Friday, June 15, 2012

Rock City Hall

To be fair, the City of Victoria has created some new subsidized and low-income housing in the past couple of years in their efforts to “end homelessness.” The crisis of poverty and homelessness grows exponentially, though, so until we overhaul everything and establish a society grounded in true equality, we’re going to continue to see the kinds of numbers that showed up last night at City Hall for free grub and a chance to address council. Organizers estimate at least 150 homeless and street associated people were fed outside city hall, at the BBQ City Hall: Turn up the Heat on Council event organized by ViPIRG (the Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group).

When I arrived, around 8:15, two young police officers had just arrested two of the individuals and were taking away a bicycle with a sleeping bag attached to it. I asked a friend what happened as was told they'd been "jacked up" by the police. I asked one of the police officers if they were short bicycles for their next police auction, and accused him of theft. Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera with me. We all helplessly watched as the man's bicycle was taken away, the two men already removed. Imagine you're having a picnic and the police arrive and take two of you away because they have labelled you as "trouble makers."

It’s this blatant disrespect for the law, for people less fortunate, this social profiling, that’s the precise reason so many showed up for the city council meeting. ViPIRG organizers have simple and clear demands: 

• Create an enforceable city wide anti-discrimination policy
• Repeal discriminatory bylaws that target poor and marginalized people
• Freeze police budget and reinvest in social services

These demands resulted after ViPIRG spoke with 100 street involved people about experiences with Victoria Police and learned:

• 78% have seen police search, detain, and arrest, without cause
• 86% witnessed incidents of excessive force
• 83% report seeing police being rude, uncivil, or using abusive language

Presentations to council, at 5 minutes each, took about an hour – a fact Councillor Ben Isitt requested be noted in the minutes in light of recent discussions about limiting the number of people allowed to address council on any issue.

 Following are some of the statements Victoria’s Mayor and Council heard last night:

Ruth Miller – elder and Victoria resident - "What sense does it make to ticket these individuals?" If the police are to serve and protect ... they ought to be bound by an honourable code of conduct. I ask that council repeal the bylaws that are used against these people.

Ashley Mollison – representing Safer for All: Stop Policing Poverty in Victoria – they’ve got a couple of lawyers working on an affidavit process, they’re in communication with Pivot Legal Society in Vancouver to look at the issue. In 2002 a Pivot report with affidavits resulted in the Supreme Court of BC looking into complaints about police. They’re also working in cooperation with city workers to create a "dignity charter" in an effort to change attitudes from the police force about the homeless and street communities. There were 16 arrests on Pandora Street this week, this indicates that policing the street drug trade is taking priority over addressing foundational issues of poverty. There’s concern about over-policing in areas where service providers are practicing harm reduction and giving out needles. Increasing numbers of service providers and others are coming forward to work together to end racial and social profiling to help make Victoria a safer community for everyone.

Gordon O'Connor – ViPIRG member – There’s a rally out front with about 150 people ... he talked to many, and every single one had a story to tell about being jacked up or harassed by police. It's not an exception, it's the daily experience of people who live on the streets in our city. He invited people upstairs to talk to city council, they all said "why would I do that, they don't care about me." So far they’ve sent about 400 postcards asking city council to take action on this issue, addressing the discrimination and asking for solutions. Ask anyone who works in the front line position ... "we know that police are the wrong agency to be dealing with poverty and the street community." It pushes people further into the margins. Despite all the pressure you're under from the business community, and the neighbourhood associations ... trying to police the problem away is only going to increase support for ViPIRG and others concerned about it. This council could actually do things to put Victoria on the map as being a caring city, Councillors Marianne Alto, Lisa Helps, and Ben Isitt have shown sincere concern … where are the others?

Michelle Carnahan - We are not here to bash the police or you or what you're doing, we believe, Mr. Fortin, you're on the same side as us as an ally. "People doing drugs is not a criminal issue, it's a health issue and we want to educate people in our city about this issue." We are looking to keep our city clean, the city we love, for our tourists, our families, our children, we are doing what we can to clean up our city streets. That includes picking up dirty rigs, and also educating people. Why try to sweep it under the rug, pretend it doesn’t exist? Why not prove to the world that we can make a stand and show everybody that we are progressive and we can stand for all our community members, that we all belong together no matter what.

Jeanette Sheehy - What safer communities mean to me is not a high police budget, a place that criminalizes drug use and forces it into dark places, it's a place where there's a safe needle exchange and everyone lives free from harassment. If we want a community that cares, redirect police budget to fixed site needle exchange, affordable housing, and services.

Nick Montgomery – Let’s reflect on the legacy of Victoria City Council ... 150 years ago, in 1862, city council passed a series of bylaws criminalizing indigenous people. Police would regularly clear the city streets of native people every night. This looks ugly, in retrospect... but the bylaw wasn't framed in terms of racist hate, it was framed in terms of safety and native people were obstacles to commerce, they were affecting property values. 150 yrs later it's the poor and drug users who are being targeted ... but it's not worded about hating anybody, it's worded about safety. When people look back at this council, they're gonna see safety being used to make people feel less safe. Repeal discriminatory bylaws, establish a no tolerance policy discrimination, safe drug use sites. 150 from now nobody's going to think these bylaws are about safety. It'll be clear to your grandchildren that these bylaws are discriminatory.

Jill Cater - Actions speak louder than words. The same can be said of inaction speaking louder than words. You can say you're not discriminatory but your lack of action condones what's going on with police violence. I was homeless ... I was treated like a liar and a thief, I was spit on, called names. I have a home now but I'm not going to forget where I came from and the fact that I was out there at one time. They can say the chattel bylaw isn't discriminatory because it applies to everyone equally, but it doesn't. Ut's social profiling if the law is said to apply to all but it doesn’t. "Fineing the people who have nothing, and taking away their possessions, since when is that fair?" The way a society should be judged is based on the way they treat the most vulnerable. Tthe war on drugs is not going to solve the problem. The war on the street community isn't going to solve the problem. "Take away the drugs, and you're still left with why they're using."

Jocelyn - downtown resident from east van, moved here a couple of years ago. Wasn't impressed when the city arrested the occupy people (people’s assembly) who were getting in the way of Christmas. Sebastian - Has been coming to city hall for three years, watching you administering the slow death of a dignified city. As individuals you may say you’re opposed to federal crime bill (C38, just passed in Ottawa), meanwhile you increase police budget each year.

Eric Nordal – Social Coast - Launched a “community includes everyone” campaign. Encouraged businesses to display a sign saying "community includes everyone ... let's end the criminalization of poverty." Got 150 various businesses to participate. About the “rock the block” police campaign … imagine a “Rock Oak Bay” or “Rock James Bay” campaign? Not impressed.

Thoughts?  You can write to all the councillors by sending a single email to (it's automatically redirected to each of them), and to the mayor at