COUNTERPOINT | Allen Garr attacks the poor, loses all credibility

Two weeks in a row, Allen Garr has written articles attacking Downtown Eastside community members who oppose the Pantages condo project slated for their neighbourhood. Harold Lavender, a board member of the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC), has called Garr’s recent writings “libelous and horrible articles” filled with “scurrilous attacks.” One would imagine that before publishing something so inflammatory, the veteran columnist would make sure he was on solid ground. Let us examine whether Garr did any investigating, or whether his words are indeed “scurrilous.”

Garr’s article opens with thunder: “By all accounts, it looked like a riot. There was pushing and shoving, cops and security guards trying to control the crowd and death threats being uttered: ‘There will be blood in the streets.'” Is that an accurate representation of what happened? I was there and wrote an article about the same meeting. How could two accounts of the same event be so different?

First, of course, Garr wasn’t there. What I learned, by speaking to staff of city hall and City Manager Penny Ballem, was that the Mayor’s Office determined beforehand to block DTES residents from the public hearing. When residents demanded to be allowed to enter the hearing — which is why they sent a delegation all the way to city hall! — security, police and city managers responded completely out of proportion to anything reasonable. In front of everyone’s eyes the police physically assaulted three members of the public, all who simply stated verbally that the meeting should be publicly open. It is impossible to imagine what would happen if City Hall treated a delegation from Shaughnessy in the same way.

But Allen Garr tells a very different story. The fact that he wasn’t there does not immediately disqualify him from writing about the hearing. Surely Garr, being a respectable journalist, will have done rigorous research before painting 50 concerned delegates with a broad stroke. Indeed, Garr begins his article by suggesting that he consulted widely with all those present. “By all accounts,” the article begins.

But then only a few sentences later, Garr concedes that, after all, he did not speak to everyone in attendance. “I have this report from some of the participants,” he says. As we read further we soon find out that there is a world contained in this “some.” Garr’s article quotes Michael Clague and Wendy Pederson, co-chairs of the city’s DTES Local Area Planning (LAP) Committee, but their comments are inconsistent with Garr’s opinion, so he dismisses them.”By all accounts” quickly morphs into “by some accounts.”

In a similar vein, award winning anti-poverty activist and writer Jean Swanson wrote the Courier to counter one of Garr’s attack articles: “I didn’t hear anyone threatening anyone when I was there. Not once,” said Swanson. In response, Garr not only dismisses Swanson, but down-right attacks her credibility: “One can only conclude she was conveniently deaf.” Pretty bold conclusions for Garr, especially since he was not even there. One can only conclude that Garr hasn’t read Swanson’s classic book, Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion. 

To quote just a few sentences from Swanson’s book: “Poor-bashing means having your reality and your perceptions denied by people with more money than you have,” and, “Poor-bashing means ignoring people who are poor when they propose what they need,” and, “Poor-bashing means leaving poor people out of discussions on issues that are crucial to their livelihood,” and, finally, “Poor-bashing means ignoring facts and repeating stereotypes about people who are poor.”

If Garr did not ground his version of events in the testimony of Clague, Pederson, or Swanson, then who was his source? Garr tells us: “I wasn’t there, but aside from Rafii and Jeffries, of those willing to speak up, there is…city manager Ballem.” So, Garr’s account is based on the testimony of three people: architect/developer Foad Rafii, City Manager Penny Ballem, and False Creek resident Fern Jeffries. It serves to examine these three people more carefully, and to find out in particular what immediate interests they have in demonizing DTES residents.

First, Garr’s account relies heavily on Foad Rafii, a member of the Development Permit Board. Rafii is an architect who is currently personally designing a large condo project in the DTES. In fact, at this week’s Development Permit Board meeting (May 7th), Rafii acted as the spokesperson for the applicant of a 10 storey condo tower at Main and Keefer, an aggressive gentrification project with zero affordable or social housing. At this latter meeting, Rafii blurred his roles as both Board member and applicant’s representative. He did not publicly disclose this conflict of interest. Part way through Rafii’s speech on behalf of the applicant, a member of the public recognized him as a Board member and announced it to the room. Rafii still did not clarify which hat he was wearing, nor did the Board Chair intervene to address the conflict-of-interest. Caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the Development Permit Board, stacked with Vision-appointed developers, barely blushed and then ploughed ahead with approval.

