Police Revolt & Hastings Street Tent City

Against the Current, No. 224, May/June 2023

Ivan Drury

Police start a riot outside Carnegie Community Center, Vancouver, Canada, August 9, 2022. Ben Neims / @cbcnewsbc

BY THE HEIGHT of summer 2022, as fires burned a record number of residential hotels in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, sidewalks along the three core blocks of Hastings Street were jammed with tents, tarps and ad-hoc structures assembled by hundreds of unhoused and underhoused people with nowhere better to go.

Despite the fire chief’s multiple orders to disperse; dramatic crime-scene style taping-off of entire blocks for “decampment” by billy club; repeated “progress is being made” declarations by two different mayors; and despite the blazing heat of an unusually long summer and the freezing snows and pouring rains of the winter, the Hastings Street Tent City has remained in place for nine long months, an immovable object and a chip in a pane of the city of glass.

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) — famous for being the poorest urban neighborhood in Canada, with the median income of the residents of its core blocks only $11,000 a year — has long been the center of the low-income community in Metro Vancouver. It is also the only neighborhood in Vancouver where low-income people confidently take up public space, have access to free and affordable food, and have a women’s center, drug user organizations, urban Indigenous culture and organizing spaces, and vibrant arts institutions.

Resident organizations call the DTES the “heart of the city.” But never before has that heart beat outside of its chest, so openly spilling its arterial circulations visibly in the streets, as this year. What happened?

Reaping The Fruits of Austerity

The question of why so many people have crowded the sidewalks of the three core blocks of Hastings Street is different than the issue of why they are houseless to begin with. Homelessness in Vancouver, like in cities and towns throughout Canada and the United States, and particularly in coastal cities, has become inconceivably massive and widespread through the last decade.

Homelessness is a sick reaping of austerity as government policy that twinned the financialization of global capitalism, where real estate became an investment with greater returns than industrial production, where those most excluded from the gains of this 21st century bonanza have been its more terrible victims.

In the Vancouver area, homelessness has boomed since 2010 and unhoused people have persistently set up tent cities as both sites of protest and as a means of community survival. Tent cities are no substitute for good quality housing, but as British Columbia’s courts have repeatedly ruled, following hundreds of testimonies from unhoused people, they are healthier and safer than trying to survive alone the constant perils and daily displacements of homelessness within the Canadian state apparatus.

It is difficult to recognize the VPD’s abandonment of the Hastings Tent City as a political action like a campaign around a social issue for progressive activists, because campaign tools look different for the ruling class and its direct state apparatus.

Like the “migrant caravan” and the “border wall” for Trump in 2016, or the “super predator” and mass incarceration for the Clintons in the 1990s, the Hastings Tent City, as a symbol of public safety danger, was a political instrument wielded by the VPD. What makes this state-actor political campaign more unusual is that it was not conducted by a politician during election season, it was carried out and led by VPD Chief Adam Palmer, as a semi-autonomous political actor.

These tent cities have been on the courthouse lawn in Victoria, in various parks in the Downtown Eastside, and in city-owned vacant lots in the suburbs. With the exception of the Hastings Tent City (and for a shorter time, on the sidewalk surrounding the vacant Woodward’s department store building in 2002), the police have not allowed unhoused people to set up tents on the sidewalk, blocking the regular circulation of pedestrian traffic and marring the views of commuters and tourists along one of Vancouver’s major downtown transportation routes.

I will argue that the Hastings Tent City has been able to settle in and grow because this encampment, while absolutely a direct survival action and militant protest carried out every day by hundreds of low income people, has also been a political action by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD).

Faced with the mildest of criticism from Vancouver City Hall, VPD Chief Palmer planned a cynical manipulation of the lives of unhoused people as political instruments to expand the power and influence of the police, making a play for greater autonomous power (and funding) within the Canadian state apparatus.

The Vancouver Police’s abuse of unhoused people on Hastings Street has significance for socialist debates about the relative autonomy of the police within state power. Ultimately, this is emblematic of a rightward political turn, with the police pivoting away from a harm reduction strategy it had formerly endorsed, back to a law-and-order strategy to police poverty in Vancouver’s streets. The broader political effects of that turn are already being felt in the policies of the BC Legislature and Vancouver City Hall.

“Stop the Sweeps”

There were low-income people on sidewalks of the blocks radiating out from Hastings and Main Streets — the social center of the Downtown Eastside — long before the Tent City was fully established on July 1, 2022. Crowds of people gathered on corners in the evenings to hang out, drink, talk. Some laid out blankets and sold things they scavenged or shoplifted or that they didn’t have space for anymore in their tiny apartments.

