“Our Space! Our Safety”: Reflections on Community Alternatives to Police

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By Eva Ureta and Jeff Shantz

Close to 35 community members gathered on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, at the nə́c̓aʔmat ct Strathcona VPL Branch for a moderated discussion on security and policing approaches in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). The session entitled Our Space! Our Safety! was moderated by Danielle LaFrance of VPL in collaboration with VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users). Typically VPL hosts monthly meetings with VANDU and this month both decided to host an event on a much needed and urgent topic: policing and surveillance.

VANDU is a group of users and former users who work to improve the lives of people who use drugs through user-based peer support and education. They’re committed to increasing the capacity of people who use drugs to live healthy lives on their own terms and according to their own needs. With over 2,000 members they are committed to challenging public policy in the face of police repression.

After some introductions and basic ground rules the discussion started with a pretty loaded question: “What has your experience been with security and policing in Vancouver?”

One community member from VANDU spoke at length about how women are under attack. She spoke about her own run in with the law at the age of 41 when she was charged with a minor drug offense. It was her first time being introduced to the process of the justice system. She is now 52 and struggles with navigating around her 13 conditions which are due to expire in 2022. In her words “we’re screwed – we’re screwed”. There was further elaboration on the pressure the police put on community members to “rat” on their friends and family during a time when “our street families are dying!”

Another member of VANDU and a resident of Vancouver’s DTES for more than 40 years followed up with a sentiment felt around the room: it feels like the government is trying to kill us and they should be held responsible. He expressed his frustration with being miss-handled and labeled which on occasion has led to police throwing him to the ground and robbing him.

A youth spoke at length about the aging out process (too young or old to access services) and the harassment she faced as a young woman with local security firms which are hired by the surrounding Business Improvement Associations (BIA). On one occasion the police were offended by the sight of her pipe and asked her to put it away. Unfortunately, she did not do so in what they viewed as a timely manner so the police used their baton to smack it out of her had which sent the pipe flying and left her arm injured.

After further discussion surrounding the experiences of long-time members of the DTES everyone got engaged in talking about survival in relation to policing and surveillance in the community. Meenakshi Mannoe, Manager of Community Education at PIVOT, pointed out that the numbers show that police are racist and target Indigenous peoples, which is not surprise when you look at the statistics, including those of the Vancouver Police Department themselves. Indigenous peoples being over represented in all aspects of the Criminal Justice System. And, in this community, Indigenous women are under constant surveillance, targeted and underserved by police and private security. Just look to see who is getting carded, sentences, incarcerated and subject to the worst probation orders. Security in this community is also hyper present in that they are an omnipresent reality that can be seen almost at all times either on foot or in a well-marked vehicle. It’s important that we see the role of security “officers” as an extension of the police and the power that they have over people’s privacy and safety. The only real distinguishing factor as far as function is that they are far cheaper than police. Private security are everywhere and the impacts of their function as an extension of the police are felt hardest in the Social Housing, non-profit and “community” spaces that are becoming less safe as a result of their presence. Their role is not to be a part of the community but to be a stand in for officers to provide information for the police when needed to “assist” in matters of community safety.

Bad apples make it hard for the good apples: Good Cop, Bad Cop debate!

The topic of there being some bad apples that unravel or undo the work of the good apples tends to rear up at most events where policing is debated or discussed at a public level. An employee of VANDU quickly intervened and explained that the police are part of a broken system. At the heart of this system was the violent removal by colonial states and settlers to remove Indigenous Peoples, therefore anything built as a result of that system, and established to maintain it, is rotten. No matter the intentions of an individual officer they all operate, respond to, and are accountable for a system rooted in colonial practices in the lands we now call Canada.

Self-Policing and Alternatives to Policing

VPD Surveillance tactics affected close to every community member in attendance. One thing community members could all agree on is that they are all capable of policing themselves and looking out for each other thanks to places like VANDU that have become a community through their lived experience. In being such an outspoken, focus driven and collective community they have discovered that they in fact police themselves quite regularly around issues that could involve the police. Instead they decide that by not turning to the police they create a safer space for people to come up with solutions that are beneficial to all parties involved. Much of the work is being done as peers and colleagues look out for a care for one another on a regular basis.

The police bring with them a whole host of problems. It was noted that police do not like to be witnessed and that sometimes police wait to get you alone so they can abuse their power such as robbing or intimidating you.

What can we do as a community to move forward?

“We have power in numbers”, mentioned one attendee. There are more of us becoming poor than there are people getting rich. The idea of forming a collective or union comprised of those most targeted by police and private security would be a great idea to discuss at a future date. This was one of the only ideas put forward that in other provinces has had great success with shifting the power and narrative to expose the practices that hurt and criminalize the most visible and underserved populations. Although VANDU has its hands full combating police, private security, and local/provincial government, it would be a powerful move if VANDU takes the lead on implementing such changes in Vancouver’s DTES.

In addition to collective care and community self defense networks, much can be done in pushing for a defunding of police and a redistribution of social funding towards meeting real needs and sustaining resources that support community well being. These discussions are happening in Vancouver, as the “Defund the Police Town Hall” hosted by the Carnegie Centre Action Project on a day after the VPL event testifies. These conversations are also happening in Surrey through the work that Anti-Police Power Surrey has being doing.