Rafii’s conflict-of-interest regarding the Main and Keefer condo project provides the context for explaining his recent attempts to spread misinformation about the Pantages hearing. The Pantages condo project is only two blocks away from Rafii’s project at Main and Keefer, so the arguments against both projects are identical: both are gentrification projects that will inflate surrounding property values and push out rare low-income housing, stores, and community spaces. Rafii’s development is a particularly uncompromising embodiment of greed and carelessness, containing no affordable housing whatsoever. Rafii clearly identified more strongly with the developer of the Pantages condo project than with residents. Realizing that many of those who spoke out against the Pantages condos would also speak out against his own condo project, Rafii made an effort to delegitimize them by spreading massive misinformation.

With this knowledge, we are better situated to unpack this quote from Allen Garr about the Pantages hearings: “According to Foad Rafii who sits on the board’s advisory panel, folks were being shouted down by Drury and his crew even before they could speak. Then there was the threat Rafii heard that there ‘would be blood in the streets.'”

What is incredible is Rafii’s effort to distract from the actual cause of the disturbance. City Hall decided to block DTES residents from being able to get into the hearing. The meeting was moved to a last-minute private location with over 20 police officers blocking the door. The only “shouting” that occurred was people asking that the hearing be open to the public at the start of the meeting. The developer and his friends were allowed to sit in the hearing room, while DTES residents had to sit outside in a different room, and poor people on the speaker’s list were escorted in by police, one at a time, only when it was their turn to speak, and then escorted out immediately after. This was clearly identified by the public as an outrageous and humiliating manifestation of poor-bashing. Imagine if such a double-standard were applied along lines of race (which in effect it was de facto if not de jure).

Even worse, when those who were blocked from attending began chanting “move it [the meeting] upstairs,” the police needlessly assaulted at least three people. The ironic thing is that there is no way for Rafii to have seen any of this. While DTES residents were barred entry to the hearing itself, all these events occurred outside in a separate room reserved for DTES residents, while Rafii and his developer friends hid inside the hearing room proper. So much for Garr’s major source, Foad Rafii.

Garr’s second key source is city manager Penny Ballem. Garr quotes Ballem as saying:

“‘I was there. My staff was threatened. I was threatened. I was called all sorts of things.’ For the people in that room ‘it was very scary.'”

In point of fact, Ballem was not there during the events in question, when over 20 police blocked DTES residents from entering the hearing room and then assaulted at least three people for no reason other than that they demanded for the meeting be moved upstairs to the vacant council chambers. Ballem showed up after the police misconduct, only to ignore testimony that people had been needlessly assaulted by security. She inflexibly asserted that she would not change her plan of blocking DTES residents from the meeting, then left again.

What was Ballem’s interest in giving Garr these misleading quotes? Ballem’s comments must be interpreted within the broader context of property politics in the inner city. Ballem is currently working with the DTES Local Area Planning Process (LAPP) Committee to develop a framework for a comprehensive neighbourhood plan. But new condo developments like the Pantages project will reshape the neighbourhood before the plan is complete, thereby undermining the process. The LAPP Committee therefore voted overwhelmingly to ask the city to halt the Pantages condo project until the local area plan is in place. But Ballem has been directed by Vision Vancouver to ram the project through regardless of the LAPP. Importantly, her efforts are hampered in part by community organizer Ivan Drury.

Drury is a member of the LAPP Committee, and has helped give the committee the courage to stand up for its mandate of creating a grass-roots vision for the neighbourhood. His no-nonsense, well-researched, tell-it-like-it-is approach gives other poor people on the committee confidence to speak their truths as well. Ballem, on the other hand, has made every effort to water down the committee’s influence, autonomy, and grass-roots participation. It is for this reason that Ballem is attempting to scapegoat Drury.

So when Garr writes the offensive sentence, “the decision to neuter Drury should be applauded,” he really means, “the decision to neuter the DTES Local Area Planning committee should be applauded, because I want my friends to reap the profit of unfettered speculation and condo development in the DTES.”

Ballem’s comments go even further — and here she makes a big strategic error. Ballem, likely in coordination with Vision’s communications team, decided to use Garr’s last article to publicly slander Drury and threaten the LAPP Committee. Instead of formally approaching the committee about her preferences (for example, proposing to muzzle anyone who is an effective organizer, or who speaks out about the Pantages project), Ballem chose to negotiate in public, giving Garr this unprofessional quote: “He [Drury] cannot be part of the committee. We will not give him the legitimacy of being part of a formal city process. I just said, ‘Out.’”

