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Municipal Politics

Police Are Making Pandemic Life Worse for Already Oppressed People

A health crisis — or two — won’t be solved by harassing the poor or marginalized, but that’s what is happening.

Meenakshi Mannoe 21 May

Meenakshi Mannoe is the criminalization and policing campaigner at Pivot Legal Society.

Almost two weeks ago, the provincial government announced B.C.’s Restart Plan, intended to create a new normal. The sense of relief has been palpable.

Working together, we have been able to #FlattenTheCurve and avoid catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19 — that is if you don’t count outbreaks in long-term care settings, meat-processing facilities or federal prisons.

We can celebrate B.C.’s clear guidance, transparency and evidence-based approach — that is if you don’t count displacing three tent cities with an evacuation order disguised as a public health intervention.

Pivot Legal’s work during the pandemic has revealed an uneasy alliance between public health and public safety officials. The official and unofficial responses have often harmed people living in poverty.

In conversations with community members in the Downtown Eastside, we heard reports of over-policing and stigmatizing police practices, such as loudspeaker announcements from patrol cars advising people to “social distance” or police wearing inadequate personal protective equipment while interacting with members of the public.

Stigmatizing police actions are not new for anyone impacted by interwoven oppressions, but COVID-19 adds another dimension to everyday experiences of injustice and indignity.

960px version of HerbVarleyMural.jpg
On policing in the Downtown Eastside, Herb Varley says: ‘There is an arbitrariness of morality, and who the police thinks are people worthy of protection, and who aren’t.’

I spoke with Herb Varley, a Nisga’a man who lives in the Downtown Eastside, about the impact of police amidst COVID-19. Herb is well-known known for his advocacy and community work and he is certainly not afraid to speak truth to power.

Early in April, Herb was arrested by a group of officers. Walking down Hastings Street, he came across half a dozen police officers gathered in a small group, none of whom were social distancing or wearing personal protective equipment. As he passed the officers, Herb spat on the ground — not at the police and not even towards them, he says — simply at the ground, as an expression of his feelings about over-policing in his community.

After a few steps he was taken down violently and arrested. After spending several hours at Vancouver City Jail, Herb was processed and released without charges, but with a whopping $250 ticket for “expectorating” — spitting.

Around the same time, Vancouver Police Department Chief Adam Palmer tweeted: “We’ve had 2 recent incidents where suspects are threatening, coughing or spitting at #VPD officers & claiming to have #COVID19 — both charged with assaulting an officer. So proud of our members showing courage in the face of adversity @VancouverPD”

Herb says his arrest simply demonstrated what he had already learned as an urban Nisga’a working towards justice. “There is an arbitrariness of morality, and who the police thinks are people worthy of protection, and who aren’t.”

The VPD has maintained an active presence in the Downtown Eastside since the onset of COVID-19, including beat officers, car patrols and surveillance devices.

While community centres, drop-in spaces and small businesses have shut down or reduced operation, the hypervisibility of police in this neighbourhood remains. The police have argued they act solely in the interest of public health, but despite their intentions, the impact of stigma remains. We know there are long-standing issues when it comes to street stops, sex workers’ rights, and the criminalization of drug users, and these concerns don’t evaporate in the midst of a pandemic.

That stigma was reinforced on May 14, when a modest one-per-cent reduction to the VPD budget was approved by city council. Palmer blamed unsheltered and poor people for pressure on the police budget, saying resources were strained by the costs of removing the Oppenheimer Park camp. Ralph Kaisers, head of the police union, was also quick to scapegoat people experiencing homelessness and blame them for the city’s budget shortfalls.

In A Politics of Disgust, Simon Fraser University’s Eleonora Joensuu notes that disgust can be used to argue for “safety” and “health” measures.

“However, disgust as a tool of ‘health’ promotion can be a way to create and enforce oppressive social hierarchies and cause harm,” she writes.

Amidst fears of COVID-19, police and public health actors have leveraged disgust and disease transmission to justify heavy-handed interventions on the Downtown Eastside. These experiences are not exclusive to the neighbourhood, as I have personally heard about over-policing throughout the province from frontline harm-reduction workers. Pivot has written to the provincial government to relay these concerns in advance of decampments at Topaz Park and the Pandora Avenue corridor in Victoria.

In early April, Pivot wrote to the Vancouver Police Department and called on police to stop harmful practices in the Downtown Eastside. We called for them to cease over-policing people who use drugs; minimize policing of informal economies; cease over-policing of unsheltered people; and minimize actions that increase people’s contact with the criminal justice system. We have yet to receive a direct response from the department.

Since the onset of this public health emergency, Pivot has advocated for evidence-based public health interventions that do not rely on police, criminalization or enforcement. National efforts are underway to track the myriad forms of policing that have taken place during COVID-19, including an online mapping project created by Alex McClelland and Alex Luscombe, Policing the Pandemic. It’s a visualization tool that helps people understand the “massive and extraordinary expansions of police powers” that is currently underway.

A lack of clarity regarding police powers during the pandemic has caused fear and led to great confusion. (Incorrect) rumours of people in B.C. being fined for “failure to social distance” or specialized COVID teams enforcing compliance with physical distancing have spread, despite this being a public health guideline and not an enforceable order.

Beyond B.C., the harms of over-policing are apparent — in Hamilton, an unsheltered resident was issued an $880 ticket for breaching a provincial order, in Nova Scotia the premier and medical health officer named predominantly African Nova Scotian communities as places of concern, and in Winnipeg, members of the local police service killed more people than COVID between April 8 and 18.

Stigma and fear continue to inform responses to this public health crisis, and this in turn promotes ignorance and oppression, including anti-poor and anti-East Asian hate.

People in crisis are grappling with the realities of COVID-19 amidst structural inequality, and we must look to creative and equitable solutions to escape hateful, harmful and just plain mean responses. While we #FlattenTheCurve when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, we must remain as resolute about flattening inequality and injustice. Broader struggles and advocacy will guide us to viable public health interventions that do not rely on enforcement and criminalization to contain the spread of disease.

For many years, DTES advocates have made their demands well-known. In the 2019 report “Downtown Eastside Community Vision for the 100 Block of East Hastings,” recommendations included ensuring access to shelter at rents that don’t exceed welfare housing rates, expanded peer programming controlled by community members, accessible food, inclusion and protection for youth and sex workers, and a better continuum of care for drug users.

Some interventions related to COVID-19 have approximated these recommendations, such as the rollout of safe supply prescribing guidelines in B.C. But if these changes had been implemented earlier in the drug poisoning crisis, lives could have been saved and people would have been better able to deal with the pandemic. B.C.’s drug poisoning public health emergency was declared over four years ago.

If we take this opportunity to re-examine our collective priorities in the midst of two public health crises, as well as the longstanding crises tied to systems of oppression like colonization and white supremacy, we can take this opportunity to turn away from stigma. We can choose not to police our way out of this pandemic.

Instead, we can build up our own networks of care and accountability, rather than rely on violence and coercion, to make a better world.  [Tyee]

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