Others managed to throw up a tent for the night, when the rains came and they didn’t have anywhere to go, but usually in the morning they were scattered by the battalions of city engineering department workers, who swarmed out from pickup trucks bearing pitchforks quick to shovel tents and packs and sleeping bags into the maw of a waiting garbage truck.

Into the frenetic vacuum of this vicious energy of street sweeps was sucked the entire life possessions of the poorest people in Vancouver. It is not hard to find someone on Hastings Street who has had the ashes of their beloved partner, or their only remaining photograph of their apprehended child, swept into the unblinking black hole commanded by engineering workers, flanked always by pairs of police officers, as ubiquitous as they are impatient.

A research report by the Stop The Sweeps Coalition, made up of VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) and other DTES community and legal reform organizations, estimated that $2,510 worth of personal property was seized and destroyed by the city engineering department during the five days of Homelessness Action Week in 2021.

On June 21, progressive councillor Jean Swanson brought forward a motion to city council that supported the basic demands of the Stop the Sweeps coalition’s report. This motion produced an apology from the city to those whose property had been destroyed in street sweeps, and initiated a community-organized “block stewardship” program, giving a $320,000 contract to VANDU’s “Our Streets” program to pay community “peers” to work alongside engineering as the primary point of interaction between the city and people living on Hastings Street.

Chief Adam Palmer and the VPD freaked out. That minor victory of the “Stop the Sweeps” coalition in June against these humiliating and assaulting daily engineering department sweeps was the last straw for the VPD Chief, and the beginning of the police revolt.

City Council vs. Police

This was not the first slight that Palmer had received from Mayor Stewart’s council. In May 2020 (just days before the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor movement began), the City voted to freeze the police budget for the first time in decades — a move referred to as a budget “cut” by the police chief and most media.

The British Columbia Provincial government, which holds the actual discretionary power over police budgets, ended up ordering the City to restore every penny the police had requested, but the animus between Mayor Stewart and Chief Palmer had already been established. Then in July 2020, in the heat of the “defund police” movement, City Council passed two motions that gestured at restricting police powers in public spaces.

The first motion, “Decriminalizing Poverty and Supporting Community-led Safety Initiatives,” asked the police board to “itemize the work they do that is related to mental health, homelessness, drug use, sex work, and the amount of money spent on it, including the number of tickets issued from enforcing related by-laws as well as the cost of this enforcement.”

It also called for city staff to write a report recommending ways to “deprioritize policing as a response to mental health, sex work, homelessness and substance use,” and to “inform the Vancouver Police Board that it is this Council’s priority to respond to [these above issues] with initiatives led by community, health agencies, social service providers, and non-profit societies rather than policing.”

The other motion, “Ending Street Checks in Vancouver,” advised the police board that “Vancouver City Council’s priority is to end the practice of street checks,” which the motion defined as “the practice of stopping a person outside of an investigation, and often obtaining and recording their personal information,” a police tactic of racialized harassment of Black and Indigenous people in Vancouver.

These council decisions, however, did not dampen the power of the police, transfer funding away from the police to social services, or discipline officers for racist abuse. The first council decision that moved from rhetoric, request, and report-writing to action that would change what police are able to do to poor people in practice was the decision of June 21 to pull police back from Hastings Street sweeps.

Tent City and Police Revolt

Police chief Palmer countered immediately, announcing that starting July 1 police officers would no longer accompany engineering department workers in their street sweeps. Without police escort, the City engineering department refused to send their unarmed and legally powerless workers to steal and destroy peoples belongings with pitchforks.

The police effectively declared a strike action. If the job of the police in the Downtown Eastside is to dam, by club and gun, the raging pressure of mass poverty and social alienation from rushing into the streets and taking over, then their strike released the Tent City to its imminent existence.

This is not to suggest that the tent city was actively created by the police. The camp was created by the power of the low-income Downtown Eastside community — the community’s unique unity and solidarity, its mutual care and capacity for cooperation through the most impossible of situations.

To disorganize the self-activity and repress the capacity of this community to resist its oppression, police deploy constant surveillance, harassment, and the threat of violence. You see cops on every corner when you walk the streets of the DTES. There is practically never a street without a cop car. Starting the police revolt was easy; all Chief Palmer had to do was take his finger out of the dam and the elemental forces beaten back by class and colonial oppression poured out.

The “Our Streets” coalition, with its peer workers paid $20 an hour, equipped with garbage tongs and harm reduction supplies, stepped out on July 1 to take on the tremendous task of organizing the emergent Hastings Tent City. They organized the election of block captains, held meetings to decide on day to day organizational matters and formulate demands from the city.

