We can’t vote away police violence: Elections and policing in Surrey
The following is based on Lenee Son’s talk, prepared in collaboration with Isabel Krupp, at Alliance Against Displacement’s panel on BC’s municipal elections, “About that White Progressive Sweep”, and is part of The Volcano’s primer on Metro Vancouver’s 2018 civic elections.
Crime was the number one issue in the 2018 Surrey election according to polls. But “crime” is an ambiguous term—it is both a catch-all for various illegal activities and a symbol for all sorts of fears and anxieties. It conjures up images of murder, sexual assault, and gang shootings, but also refers to the strategies of poor and homeless people who are just trying to survive. Saying “Surrey voters care about crime” doesn’t tell us very much.
But of course candidates running for office did not dig deeper—they never asked Surrey residents to define “crime” or articulate their fears with more specificity. They simply took residents’ concerns about crime at face value. In response to the swirling panic about crime, all candidates that ran in the Surrey municipal election proposed different versions of the same thing: they promised to enlarge police presence and budgets, increase surveillance, and expand police programs in schools and communities. Rather than seek to understand the anxieties underlying Surrey residents’ concerns about “crime,” politicians played on our fears in order to win our votes. And instead of trying to address the roots of violence—like racism and inequality—they all sought to increase the power of police over our lives and communities.
Crime rates are falling in Surrey and across the country. Mclean’s recently released its 2019 report on “Canada’s most dangerous cities,” based on Statistics Canada Crime Severity Index data. Despite the panic over “growing crime” in our city, Surrey has actually fallen from 32nd place in 2018 to 47th place for 2019. In terms of violent crime, specifically, Surrey dropped to 63rd place. Youth crime in Surrey is also well below the Canadian average, despite the particular panic around youth and gangs.
If crime rates are dropping, why is there so much fear about crime in Surrey? I want to argue that this panic isn’t really about crime—it’s about a much deeper social and economic crisis: it’s about unemployment, poverty, racism, and alienation, which impact communities of colour disproportionately, creating deeper social anxieties about the future.
Gang violence: criminalizing poverty and alienation
Front and centre in the discourse around crime is the issue of gang violence. The panic over gang violence is not only based on white fear of racialized youth, although that is an important part of it. I won’t dwell on that aspect of the panic, because it feels relatively simple and easy to understand—it is a straightforward expression of racist anxiety on the part of white homeowners and business-owners.
What feels more complex and requires more careful analysis is the way that communities of colour, especially South Asian communities in Surrey, also take part in the panic about gangs. What is this fear based on and where is it coming from? We see it as an expression of racialized Surrey residents’ broader, deeper fears about their children’s futures. Isabel Krupp, another member of Anti-Police Power Surrey explained this in an article this summer:
Parents—particularly racialized, first-generation immigrant parents—are afraid that their children will be the first generation in a century to be worse off than the previous generation. Their anxiety is not only because there is a small (but real) chance their children will experience the violence and uncertainty associated with gang involvement. It is also because of this deeper crisis of poverty and racism. Gang violence may be one manifestation of this broader crisis, but gangs aren’t the root of the problem.
The panic and desperation for somebody to do something about gang violence has manifested in calls for more police on the ground. But police cannot possibly address the crisis of material security and social belonging that underlie the panic about crime and gangs. In all of this, the voices of South Asian and Black youth are silenced and the roots of their social alienation and material deprivation are not only ignored, they’re entrenched—since the gang panic further legitimizes the surveillance, regulation, and criminalization of poor and racialized youth in Surrey. Divesting from the RCMP would free up City funds that could then be re-invested in community-led projects aimed at actually addressing the crisis underlying the growth of gangs.
Policing poor and homeless people
One way Surrey City Hall has justified using police to solve “social problems” has been by treating homelessness as a problem of crime rather than of economy or politics. The City of Surrey’s response to the problem of homelessness has been to create the so-called RCMP “Outreach Team,” which consists of 12 cops and four bylaw officers. The Outreach Team was established to patrol the hundreds of tents set up on the 135A Street “Surrey Strip,” subjecting homeless residents of the Strip to surveillance, harassment, and criminalization 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This strategy continues, even now that the Strip has been cleared of tents—in fact, homeless people say that police and bylaw harassment has escalated.
