Provincial Judge upholds constitutionality of bylaw that criminalizes the poor.
By: Aiyanas Ormond
“Don’t kick us when we’re down,” said Susan Aleck, standing in front of the provincial courthouse in Vancouver. “Let us get up and make ourselves better. Give us some space.”
Aleck is one of four members of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) who, with representation from PIVOT Legal Society, are challenging street vending bylaw tickets on the grounds that the bylaw violates their constitutional right to ‘security of the person’. This past Tuesday, September 23, B.C. provincial court Judge William Yee upheld the bylaw, delivering a big f-you to poor people and telling them that they have ‘other options’ even though each of the four had testified in detail that vending used goods was the best of a bad list of options available to them at the time they were ticketed.
VANDU has had a campaign against the use of bylaw ticketing to criminalize poor people and people who use drugs in Vancouver since 2009. In that year, in the lead up the Olympics, the Vancouver Police Department went on a ticketing blitz, giving out more than 1400 tickets (normally a years worth) in a matter of days in the Downtown Eastside. These tickets were for offenses like jaywalking, vending, public urination and riding a bike without a bell. The targeted nature of the ticketing, the fact that people on welfare would never be able to pay them, and the reality that bylaw tickets can very easily turn into a warrant and jail time – usually for failure to appear for a court date – made this campaign a high priority for VANDU members. VANDU took Political action, including shutting down a City Council Meeting, and forced the City Prosecutor to eventually scrap about two-thirds of the tickets. But the pattern of criminalization has continued as the VPD use bylaw tickets to target, harass and criminalize poor people in the Downtown Eastside. Churning poor people through their oppressive containment system also keeps police busy over-policing the community, justifies the inflated VPD budget and fills the new semi-privatized provincial remand centre.
As part of the campaign VANDU has: completed a major study on pedestrian safety in the neighbourhood and won a 30km speed zone on Hastings; helped launch a community controlled Sunday street market that has run for several years; exposed that 75% of all jaywalking tickets and 95% of all vending tickets are handed out in the Downtown Eastside; picketed City Hall and protested in Vancouver Police Board meetings; conducted a participatory action research report on lack of access to toilets in the DTES which the City paid for but would not publish; held a hot seat meeting with a City Councillor and 100 VANDU members; and made mass visits to the Mayor’s office.
The tactic of a legal, constitutional challenge to the vending bylaw was only one component of multi-faceted strategy, but the outcome is instructive. Basically, the decision makes it very clear that class war from above – starvation level welfare rates, gutting of social programs, criminalization of poor people’s survival activities – is both legal and constitutional. In fact, we should expect less and less room to maneuver within the legal system. The neoliberal containment state – the strengthening of the legal, police and prison apparatus of repression – is not an optional policy of neoliberal capitalism, but a necessary complement to the rising rate of economic exploitation inherent in neoliberal economic policy. The judiciary, far from being independent, is profoundly implicated in (and shaped by) this process and ultimately will conform with the governance strategy of the ruling class.
This is why VANDU understands the ‘ticketing campaign’ as existing within broader campaigns against criminalization (‘Homes Not Jails!’ and ‘No More Drug War’) and those campaigns as only components of still broader project of drug users liberation which itself intersects with struggles against colonialism, racism and capitalism.