But it was a set-up. The city contracted this peer group, made up mostly of low-income illicit drug users, to keep the sidewalks clean — which, without police patrols, swelled to hundreds of people and tents packed along both sides of the street for four blocks — and to stop people from clustering too close, in the name of reducing fire risks.

By the end of the month, after a couple of fire incidents during a record breaking heat wave, Vancouver’s Fire Chief Karen Fry (notorious for her anti-tent city fire orders at an encampment when she was Fire Chief in the nearby city of Nanaimo in 2018) ordered the sidewalks cleared due to fire danger.

On August 9 the police marched back onto the block with the air of an invading army, announcing that they were enforcing the fire order. But the first day ended in disaster; when police attacked a man in emotional distress in the Carnegie Community Center, people from the tent city, pushed to the edge with the stress of the “decampment” rallied and demanded his release.

The police seized the moment and attacked the crowd, grabbing people, throwing them to the ground, and beating them in the open, with cameras rolling. In the aftermath of the August 9th police riot, Mayor Stewart clamped down on police action, trying to force the displacement process back through the community channel, which effectively stalled.

Frustrated by a non-compliant City Hall once again, police continued their violent rampage, but in one-off, more localized episodes of violence rather than in riots that center the displacement agenda at the fore.

On August 22nd police shot with bean bag guns and killed a man in distress, who, having been bear-sprayed, had stripped off his clothes and was pouring milk over his head, asking for help. And on innumerable days, in innumerable instances, police have beaten, arrested, humiliated, and tortured people in alleys and side streets and outside their tents with the slightest excuse. But the tent city remained.

The Hastings Tent City became a flag the police could continue to wave to demonstrate the need for police to keep public order, and with a civic election coming in the fall, Chief Palmer and the Vancouver Police Union (VPU) pivoted to partisan political maneuvers.

Between August 18 and September 5, the VPU ran a public safety “questionnaire” that they released to argue that Vancouverites feel less safe than ever and that the most important issue of the election should be public safety — talking points that were embraced by the media.

On October 5, for the first time in its history the VPU endorsed a candidate for mayor — Ken Sim and his new political party, ABC Vancouver. ABC ran on a slough of political promises. Some were rightwing dog whistle points like greater transparency in spending and to end the symbolic environmental gestures put in place by previous councils, like the tax on disposable cups. But their most coherent political promise was to hire 100 more cops and to increase the police budget.

Ken Sim and ABC Vancouver swept city council, winning the mayoral seat and seven out of 10 council seats, six out of seven Parks Board seats, and five out nine school trustee seats. Two weeks after the election, either because they received the report later than they’d hoped to use it against Mayor Stewart in the election, or to insist on their openly political role alongside Mayor Sim, Chief Palmer released a tellingly-titled report commissioned earlier in the year by the VPD.

“Igniting Transformational System Change Through Policing” condemned the “five billion dollars” the report alleged is spent annually on ”Vancouver’s social safety net,” numbers which include, for example, $2 billion from federal transfer payments for the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, Employment Insurance and child tax benefits.

But rather than a sign that Chief Palmer was starting to see himself as a political actor, which is how the report was received by some critical reporters, it should be seen as only the latest and most clumsy and incompetent example of the policing coup Palmer had been staging within Vancouver politics for months.

Palmer explained when questioned about his report, “I don’t report to any politician. I don’t report to the City of Vancouver, I don’t report to the Province of BC, or the federal government. To me, the government of the day doesn’t matter. I’ll just call it how it is and be quite frank about it.”

Origins of the Police Revolt

We can understand why Chief Palmer organized a police revolt against Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s milquetoast center-left council only when we understand the kind of power Vancouver’s police chief was used to.

The Vancouver Police Department was accustomed to being part of a coalition of state agencies tasked with managing the lives of the poor in the Downtown Eastside. What Chief Palmer could not accept was any constraint on the power and violence his officers are allowed to exercise in the field. Over the last 25 years, since the beginning of the so-called “Vancouver Agreement,” better known as the “Four Pillars” drug policy model, the police worked hand in glove with a coalition of health and social service providers to manage the communities of the poor and unhoused in the Downtown Eastside.

This coalition did not come easy, at least not around agreements that included the police ceding of law-and-order powers in all matters of drug policy. Throughout the HIV and overdose crisis of the 1990s, the VPD and conservative politicians staunchly opposed the early harm reduction initiatives spearheaded by the newly formed VANDU and their allies in public health and the community grassroots wing of the New Democratic Party (NDP).