Homelessness continues to rise as incomes fall behind skyrocketing rents, and governments refuse to build permanent social housing, while continuing to approve the destruction of low-end of market rental units. But candidates running for election in Surrey were fixated on funneling more money into policing and criminalizing poor and homeless people, rather than directing those resources to address the root causes of poverty. In other municipalities, like Maple Ridge, candidates spoke explicitly about implementing the Surrey model to “manage” their own homeless populations. After all, the Outreach Team has been declared a success—the Surrey RCMP was even awarded Surrey Homeless and Housing Society’s “Heroes of the Homeless Award” in October. In most suburbs and small towns, the choice is between politicians who cater to the anti-homeless mob and, when we’re lucky, a small group of reformers who advocate for policies of treatment, regulation, and control of homeless people in institutionalized “supportive housing” buildings. In Surrey, as in municipal elections across BC, homeless people were dehumanized, pathologized, and individualized, while the broader social and historical context that is making people homeless was obscured.
Politicians will never abolish the police
My final question is, what will make us safe? The City of Surrey is already home to the largest RCMP detachment in the country. This overwhelming police presence does nothing to address the real causes of our fear and insecurity. We are told to trust the police to keep us safe and we are told to trust politicians to make policies that serve us. But this erodes our ability to hold each other accountable and keep each other safe. We need a different model of “participation”—more than just casting a ballot.
Anita Place Tent City in Maple Ridge is an example of a community directly meeting its own needs and pushing back against dehumanization and police control. Residents of Anita Place are represented by a residents’ council and meet regularly to discuss the logistics and politics of the camp. Although RCMP officers enter and walk through the camp, residents follow them, alert others to their presence, and film them with cell phones. It does not feel like the RCMP have power in Anita Place; they do not open or enter people’s tents and do not seize residents belongings. In contrast, residents of the Surrey Strip described 135A Street as an “open air prison”—police, bylaw officers, and social workers had almost total control over the Strip. Unlike residents of Anita Place, residents of the Surrey Strip weren’t organized: they were actively disorganized by the power and constant presence of police, which created real barriers to building collective power. That’s why it was so easy for the City to clear the Strip of tents to make way for condo towers. Residents of the Strip were moved to temporary trailer housing, shelter beds, or scattered across the city, in doorways, alleys, woods, and elsewhere. The City faced no real resistance from residents of the Strip because as individuals we have no real power to push back against the state and its police force. Anita Place, on the other hand, still stands, even though Maple Ridge has followed Surrey’s lead in putting up temporary trailer housing.
Community alternatives to police: abolition in practice
Abolition may seem idealistic. You may be thinking right now, what do I do if someone attacks me? What do I do about gang violence? When we experience harm, what are our options? Instead of believing that involving the state or doing nothing are our only options, we need to talk through alternatives to police together. We need to talk about abolition. Abolition is visible if you are looking in the right place. We practice abolition regularly when we address a conflict without involving the police. Many communities and cultures have successfully addressed harms by practicing non-violent conflict resolution before the invention of policing.
In Chicago and surrounding cities, people are living abolition right now. According to Mariame Kaba, an organizer with Project NIA, “The cops are not in their schools, they’re not on every street corner.” In Englewood, on the southwest side of Chicago, abolition looks like a group of mothers coming together to be present on a formerly violent intersection. Founder of Mothers Against Senseless Killings, Tamar Manasseh, says “It’s about cop watching, it’s about people watching, but more than anything it’s about being seen, being a presence in the community.” Abolition looks like free community lunches, childcare, and education.
Abolition looks like restorative justice, which has a long history within Indigenous communities. It lessens the state’s role in dealing with violence, and focuses on methods like mediation, dialogue, and reconciliation, instead of punishment. For example, victim-offender mediation programs involve problem-solving between victims and offenders with a trained mediator. Despite their successes, these programs are vulnerable to being cut due to lack of funding. Peace Circles are another form of restorative justice that focus on non-hierarchical dialogue between the community, victim, and offender and look at structural issues in the community.
Abolition also looks like preventative measures that address root causes, such as building low-income housing or community-based sexual assault centres, which originally emerged from grassroots feminist organizing as a survivor-centred alternative to police. The police don’t address the root causes of violence. Police react, rather than prevent.
Ultimately, electing the right politician will never end police, prisons, or borders. This is only something we can do ourselves, together. Instead of turning to the police to solve problems of “crime” and violence in Surrey, we need to divest from the police and invest in real community solutions. It is up to us to decide what form those solutions take.