This led Garr to state: “The decision to neuter Drury should be applauded. Now let’s see if it works.” Well, it worked to undermine Ballem’s credibility and trustworthiness. The day after publication of Garr’s last article, the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council held its monthly meeting, with over a hundred in attendance. The bulk of the meeting focused on drafting a Bill of Rights for shelter residents. When it came time for a report-back about the progress of the LAPP Committee, sections of Garr’s article, including Ballem’s, quotes were read out loud. The entire DNC membership was outraged and emboldened.

One Downtown Eastside resident, who volunteers on the LAPP Committee, stood up and said: “if the City is allowed to do this [kick Drury off the committee] because Ivan’s a strong person and he speaks for other people, what’s going to stop them from kicking off us other poor people next?” Kelvin Bee of the Aboriginal Front Door (AFD) made a statement, saying: “The AFD will not stand beside and watch this happen. If he [Drury] is forced out by the City, the AFD will pack its bags and leave with him.”

The DNC board has written a letter to Ballem, asking her to explain her comments and behavior in writing.

Scapegoating leaders of poor people’s movements

Garr and Ballem’s strategy is to single-out and scapegoat one community leader, in this case Ivan Drury. The purpose of singling him out is that Drury is an effective leader, something that Garr admits: “smart, charismatic.” When trying to defeat a social movement, it is common for corporate public relations people to attempt to single-out effective community leaders and demonize them through slander and lies (which we might here dub “Garr-bage”).

Garr has now written three articles personally attacking Ivan Drury, with each successive article being more desperate than the last. Garr’s general method is to take second-hand accounts of statements made by other people completely out of context, and then blame Drury.

For example, Garr says “folks were being shouted down by Drury and his crew even before they could speak.” But no organizer, Drury or otherwise, shouted anyone down. As mentioned, the dozens excluded from the meeting took up the chant “move it upstairs,” not to shut down the meeting, but to ensure it was accessible to everyone!

To take another example, Garr writes: “If this was approved, one man in the crowd screamed, ‘People would die.'” In fact I do recall a resident (not Drury) talking about how gentrification causes homelessness, and that homelessness causes people to die on the streets. Somehow from this statement, Garr concludes that death threats were made.

Garr also claims that “the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood Council (DNC) chaired by Drury launched an attack on Mayor Gregor Robertson and Jang.” Taken in context, Garr’s claim is absurd. Two years ago, there was a grassroots campaign to build social housing above the new Strathcona library, but Vision Vancouver insisted on pushing ahead with the plans minus the social housing. Volunteers from the DTES gathered thousands of petitions, sent dozens of delegations to city hall, and organized a phone-in campaign to ask Jang and Robertson to build the social housing above the library (using their phone numbers as posted on the City’s website and Because of this campaign, Vision was eventually pressured to slow down until funding was secured for the housing. The campaign was successful, and now there will be precious women’s housing on the site. At the time Jang considered it an “attack” for citizens to call him, their elected representative, to ask for women’s housing for those in need. This was a clear sign that Jang was out-of-touch, if not anti-democratic. Furthermore, Ivan Drury never personally attacked Robertson or Jang. Jang just didn’t “like it” when citizens called his publicly available phone number, and made a personal decision to blame Drury. As a fact-check side-note, Drury has never been the DNC chair (DNC doesn’t have a chair) nor has he been president (the DNC does have co-presidents).

As a corollary to singling-out Drury, Garr belittles everyone else, as if they mindlessly follow the singled-out leader. Thus Garr refers to “Drury and his pals” and “Drury and his crew” and “Drury and a crowd he was leading” and, my favorite, “Drury et al.” This is exactly the same language that NPA candidate Michael Geller commonly employs to demonize Wendy Pederson, another extremely intelligent and effective leader of poor people’s movements in Vancouver. Framing a group of poor people who make the trek to city hall to defend their neighbourhood as a “crowd” or “gang” or “mob” is a form of poor-bashing. It is also intended to reinforce the ideology of the 1% that poor people are naturally mindless supporters of the system that oppresses them, and that they stand up for their rights only when manipulated by “populist” leaders who “whip them up.” That’s how to interpret Garr’s sentence, “a bully whipped up the crowd, egging them on to greater heights of excess.” This way of thinking leads Garr to hope that if only Drury could be removed from the situation (Garr uses the phrases “clip his wings” and even “neuter Drury”), all opposition to gentrification and displacement would evaporate.