This dynamic shifted thanks to the struggle from below, led by VANDU, and also because of the extent of the crisis. About 1000 people in British Columbia were killed in the drug overdose crisis of the last three years of the decade. The numbers were shocking, as was the panic that the parallel HIV and Hep-C transmission crisis would spill over into the homes of the white middle classes — a factor that not so prominent with the drug poisoning crisis today.

Conservative Vancouver Mayor Philip Owen bought in to the new harm reduction model and piloted the Four Pillars Drug Strategy, which brought the Vancouver police onside by ensuring that the “enforcement” of drug laws would be baked into the foundation of the plan, along with prevention, treatment and, lastly, harm reduction.

The more radical demands of the movement — for the decriminalization of all drugs — was elbowed out of the plan in order for Mayor Owen to include the police at the table. Four Pillars was consolidated as the City’s core drug policy by former cop and coroner Larry Campbell’s victorious run for mayor with the social democratic party COPE. Campbell ran, and won, on the promise to open a legal safe injection site (activists had been operating an unsanctioned site for months in the lead-up to the election).

Under the “Four Pillars” strategy, the Vancouver Police Department could count on significant budget increases each year, from $108 million in 1997 to $118 million in 2000. Bundled with the Four Pillars strategy was the hiring of an additional 40 officers specifically to patrol the Downtown Eastside, where harm reduction services were concentrated, including North America’s first sanctioned safe injection site.

According to the Coalition Against Police Harassment and Brutality, a police abolitionist group active in Vancouver at the time, there were already more police officers per capita in the Downtown Eastside than anywhere else in the city. The Vancouver police budget lept up every year since, and, in 2023 will likely go up another 11.17 per cent to $383 million — more than tripling since Four Pillars began.

The house that Chief Palmer inherited was one built by Four Pillars; a patriarchal model home where he, not the mayor and not the Premier, sat at the head of the table. And in the tepid gestures from Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s government to hem in the autonomous power of police to patrol, harass, and seize possessions of anyone they found on the streets of the Downtown Eastside at any time, he sensed a threat to that absolute power.

Police Displacement of the Hastings Tent City

Police barricade the Hastings sidewalk against tents. @aaronpettiman

A result of the police revolt has been the restoration of their powers, expressed in their renewed attack on the unhoused residents of the Hastings Tent City — encircling, smashing, and displacing the camp in a one-day, dramatic police operation on April 5th. The police assault on the camp came as a surprise to residents and service providers in the area, who complained that they lost contact with people they were trying to house, and to activists, who had received a leaked memo earlier in the week, saying that the city was planning to begin an aggressive decampment by forcing tent city residents into shelters.

No one was ready when the police declared the two core blocks of the tent city an exclusion zone, barricaded the street, barred advocates, media and legal observers from entering, shut off traffic cameras, and stationed police officers on rooftops with telescopes and, some observers said, rifles. The authority that police used to move in should also have been a surprise, but the long moral panic political preparation conducted by Chief Palmer and the Mayor’s office paid off. No one asked why the City didn’t seek a court injunction to displace hundreds of homeless people from an established tent city.

There have been 14 years of BC Supreme Court rulings that should mean that police and city workers should not be able to displace a tent city without first providing housing — or at least making a show of providing housing.

These BC Supreme Court rulings did not strip the Canadian state of the power to manage where and how poor people access and use public space. In circumstances where a tent city becomes “established” on publicly owned lands, not infringing on the private property rights of a land owner, the Courts appoint public health nurses, “frontline” social services, housing, and mental health outreach workers, and even “peer” harm reduction organizations as the primary points of contact between the state and the poor on the streets.

Where the iron heel of police had traditionally been the form of the Canadian state that interacted with the poor, these Supreme Court decisions wrapped that iron heel in the soft power foam of necessary services — not abolishing or defunding police, but moving them into the still-menacing shadows of these benevolent-appearing services. These same Supreme Court Justices also awarded Cities displacement injunctions once they met certain superficial shelter-provision requirements, or once Cities could argue that living conditions in tent cities had deteriorated sufficiently. And then the police come out of waiting and into displacement-action.

The decision to use a Fire Order, a singularly powerful order issued by an appointed Fire Chief and invulnerable to court appeal, rather than a court injunction, must have been a political decision by Chief Palmer in coordination with Mayor Sim. In the days before the displacement, the annual homelessness count found just over 100 people sheltering in the Hastings Tent City, and then the BC government announced that BC Housing would soon open 330 new and renovated housing units that they could make available for residents of the camp.

Taken together, these two factors would have likely have spelled a victory for the City in an application for a displacement injunction. The decision to forgo a court injunction and instead use the naked force of a fire order meant that the police restored their monopoly on managing the poor — at this critical location anyway.

