In Vancouver you will find sailing, hiking, skiing. And fighting. Vancouverites are fighting over preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics, preparations that involve efforts to curb aggressive panhandling, sleeping, crack smoking, pissing and even shitting on the streets by Vancouver’s underclass.

On the right is Mayor Sam Sullivan. Sullivan introduced “Project Civil City” earlier this year to curb “public disorder” in Vancouver. The Civil City initiative, the Mayor has officially announced, will target homelessness, the open drug market, aggressive panhandling, and will attempt to increase satisfaction with how public nuisance complaints are handled.

On the left is Member of Parliament Libby Davies and others she refers to as “progressive electeds” and activists. The left takes the position that the Mayor’s Civil City erodes civil liberties of the poor and addresses symptoms of poverty rather than underlying causes.

On Tuesday evening, representatives of Vancouver’s left came together in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, to criticize the Mayor’s Project Civil City. They called the event, “Civil City Slam”.

The Forum was chaired by Libby Davies, known simply as “Libby” by many on the Downtown Eastside where low income people vote for this federal politician en masse. Davies told the crowd in the church auditorium that Project Civil City will hurt the poor while making Vancouver “squeaky clean” for the Olympics.

In the leaflet widely distributed to advertise the Civil City Slam, a column by left-leaning Allan Garr in the Vancouver Courier newspaper was re-printed. Garr had mentioned this month’s visit by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin to address the Vancouver Board of Trade about Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympics experience. Franklin admitted that Atlanta had made a mistake by investing in temporary shelters to get the homeless off the streets, only to discover after the Olympics that when the shelters disappeared, the homeless reappeared. What Franklin had not spoken about though, Garr wrote, was the civil liberties mistakes made in Atlanta during the Olympics:

“What she didn’t mention was this: Before the games, Atlanta passed a half dozen laws that made it illegal to panhandle aggressively, urinate in public, lay on a park bench and – my favorite – walk across a parking lot if you don’t have a car parked there. Homeless activists in Atlanta report the laws were later thrown out. But over the course of the games, thousands of homeless men were arrested.”

Inside the Civil City Slam at First United Church there was a standing room only crowd. To get in though, you had to pass a man on the steps handing out literature accusing Israel of apartheid, and a woman at the door of the auditorium with a table of literature which included Anti-Poverty Committee leaflets accusing Olympic Committee director, Ken Dobell, of being a “capitalist hog”.

David Eby: civil liberties abuses could result from changes ranging from new police powers to charge civilians and a “broad interpretation” of who is sufficiently mentally ill to be institutionalized

One of the first speakers was David Eby, a tall, thin, young lawyer with light brown curly hair who works for Pivot Legal Society. Eby mentioned media reports that City Councilors and Olympic Committee directors are feeling threatened by the Anti-Poverty Committee which recently stated an intent to evict Olympic Committee directors from their comfortable offices and homes, just as poor people are being evicted from their homes during preparations for the Olympics. (The APC had just hours earlier carried out an eviction by trashing the Vancouver office of Olympic Committee director Ken Dobell, within the Canada Place offices of Premier Gordon Campbell.) Eby pointed out that for the Olympic Committee, “the biggest threat to what they have planned is meetings like this.”

Eby said he has already noticed an erosion of civil liberties on the Downtown Eastside as the City prepares for the Olympics. He mentioned the raid on the offices of the Downtown Eastside Residents Association by police searching for the stolen Olympic flag, even though another organization had taken credit for stealing it.

Regular reports by Downtown Eastside residents of getting “jacked up” are another sign in Eby’s view, that civil liberties are being eroded as Vancouver gears up for the Olympics. Eby explained that each pair of police officers working the streets of the Downtown Eastside is expected to meet a daily quota of civilians they have had a conversation with. What that conversation entails, he said, is taking the person’s name and running it through the police computer system for no reason. These quotas work out to 303 people being stopped a day on the Downtown Eastside. That’s “the kind of civil society” the neighborhood is being subjected to. If you do the math, Eby explained, it works out to every resident of the Downtown Eastside being stopped six times a year. Eby got his point across, but the reality is that myself and my friends and acquaintances on the Downtown Eastside not involved in street life are not finding ourselves randomly stopped by police.

Eby says Project Civil City is bringing in a “No sit, no lie” bylaw. Anyone who walks around Vancouver knows who this bylaw is aimed at: the homeless who sleep for hours on benches and sidewalks both day and night. But Eby says that even people who hang around on a park bench can be targeted.

Project Civil City will also tackle aggressive panhandling, the open drug market, and public nuisance complaints, according to Eby, by allowing police to directly lay charges. Previously Vancouver Police had to wait for Crown prosecutors to approve charges. Crown prosecutors, Eby explained, tend to be more cautious than police, throwing out cases for such reasons as evidence being collected through an illegal search. Police are being given these new powers, Eby believes,“because the Crown is just getting in the way.”

