On Monday, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson confirmed his support of the criminalization of dissent. Following the Vancouver Police Department’s recent threat of arrests against peaceful protesters, Robertson stated: “I support the Vancouver Police Department’s prudent steps to ensure that the right to protest is balanced against the right of all residents and businesses to peaceful enjoyment of public and private spaces.”
The Police Department’s “prudent steps” include the publication of a blanket letter warning the public that they may be arrested on criminal charges for “shouting, screaming, or swearing”; VPD Spokesperson Brian Montague’s April 17th announcement that the VPD were “anticipating an arrest” of an unnamed individual on unspecified charges “related to the PiDGiN protest”; armed officers’ surveillance of the PiDGiN pickets, five nights a week; visits to protesters’ homes and workplaces; and the constant monitoring of “all the protests that go on in the City of Vancouver.”
In a written statement released to select media outlets, Robertson attempted to justify Vision Vancouver’s antagonism toward protests in the DTES. “Poverty in the Downtown Eastside remains a very serious issue,” said Robertson, “but the aggressive nature of some of these protests is an unfortunate distraction from getting attention on affordable housing and income assistance in the provincial election.”
For two months, the picketers at PiDGiN have forced gentrification and its effects into the spotlight. Increased public awareness has made it difficult for the developer-funded party to maintain credibility as Vision Councillors continue to deny that low-income people are being displaced. The inevitable resistance to a worsening housing crisis is putting Vision’s pro-gentrification policies and unpopular land-use decisions under greater scrutiny. As long-time community organizer Wendy Pedersen said, “people in the community are paying more attention to the fact that Downtown Eastside developers have given so much money to Vision Vancouver.” Robertson is at pains to pass the buck on housing to the province, but on-going protests prevent him from successfully distracting Vancouverites from City Hall’s own culpability.
Robertson claims that “repeatedly targeting a single new business and its customers with protests is not constructive to solving huge challenges like homelessness and chronic poverty.” The pickets have, however, put a wrench in the City’s plans to profit from the rapid up-scaling of the DTES at the expense of its most vulnerable residents. Marketing low-income neighbourhoods through retail gentrification is essential to increasing property values, without which no profit could be made from evictions, rent hikes and unaffordable developments. Picketers encourage people to reflect on their place in the community and their roles at the front line of this war waged by City Hall. Consumers and entrepreneurs are learning that the DTES is not open for business until housing needs are met.
The Mayor’s critique of this resistance tactic falls flat in the face of his own failure to implement policies that would resolve the housing crisis, such as inclusionary zoning. The Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability and its free-market “solutions” are purely counter-productive. The Vision Council has proven unwilling to address the root causes of the housing crisis: rampant speculation, oligopoly, and corruption. The latest City Hall proposal to create a “technology/innovation hub” at Main and Hastings further exposes their indifference to the community’s concerns.
Consecutive increases in police budget have given the VPD more resources for a dual strategy of heightened ticketing in the DTES and the increased criminalization of protest. Under Robertson’s direction, Vancouver’s police have been pressed into a campaign of harassment and intimidation against democratic protests perceived as anti-business. This misapplication of criminal law, in what is at most a matter for civil injunction, clearly signals political interference by the City of Vancouver.