Garr’s third and final source is Fern Jeffries. Jeffries is not nearly as influential as Rafii or Ballem. But she is important to Garr’s story, because he attempts to present her as a “little old lady” — the victim in his narrative.

Garr writes: “As a bully whipped up the crowd, egging them on to greater heights of excess, little old ladies feared for their safety.” The “little old lady” here is Jeffries.

Here Garr’s sensationalist account is thoroughly misleading. In fact, Jeffries has long been vocal about her dislike of organizations led by low-income DTES residents. It was no surprise to many that she was one of only a handful of delegates speaking in favour of the Sequel 138 gentrification project. At the DPB hearing she claimed to speak on behalf of a different neighbourhood (False Creek Residents Association). It is strange, to put it lightly, for an organization from a different neighbourhood to belittle concerns of the community directly affected.

In an open letter to the DPB on behalf of the False Creek Residents Association, she demonized low-income people and promoted contempt towards First Nations residents, especially if they are facing addictions and poverty-related issues. She asserted that these residents do not have a right to live in the Downtown Eastside, even if it is their home. DTES residents were called “ex-cons” who should be displaced because they do not exhibit the “standards and behaviour of typical Canadians.” In essence, Jeffries asserted that what matters is ability to pay: the poor are out of luck because the rich have equal right to their homes. This made me think of another antidote from Swanson’s book: “Poor-bashing means assuming that the rich are entitled while the poor must do without.”

Garr claims that Jeffries was scared at the meeting, but really she was bold and hateful, while DTES delegates (the vast majority of whom were forced to sit in a different room!) sat uncomfortably through her comments. Garr makes Jeffries into a victim because someone called her “racist,” but Garr (who has recently written articles about anti-Asian racism) should know that racism is the problem, not naming racism. On the contrary, the only way to deal with racism is to name it when it happens. It takes courage to name racism in our society, and those who do so should be applauded.


To summarize, Allen Garr has penned three scurrilous articles against poor people’s movements in the DTES. His interest has been, unfortunately for a professional journalist, to bolster Vision Vancouver and its corporate developer backers. Garr created a counter-factual narrative around the Development Permit Board hearing for the Pantages condo project, despite not being present at the hearing. Garr did not mention that DTES residents were barred entry and discriminated against. Garr claimed falsely that there was a riot  when there was only the needless assault by police of three people who demanded that the meeting be moved upstairs. Garr’s evidence regarding this episode relied heavily on second-hand accounts by the development community and Foad Rafii in specific, who was not in the room where this “riot” occurred. It is also important to note that Rafii is in a serious conflict-of-interest, personally representing condo developments in the DTES. Garr also claimed that DTES delegates “shouted down” other delegates, but that is also false. His source for this claim was a woman who repeatedly made uncomfortably racist and classist comments, and got defensive when someone commented (accurately) that her comments were indeed racist and classist. Finally, Garr used comments by Rafii and Ballem to scapegoat Ivan Drury, because Drury is an effective community organizer who empowers poor people. Garr even let Ballem and Vision negotiate in public through his column. Ultimately, this only eroded Garr’s and Ballem’s credibility and trustworthiness. Both have backed themselves into a corner, with no facts on their side, such that they can only rely on greed, power-plays, and slander. In the last analysis, Garr’s articles and conclusions are poor because they are based on poor-bashing and misinformation: Garr-bage in, Garr-bage out!

A more accurate account of the meeting itself would mention simply that poor people were barred entry; then, escorted in and out of the room one-by-one, made about 50 beautiful and inspiring speeches, knowing full well that the dice were loaded against them by the corrupt Vision-appointed Development Permit Board. As Garr says, “approval was inevitable. The Development Permit board simply applies policy that council has passed. After seven hours, that is what happened.” Garr of course forgets to mention that almost no members of the Board have any familiarity with the relevant city policy. Approval was inevitable simply because the Mayor’s Office ordered that existing DTES housing policies be ignored and set aside.