The City of Maple Ridge has chosen January, when the rains and winds of the west coast winter are at their worst, to take the residents of Anita Place tent city back to court in an effort to demolish their homes. Maple Ridge is not seeking an order to displace Anita Place tent city, but to arm City officials – fire, bylaw, and parks officers – with police enforcement powers in order to demolish the wooden homes that campers have built, to raid all tents and areas of camp and confiscate all items they deem a “fire risk” like propane tanks and heaters, cooking stoves, electrical cords and lights, candles, and blankets, clothes, and tarps that the fire chief decides are an “excess” of what a homeless person needs. The City is also asking for the power to register and police the residents of camp.
This is the third injunction application launched by a Municipal government in British Columbia in 2018 – together representing hundreds of thousands of public dollars dedicated to policing rather than housing homeless people – in order to attack and attempt to squash the growing tent city movement that is resisting the deadly and humiliating conditions governments organize for homeless people. In September, the City of Saanich and the Province of British Columbia won a displacement injunction against a camp of around 100 people at Camp Namegans, and in October the City of Nanaimo won a similar injunction against Discontent City, a camp of more than 400.
The City’s lawyer Jeff Locke is a particularly sulphur-scented villain in this court drama. Mr. Locke has made a cottage industry out of attacking homeless people for Municipalities. Jeff Locke has represented the City of Maple Ridge on two previous, unsuccessful court applications, and, based on this expertise, he represented the City of Saanich in their bid to smash Camp Namegans. On Monday January 14th, Locke presented his argument for totalitarian City power over Anita Place tent city – insisting that homeless people owe a duty of obedient submission to the government and civil society that hates them, but that this government and society do not owe homeless squatters… well, squat.
At its core, the City’s argument depends on interpreting the fire chief’s order to demolish homes at Anita Place as intended “in the best interest of the lives and safety of camp residents and surrounding neighbours.” Here the defence of the camp runs into a problem of systemic bias, which Locke leaned on with all his weight. I am using the term “common sense” in the critical way defined by revolutionary theorist Antonio Gramsci: common sense describes ideas that are so ingrained in the logic and narratives of dominant society that they are accepted as unquestionable truisms. This common sense is a form of discursive power that the Fire Chief wields to pose as a benevolent authority. The common-sense appeal of the City’s application is that the fire chief is inevitably, because of the very nature of his office, committed to the apolitical and altruistic wellbeing of the public.
The evidence of homeless people’s experience speaks to a different sense, one that is not common because it does not trust in dominant structures and systems of power. The uncommonly good sense of the tent city fighters knows that homeless people are not part of the public that are protected by the fire department or police department because they have experienced the attention of police and fire officials as a negative and punitive coercive force, not protective or benevolent. Nearly every affidavit statement submitted to the court on behalf of campers says that they have never received advice or help from fire officials to help them be safe, they have only received negative prohibitions. They say it is their community of homeless neighbours who make them safe – the attendance of fire officials makes their life harder, colder, more dangerous, and interferes in their ability to shelter themselves from the elements. This evidence will be presented to court in the second day of trial.
Jeff Locke summarized his client’s case near the end of his day-long presentation when he said one incredible sentence: “The law should protect the status quo.” He was arguing that “finding housing is not in the jurisdiction of Cities,” and against Anita Place tent city’s “fulltime occupation of public lands,” which is a controversy not being considered in this injunction hearing. But the common sense logic of this claim reached into the problems of managing and reducing fire danger in the camp. Locke claimed that there is not “a single example where a fire order has been followed by a homeless camp. They either don’t have the capacity to follow an order, or they are unwilling.”
Locke’s case for an enforcement order cited the temerity of homeless people to “disagree” with fire officials about the safety of the housing they have been forced to create out of nothing by their poverty, depravation, and exclusion, and to resist coercive forces that aim to strip them of their homes and community. He argued that City workers were unable to enforce the fire order because of the resistance of campers against their attempts to demolish the homes built by residents. He read an affidavit written by a city worker, who explained that when they tried to enter the camp to carry out these house demolitions, they were met at the gate by a resident of the camp named Joe and listen chen, a member of Alliance Against Displacement. Joe and another resident, Dwayne Martin, said they would not be removing any structures and would not permit the city staff to enter the camp. Joe spoke on behalf of the camp. Locke said a dozen occupants stood behind a snowfence throughout the interaction. They were agitated and shouted support for the declarations of Joe and Dwayne.
Throughout the day, Jeff Locke attacked Alliance Against Displacement. In his opening words, Locke argued that AAD’s “political agenda” contaminates the ostensibly apolitical problem of housing the homeless. And as evidence that campers are planning to continue to build their own shelters, he used evidence from an AAD Facebook page fundraising for the camp. “You can see the political activist element of this in this post.” He emphasized the words in the post “the state,” “fire pigs,” and “f-u to city officials who would rather see people freeze to death than allow them to defend themselves.”
When Locke said that the goal of the injunction hearing must be to enforce the fire order, the Supreme Court Justice replied, “does that have to be a threshold towards working towards housing?” Campers in the court galley said they hoped this meant the Judge was not buying the simplified story presented by Jeff Locke and the City of Maple Ridge. Campers agree that their homes should be safe, but their solution to the problem of imperfect structures is different from the City’s. The City is claiming that the unsafe structures should be demolished. Campers, in a case that will be made in the second day of the hearing, will counter Locke’s case by arguing that their structures should be improved and made safe, and that fire orders must meet the test of reasonability and practicality in a homeless camp – where they are, in practice, being applied. Those arguments will be heard in the second and final day of the injunction hearing.