Another tool police may finally be given on the Downtown Eastside is close circuit television cameras, according to Eby. Cameras to fight the open drug market and other crime have been proposed over the years by police, only to be opposed by the left wing establishment at Carnegie Centre which publishes the popular Carnegie newsletter.

“New drug treatment programs for chronic offenders”, are a specific Civil City strategy that Eby thought needed more discussion. New approaches to drug treatment will include, if Mayor Sullivan has his way, an expansion of NAOMI, a drug maintenance program on the Downtown Eastside which a couple of years ago began dispensing free heroin to addicts. But City Councilor Raymond Louie, who lent his name to the Civil City Slam brochure as an endorser, says opening a “pharmacy” for the city’s 700 chronic offenders would be irresponsible, without integrating them into the community. Eby’s concern about the focus on chronic offenders, he told spectators at the Slam, is the possibility that, “If you want to get into this innovative drug treatment, first you have to get arrested, and you probably have to plead guilty.”

Institutionalization of the very mentally ill is yet another goal of Civil City, Eby told the crowd. But here’s the problem, he said: “There is no real definition of who the very mentally ill is. I suspect there could be a very broad interpretation of that.”

When it comes to employing a very broad interpretation of mental illness for institutionalizing people, though, some of the “progressive electeds” who endorsed this Civil City Slam in promotional literature – Vancouver School Board trustees Allan Blakely and Allan Wong, for example — are in no position to point fingers.

With Blakely and Wong as trustees, the Vancouver School Board had been accused of political psychiatry, using an interpretation of mental illness broad enough to muzzle a political adversary. The Downtown Eastside Enquirer blog has obtained a police and psychiatric report in one well known case in which a political adversary was targeted by the Vancouver School Board. It was a case in which the Vancouver School Board arranged to have a Downtown Eastside resident targeted for an “assessment for apprehension” immediately after that resident expressed in writing an intent to campaign in the School Board election, then just 3 weeks away. This resident and several others on the Downtown Eastside were were fed up after independently lodging complaints against a verbally and physically abusive teacher, only to receive evasive and at times hostile responses from the VSB.

The Vancouver School Board, dominated by left wingers at the time who knew that they were about to lose their elected majority, hastily arranged to have the notorious police “Car 87” – a police car containing a constable and a psych nurse – visit and assess the prospective campaigner for “apprehension”. A letter in which the individual had stated an intent to campaign in the election, a letter which included a routine freedom of information request, was the sole evidence filed with police and the psych system to support this visit. In the accompanying psych report, nurse Don Getz entered the fact that this DTES resident had made “freedom of information requests” as the official reason for the assessment.

Just hours after the visit, VPD Sergeant Garry Lester admitted in a taped telephone conversation that he had emphasized to the VSB, when they were arranging the visit, that there was “nothing untoward” about this DTES resident’s letter.

In 2005, VSB trustees — including the few left wingers who had managed to keep their seats as trustees, Blakely and Wong — held an in-house review of the case and did not invite or allow input from the targeted individual. The targeted individual claims that political psychiatry instigated by the VSB shortly before the Nov. 2004 election has resulted in ongoing harassment, for which there is supporting evidence in the form of letters and voice mail from police.

Stories of political psychiatry perpetrated by members of the left wing establishment in the Downtown Eastside, which has been dubbed Canada’s “socialist experiment”, are rampant. Carnegie Centre, which sent a representative to sit on the panel of the Civil City Slam has been accused of at times  favoring a politically convenient, broad interpretation, of mental illness. During a “Never trust a nurse” poster campaign on the Downtown Eastside in 2005-06 to fight alleged nurse involvement in political psychiatry, an allegation specifically against the Carnegie Street Nurse Program of collusion with political psychiatry surfaced and has yet to be resolved.

Former mayoral candidate, Peter Haskell, recently alleged in the Republic newspaper in Vancouver that he had become the target of psychiatric tactics at Carnegie. After he had expressed opposition to user fees at Carnegie, a staff person allegedly telephoned his mother and recommended that he be put on medication.

Andy Yan: Civil City is based on the “broken windows” theory in the U.S.

Andy Yan, a chubby Chinese-Canadian man in his late twenties or early thirties, works for the Carnegie Centre Action Project which has an office on the Downtown Eastside. Yan told the crowd at the Slam that Civil City is based on the “broken windows” theory in the U.S. which Carnegie sees as the wrong approach to addressing street disorder. What has actually been proven to work in both the U.S. and Canada, Yen said, is “permanent homes as opposed to shelter beds.” He also wants welfare rates increased by 50% from current levels (the basic welfare rate has recently been raised by $100), and an elimination of barriers to getting welfare such as the 3 week waiting period. The position of the Carnegie Action Project, Yan said, is that we can “eliminate the symptom of homelessness by eliminating the causes.”