Rather than criticize this authoritarian strategy, Premier David Eby, the former social justice housing lawyer, who certainly knows better, repeated the narrative from the Fire Chief and Police Chief that the camp was too dangerous to allow to stand for another day.

Like the Premier, media coverage of the displacement also repeated the coordinated talking points from the VPD, Fire Chief Karen Fry, and Mayor Sim. Fire Chief Fry said that the camp was a fire danger, claiming that the number of fires were increasing, despite the obvious problem that the end of winter and warmer weather would mean people would no longer need propane heaters to keep warm.

Chief Palmer and his spokespeople claimed that the camp was inherently violent, citing assaults on police officers, without explaining what those officers were doing in the tents of people who he alleged assaulted them.

Mayor Sim had the gall to say that “women, and particularly Indigenous women” had been assaulted in the camp. The DTES Women’s Centre and Battered Women’s Support Services countered his claims with a news release arguing that the displacement of the tent city would place Indigenous and other low-income and unhoused women in greater danger.

VANDU interviewed a man police standing outside of the police enclosure, watching while they strafe his tent. “I’ve been forced out of my tent, which is my home… My food is going to go rancid… I can’t really do much at all, given the fact that there’s about fucking 50 of them & one of me.”

Presumably because the police operation was run under the auspices of a Fire Order rather than a court injunction, the man says there was no housing offered him. “They offered me something about storage but that’s it,” he said.

Vancouver Police Leading Rightward Turn

Chief Palmer’s cynical use of the Hastings Tent City to ratchet-up anti-homeless hatred and increase his power did not require the cooperation of unhoused people; he used them as objects for police to act against.

Most obviously, Chief Palmer won the landslide election for Ken Sim and ABC Vancouver, a party that seems to be in his pocket. Within months of holding office, Mayor Sim has indicated he’ll raise the police budget to hire his promised 100 more officers, returned police to schools (they had been pulled out by the previous school trustees after a pitched battle led by police abolitionists), and started to clamp down on city funding to social service groups that support harm reduction, and which have a record of opposing police power.

The ABC Vancouver council cut the funding to the “Our Streets” coalition, complaining that they were more about “community empowerment” than cleaning the streets, and even cut a $7000 arts grant to a VANDU public art project to remember community members lost to the drug poisoning crisis.

The less obvious effects of Palmer’s autonomous police activism have been in the NDP-controlled BC Legislature. On October 25 in celebration of the new pro-police regime at Vancouver City Hall, then-Premier John Horgan said, “We’ve been hearing calls to defund police, and that’s not a solution. And quite frankly, that’s the last thing we should do. We need to fund public safety to make sure that the right people are doing the right jobs.”

David Eby, the former social justice and civil liberties lawyer, then took over the Premier’s chair and promptly brought in a slate of right wing reforms, particularly concerning the government management of the poor. In response to a drug poisoning crisis in its seventh year, which is still killing over 2000 people every year in BC, Premier Eby’s first budget increased funding for drug treatment while stalling support for harm reduction and safe supply, in what drug user advocate Garth Mullins called the “Alberta model” of treatment-focused drug policy.

And jumping on the “public safety” bandwagon, Premier Eby joined with rightwing provincial Premiers in Ontario and Alberta to demand that the Federal government reform Canada’s longstanding bail policies in order to hold “repeat offenders” until trial and to increase sentencing. On April 12th Premier Eby announced that the Province will invest $16 million in policing that will explicitly target poor and homeless people by opening 12 “enforcement hubs” province-wide in what he calls his “Repeat Violent Offending Intervention Initiative.”

Interviewed on CBC radio, Niki Sharma, Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development and Non-Profits, said that she believes BC’s prisons will be able to handle the increased “burden” resulting from these reforms, and that the Province will be investing in those prison capacities.

This story has something to say about the level of autonomy that the police have, as an institution within the capitalist, settler colonial state. Ultimately, VPD Chief Palmer’s police revolt at the Hastings Tent City was a strategy in a campaign of police activism aimed at increasing its influence politics in Vancouver and British Columbia more broadly.

To fight against this turn, it is important that we see it as a political turn to the right, articulated around the social regulation of the poor. The police see their locus of power not in the exercise of violence, but in the state, where they play a privileged but not fully autonomous role.

It was the threat of being marginalized within the state apparatus as a whole that led Police Chief Palmer to revolt against the Mayor’s office and campaign for regime change. And while we must fight police on the streets where they exercise their brutal power, we must also see that their power depends on their role in the state as a whole, and in the social and economic order — ultimately, the class — that the state represents.

May-June 2023, ATC 224