Calls to “Clean Up the Streets” Are Calls to Violence

Our unhoused neighbours across the Lower Mainland of British Columbia have been made targets of violence—openly and by high profile figures. This violence has come both from official institutional agents, like police, and from would-be vigilantes. In each case, the brutality inflicted on unhoused people has been framed in a rhetoric of “cleaning up the streets” – as if poor people are refuse to be literally swept away. This rhetoric comes from sources that represent themselves as respectable, including politicians, businesses, and media, as well as from more obviously-alarming quarters.

While the tenor and tone might seem different, the messages are remarkably similar. The outcomes are too: demonization of unhoused people; traumatization of those who have already been put through some of the worst our society has to offer; and lives taken.

As Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) organizer Vince Tao said following the circulation of an anonymous vigilante leaflet threatening to burn down people’s tents in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), “When the city, police, and media continue to demonize homelessness, this is the result.”

Acts of Vigilante Violence

On July 25, 2022, a 28-year-old Surrey resident, Jordan Daniel Goggin, killed two unhoused men during a shooting spree of four people killed or wounded. Those killed have been identified as Paul David Wynn (60) and Steven Furness (43). Wynn was shot and killed outside the Creek Stone Place supportive housing complex on 201 Street around 3 AM. Furness was killed near the Langley City bus loop at Logan Avenue and Glover Road just after 5 AM. The shooting allegedly occurred over a period of as much as six hours.

These killings came in a context of local poor-bashing against unhoused people, in which many high profile politicians, business owners, and property owners across the Lower Mainland have been stoking fear and anger against unhoused people and calling for governments and police to “clean up the streets,” and where street sweeps have been carried out against unhoused people.

That same week a man poured flammable liquid on a woman who was sitting on the sidewalk in the DTES and set her on fire. Around the same time, a man’s sleeping structure was set on fire in the area.

On August 9 state violence followed. A massive presence of more than 50 Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officers, deployed as part of the street sweeps decampment of unhoused people on East Hastings Street by City Engineering workers (CEWs), violently turned on people at Hastings and Main. Our Streets, a community-based initiative supporting residents on the street, released a statement describing some of the violence:

VPD constables were pushing and shoving bystanders, pulling people from the crowd and deployed pepper spray. Supporters who were walking by and not involved in the initial incident were violently grabbed by police and thrown to the ground, with one person having their head slammed on the pavement.

There were seven arrests.

Less than a week after the street sweep arrests came a chilling turn as leaflets were distributed in the DTES threatening arson against people who did not remove their tents. The anonymous flyer began: “Tents & belongings on the side walks [sic] will be burned with gasoline and propane canisters” before warning, “You have 7 days to comply.”

The flyer adopted the same banishment logic of street sweeps, telling unhoused people to leave, despite there being no safe place for people to go to. “Residents that live in the area will not [allow] you to destroy our community any longer with your selfish, [sic]. This is a serious warning to the homeless in the area. Leave now or suffer the consequences of your selfish addiction.”

Then, on August 22, another act of shocking police violence against people in the DTES, when VPD officers killed Chris Amyotte, an Ojibwa man who was in clear distress. VANDU reports that Amyotte had been bear sprayed, had stripped down, and was screaming for help. Witnesses say he entered a convenience store to obtain milk, which he was pouring on himself to treat the pepper spray when police arrived and shot him multiple times with a beanbag gun. It was during this police violence that Amyotte went into medical distress and died on the street. Witnesses say people made police aware of the situation and Amyotte’s circumstances but to no avail. So far this year, VPD officers have killed at least three people, two in the DTES.

The Rhetoric of Violence

On the very day of the rampage against unhoused people in Langley, failed Vancouver NPA mayoral candidate John Coupar continued his online tantrum against unhoused people in Vancouver. Even as the news was still breaking in Langley, Coupar tweeted:

Our mayor @kennedystewart has failed in his basic duty to keep streets clean & safe even having COV staff apologizing for @CityofVancouver street cleaning. On Oct 15 Vote @NPAVancouver for a safe Vancouver

His tweet predictably mobilized the clean streets rhetoric, while implying that unhoused people were a threat to the very safety of the city.

