Downtown East editorial
The very existence of the low-income communities of the DTES is threatened by rapid condo development and retail gentrification. The area is being invaded by high-end restaurants designed solely for those who reap the benefits of our unequal society. While some enjoy expensive food and fine wines, thousands of residents are homeless, warehoused in shelters, or forced to live in crappy SROs, with too little money to meet their basic needs.
Recently some 3000 people, mostly DTES residents, signed a petition that called for the establishment of a Social Justice Zone in the Oppenheimer area of the DTES, which would prioritize the housing, income, health and security needs of low-income people. Their collective voice formed a strong message: they don’t want more condos and pricey restaurants; they want social justice.
The struggle for justice requires many diverse strategies and tactics, and any viable movement employs a range of approaches: speeches at City Hall, petitions and letters, occupations, rallies and marches, blocking streets, street-level protests, etc. This year an informal group of people have banded together to organize and establish ongoing pickets outside the Pidgin and Cuchillo restaurants, out of frustration with the failure of other tactics to stop the rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood. The picket is an old and honourable tactic used in struggles for workers’ rights and defending communities against other forms of oppression. And it is perfectly legal. With placards, signs and creative symbols, they stand outside these restaurants most nights and ask patrons not to cross the picket line, discussing their cause with anyone who will engage in conversation. It’s a pretty reasonable and simple tactic of resistance.
But not everyone agrees with it. In July, 15 DTES groups held a press conference to express their opposition to “the vandalism, intimidation, harassment, and targeted pickets that have taken place lately.” The groups included the Hastings Crossing and Gastown Business Improvement Associations, the Crosstown, False Creek and Strathcona Resident Associations, an Aboriginal group called ALIVE the DTES Neighbourhood Council (the DNC board participated without consulting or getting the approval of the general membership). They produced a joint statement entitled “End bullying, intimidation and harassment in the DTES now!” and described it as “A Joint Call for respectful community discourse, free from vandalism, intimidation and slander.”
The joint statement does not give concrete details, but it does blame unidentified “protesters” for engaging in bullying tactics. It asserts that picketing specific businesses (Pidgin, Cuchillo, Cartems, Rainier Provisions, Save-on-Meats) is “misplaced and divisive.” Use of intimidation and personal attacks by some creates fear of being attacked by others, the statement claims, though no details are given. It calls for community planning and “innovative” (that is, business) solutions to the issues facing the DTES, and it asks the City, its residents and the media to recognize the tactics of certain protesters as bullying and therefore unacceptable.
This press conference was immediately reported in the Gastown Gazette, and its anonymous editors used the joint statement against bullying to specifically denounce the picketers at Pidgin and Cuchillo restaurants and their alleged backers. It labelled them “professional protestors,” claimed that they don’t represent the DTES, and falsely linked the picket organizers and funding to the Carnegie Community Action Project (CCAP).
After quoting from the statement that “organized bullying and personal intimidation should not be accepted,” the Gastown Gazette editors assert, “It was apparent these comments were aimed directly at Jean Swanson, CCAP Leader and Coordinator, and Gena Thompson, President of the Carnegie Community Centre Association.” Later the article quotes Ludvik Skalicky, former Carnegie board member, who claimed that Wendy Pedersen, Ivan Drury and Jean Swanson were the ones responsible for organizing the pickets. The Gastown Gazette editors then used these false claims to call on the Mayor, Vancity and the Vancouver Foundation to defund and shut down CCAP.
The truth is that Jean Swanson and Ivan Drury (no longer with CCAP) have not been involved in organizing the pickets. Wendy Pedersen has not worked at CCAP since August of 2012, and CCAP has not funded the picket protests. This false presentation of the pickets and the people involved in them, without any effort to report their fundamental concerns, is a vicious campaign to stigmatize resistance and criminalize dissent.
The low-income residents of the DTES are in a fight for their existence as a community. The statement of the “End Bullying” group and the more extreme comments in the Gastown Gazette in no way serve the interests of the low-income community. Instead they serve the interests of gentrifiers, major land developers and big business. Under the false premise of critiquing “bullying tactics” they are fueling witch-hunts against individuals and organizations that have fought for social justice in the DTES for many years. This community level witch-hunt is especially dangerous because it is not happening it a vacuum, but could support and strengthen escalating police and media attempts to intimidate and silence low-income community resistance in the DTES and elsewhere in BC. The real bullies are the gentrifiers who push people out of their communities, and those who support them by attacking low-income residents and their allies as they resist the forces of displacement and envision a place of greater dignity, care and well-being.