It came as no surprise to Downtown Eastside residents that Yan focused on housing for the homeless, not civil liberties for the homeless. Carnegie Action Project staff work out of the Carnegie Centre – Libby Davies’ organizing base – which has gained a reputation for trampling the civil liberties of the homeless. In January, homeless man Bill Simpson was barred from the Carnegie Learning Centre, accused of blogging about political issues at Carnegie. He was found guilty of blogging by Board members and staff during a ‘star chambers’ hearing to which he was not invited.

Although Simpson’s case was the most publicized, there have been other cases of disrespect for the civil liberties of low income people at Carnegie. Staff in the Carnegie Action Project office at Carnegie called security guards on a Carnegie volunteer, Frank, and had him escorted from the premises, after he stopped by to tell Carnegie Board member Bob Sarti that it was wrong to bar Simpson for freedom of expression.

During the hunt for bloggers at Carnegie, a volunteer at Carnegie revealed that he had been questioned by Carnegie Director Ethel Whitty and Learning Centre Co-ordinator Lucy Alderson about a low income person under suspicion of blogging about Carnegie politics.

Even the Vancouver Network of Drug Users, which had a representative sit on the same panel as Carnegie at the “Civil City Slam”, had once had a lawyer threaten to take legal action against Carnegie for violating the civil liberties of marginalized people.

Sara Kendall: “racialized youth”, “neo-liberal agenda”, and other buzz words

Sara Kendall, tall, slim, with super short brown hair, a youth worker with the Vancouver Network of Drug Users – one of the groups that pushed for North America’s first Supervised Injection Site just two blocks west of First United church – also spoke on the panel at the “Slam”. But it was difficult to hear her message through her buzz words and phrases — “racialized youth”, “neo-Liberal agenda” “queer youth”, “culture of violence”. She even spoke of people “reaching out to another person from their place of need” — in plain English, that’s panhandling.

Kendall did manage to explain a form of street clearing that youth are being subjected to by police: “relocation”. That’s when police pick up a young person on the streets and drive them to another neighborhood and dump them.

Kendall identified government “cuts to public services” as part of the problem. She had worked for the City until the last election when the left wing Council lost power and the newly elected Mayor Sullivan axed her job.

Michael Vonn: “Olympics are a downhill event”

Michael Vonn – that’s a woman – Policy Director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association also sat on the panel and told the crowd that from a civil liberties perspective, the “Olympics are a down hill event.” Vonn, in her late 30’s, slim, with shoulder length curly brown hair, announced that a stated goal of Project Civil City during Olympic preparations is to address “quality of life crimes.” “Oh please!”, she added. What the Mayor’s Civil City initiative really comes down to is “street sweeping the poor”, Vonn said.

A stated goal of Civil City is to “reduce aggressive panhandling by 50%” but, Vonn says, “we have no idea what the current base rate of aggressive panhandling is.” The same goes for homelessness and drug peddling which the goal of Civil City is to reduce by 50%. “The evidence doesn’t matter,” she told the crowd.

It’s people’s “perception of being at risk” that matters, Vonn explained. Police could potentially “charge someone for being the object of someone else’s fears.”

Apparently eager to assure the crowd that she was one of them, Vonn quipped, “Blue is not a good color on me.”

Dag Walker: “There are no consequences.”

Blue is a good color on Dag Walker who, like other members of the Vancouver Chapter of the Blue Revolution, wears a blue scarf to his meetings. Every Thursday evening
Walker, in his early fifties, walks downtown to the Vancouver Public Library where their meetings are held and sees the public disorder on the streets.

Walker does agree with some issues raised at the “Civil City Slam”, like the fact that giving police power to directly lay charges is a “slippery slope”. But he also believes that leftists in Vancouver tend to downplay how serious the problem of public disorder is. “It’s out of control,” he says. People are fed up with the panhandlers who hound them day after day in coffee shops and on the streets, panhandlers whose “place of need” is, in his view, more often than not a crack addiction. “When I was at London Drugs a few weeks ago”, he says, “somebody had shit on the sidewalk.” He actually saw it happen; a woman whom he suspects was on drugs, defecated in broad daylight as pedestrians walked around her. And he points out that some streets smell like urine, “People piss everywhere.” He doesn’t share the left’s view that social conditions cause this public disorder. He attributes it to the fact that, “There are no consequences.”

Former Attorney General appointed to new position of Civil City Commissioner to tackle public disorder
It may not be a coincidence that the left held their Civil City Slam just a week after former B.C. Attorney General, Geoff Plant, was appointed to the newly created position of Civil City Commissioner in Vancouver. Plant’s appointment was seen as a coup for Mayor Sullivan but a set back for Vancouverites on the left arguing that more money for the social safety net is a solution to street disorder, not “criminalizing poverty”.

Plant’s appointment, lawyer David Eby told the crowd at the Slam, signals that Project Civil City will emphasize a “law and order” approach. But at the press conference announcing his appointment a week earlier, Plant hinted at a multi-pronged approach, “I am committed to tackling the underlying root causes of Vancouver’s challenges, while also dealing with some of the more straightforward, public disorder issues that we are experiencing.”

This original article first appeared on the Downtown Eastside Enquirer

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