This was nothing out of the ordinary for Coupar, who infamously attempted to stir a moral panic over the sale of pruning saws at Dollarama. Anti-encampment and pro-police messaging can be found throughout his social media feed.

While the timing was incredibly heartless, Coupar was not alone in expressing such sentiments in the days and months before the attacks. High profile local media figures have been part of the chorus. Some city councillors have taken up explicit calls for cleaning up the streets in reference to unhoused people and encampments. One city councillor invoked discredited ‘broken windows’ policing models that have historically proven to ramp up criminalization of poor people in the name of stopping violent crime. The broken windows rhetoric was also peddled by a prominent local media figure.

In the midst of all this, another furious panic erupted over some bad reviews of Vancouver left by tourists on online tourism sites. Notably, the tourist complaints also took up the language of street cleaning.

Reviewer Shenasun 12 referred to “lots of questionable folks.” CYRCYR ranted about the Chinatown area being “taken over by homeless people” before tossing up aggressive racism about “third world slum levels of garbage.” This was followed predictably by pitching the City’s need to “clean up the area and get these people” out (suggesting housing or institutionalization). A similarly-worded post was also put up on Tripadvisor saying “the homeless have turned DTES into a garbage dump.”

This is nothing new, of course. The desires of tourists, a general stand-in for consumers with money, have often been wielded against unhoused people as an excuse to ramp up repressive state actions. It reflects a clear prioritizing of economic considerations over human rights and social necessity. We’ve seen this mobilization of the inconvenienced tourist before in the lead up to ‘safe streets’ legislation criminalizing survival strategies of poor and unhoused people in Ontario and BC.

It’s Not About Clean Streets

There is a gross irony in calls to clean up the streets, particularly given that city governments in Surrey and Langley, not long ago, spread chicken manure on outdoor sites occupied by unhoused people – not to mention the routine failure of local governments to provide unhoused people and tent cities with basic cleaning supplies and facilities, the natural result being that those same people are later decamped and evicted on the basis of unsanitary conditions. Clearly clean streets were never the issue. Degrading and harming visibly poor people was.

Unhoused people and allies are already doing tremendous work to care for the streets, and each other. Our Streets has organized block stewardship, including picking up garbage. But the calls to clean the streets are not about this.

Mass brutality is often preceded by dehumanizing rhetoric against those targeted for brutalization. Remember that Daphne Bramham once penned a column for the Vancouver Sun saying there was no humanity left in the DTES, only chaos.

In a context of calls to clean up the streets, language that equates unhoused people with garbage, and talk of zombies, is it at all surprising to see people cheering on police violence or taking up a vigilante mission in which they see themselves as cleansing the streets? It certainly contributes to  a context in which police can inflict violence with impunity, knowing that their backers will support them publicly and call for more of the same.

As VANDU’s Tao put it, the biggest concern in the area remains the police and city workers trying to decamp the neighbourhood. In his words: “People are concerned of course, but they’re also concerned about the decampment too. Ongoing violence by police and city workers is the primary concern for people.”

The vigilante violence often mirrors police violence. We see this in incidents of assaults on people in the DTES that have been captured on video in recent years.

This is about context. And in the current context where there is no housing for unhoused people, calls to clean up the streets mean violence – displacement, dispossession, banishment, death. Whether it is the violence of decampment by police or the violence of vigilantes looking to do it themselves.

Instead of dehumanizing calls to clean up the streets the calls should be for housing with dignity, proper social resources and supports for people living outside, and an end to policing and criminalization – what people are asking for on their terms. These should be directed at all levels of government.

Jeff Shantz is a longtime workplace and community organizer. He is involved with Anti-Police Power Surrey and the Defund 604 Network. He is also a full-time faculty member in the department of Criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU). Follow on Twitter @critcrim

Photo by Jess Gut