and they were blocking every way out. Then right away the cops started tearing apart people’s tents and I wanted to keep the one I had, which I had borrowed from a friend, so I sat on it.”

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But then the police set in on Tammy too, fast. “They said they were serving me with an order but I didn’t understand and didn’t even have time to take the paper they were holding out when they said I was under arrest for obstruction… My purse was stuck on my arm and one cop was pulling my arm forward and the other was pulling it backwards­ and both were yelling for me to stop resisting. I wasn’t resisting, I couldn’t move,” she said. The result, she found out when she went to the hospital the next day, was a torn rotator cuff in her right shoulder. Additionally, despite warning the police that she has an injured tendon in her wrist, they put the cuff on as tight as it could go, exacerbating her injury. 

Life threatening effects

Kali said that having their belongings destroyed by bylaw could have life threatening effects. They had just been released from the hospital after being in an induced coma for five weeks because they had a severe septic infection in their blood. When they came out of the coma they  were diagnosed with HIV and had exhausted their savings and the money they could borrow to get the $300 to buy all the medication they needed to stop from slipping back into a coma and treat their medical conditions. They said, “I already told them that my kid’s baby blanket and my medication was in there. I told Michelle Orsetti, the head of Maple Ridge bylaw. She told me she’d get that stuff back and she went to the truck and brought back just 4 pills. I have 13 bottles of pills for HIV treatment. She brought just 4 pills from one bottle.”

Kali has started filing a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal against Maple Ridge’s discrimination against them on the basis of her disability. Listen Chen, from Red Braid, who is helping Kali fill out their complaint, says that discriminatory conduct can be based on either what someone does to you, an act, or what someone does not do, an omission. Kali may have a case on both bases: the Bylaw department’s act of seizing their medication, and Michelle Orsetti’s omission in their refusal to return Kali’s meds, even after knowing the detailed implications of this omission.

Kali says that the Maple Ridge bylaw department also denied their status as a disabled person by inappropriately questioning them in a moment of crisis. Demanding they move faster, Kali says two bylaw officers and an RCMP officer asked them sarcastically why they didn’t need her walker earlier in the day. They said, “Earlier in the day I wasn’t so exhausted, and I also had my husband there to lean on.”

Watch a video of Nic trying to save his and Kali’s belongings and his arrest here:

Nic is Kali’s husband and was frantic about them losing their meds, especially because they were so recently out of the hospital and they were already struggling to stay healthy through homelessness. He said, “I saw them throw the bag in the truck and heard Kali shout out about her medicine. I ran right away to get it back. I grabbed a chair while I ran to the bylaw truck so I could use it to climb into the back. But the cops dragged me off the truck and threw me on the ground. Two of them jumped on my back and they put the cuffs on so tight that they opened the wounds on my wrists. Now they’re still bleeding and they feel infected.”

Cecilia, a witness who was out on an evening walk for ice cream, came across the police kneeling on Nic’s back and neck. She said she was shocked and shouted out, “Stop that! You’re hurting him!” Afterwards she explained, “I saw the group of police reinforcements march up behind the people with the tents. It seemed like they were part of the group of self-righteous white people who were yelling at the others peacefully sitting in the park.”

Cops and Klan go hand in hand

Cecilia said that she lived in Chile during Pinochet’s fascist coup against the socialist president Salvadore Allende and the feeling of the police and vigilantes encouraging each other to be more aggressive, more violent, reminded her of the coup years. She said that she felt this police attack was not just about the tents in the park. “The fact is,” she said, “this is all about criminalizing poverty.”

Terry said that he found the sympathies of the vigilantes depended on how the police were acting towards the unhoused people in the camp. “One guy who was real big, like real built, he told me he was going to punch me in the face. I tried to talk to him. I stayed there and talked to him for 15 minutes. I told him I want to understand him and I apologized if he was offended. He shook my hand and apologized for threatening me,” he said. “Then 15 minutes later, when the cops were attacking us, I saw that same guy pumping his fist and cheering. When the cops came and started tearing our tents apart, they had the same looks of satisfaction on their faces that that bodybuilder guy had; like victory.”

Nic said that he sees the over-policing of low income people in Maple Ridge as part of an overall redirection of public resources into policing. “They take all the city’s money and give it to cops. They took out all the garbage cans from the side streets and most of them on Lougheed because they don’t want to pay city workers,” he said. “They made the Community Safety Officers instead. There’s no public bathrooms, no garbage cans, even the tulips on Lougheed Highway all died because the City won’t spend money on anything but police.”

Only we protect us

Jessie from Maple Ridge Resistance (RED BRAID)

Jessie is a 15 year old high school student and a member of Maple Ridge Resistance as well as Red Braid. They said, “I was there because what the city is doing is wrong. People need housing and when they don’t have housing then the city takes their human rights away.”

They said they went to the demonstration and support unhoused people’s struggles because of their experiences as a working class teenager. “I’ve grown up around injustice. I’ve seen people thrown around and mistreated. I’ve seen people treated like rats, like they’re unwanted,” they said.

Jessie said the police attack on the protest camp was surprising because “it seemed like we were very peaceful. I don’t think we were breaking any laws or anything. We were just speaking our minds,” they said. “Then the Cleanup Maple Ridge crew came out and they didn’t like that. They were the violent ones. They were yelling at us and threatening us. But the cops were protecting them, not us.”

Jessie says they saw the vigilantes focus especially on people who seemed more vulnerable, who were away from the rest of the group. “They focused on attacking women,” they said.

Along with Kali’s meds, their bag also had in it a blue baby blanket belonging to their son with Mickey Mouse patterns across it that, they said, is irreplaceable. When they heard the news that bylaw had destroyed the baby blanket they broke down in tears and collapsed onto the ground holding their husband. They said, “We carried that blanked everywhere because our son gave it to us. He gave it to us because he wanted mommy and daddy to be warm.”

Mark is a slightly built elder in the street community who has sad eyes and is known for his generosity. In the police seizure he lost his huge, new tent, which he had set up as an ad hoc Overdose Prevention Site. But when he went to the bylaw office the morning after the police raid, it was to support Kali to try to get their bag back. When the bylaw officer told them that Kali’s bag was gone, he said, “I’m really really sorry.” Mark says Kali turned away in tears, and he turned back to the towering bylaw officer and said, “You’re a liar.” He said, “They’re not sorry. They didn’t have to do this.”

Mark said, “The biggest lie I’ve been told is that the cops serve and protect. Only we protect us, only homeless people protect homeless people.”

Undeterred by repression

Despite her torn shoulder, Tammy, like the other unhoused members of Maple Ridge Resistance, is undeterred. “I still think the protest was the right thing to do and I’d do it all over again,” she said. “They treat us like trash in Maple Ridge all the time, not just when we protest, it’s 24-7. The only thing we can do is fight back.”

Scotty is an unhoused man who says he became homeless after a stroke left him with a debilitating brain injury. He was one of the initiators of the “model tent city” demonstration, who called together meetings in the parking lot where he had been sleeping most nights, after being kicked in the head by Ridgelantes as he slept. Far from being beaten down by the police repression of the demonstration, Scotty said the repression dropped any illusions about peaceful relations between the street community and the City.

“What we did is we showed people exactly what we’re saying: there’s strength in numbers and there’s power in unity,” Scotty said. “Look how they attacked us. That shows how powerful we are and how much they fear our organized action.”

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