Roger Farr, “Anarchy in BC: Anti-Capitalist Struggle Outside the Union on Canada’s ‘Left Coast’”

From a review of Direct Action, Reading the Riot Act, and Woodsquat published in Perspectives on Anarchist Theory 11:1 (Fall 2007).

Link to full article.

The occupation of the Woodwards building, a prominent, if neglected, corporate landmark located on the cusp of Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, by an assortment of street people, punks, the working poor, activists, anarchists, students, adventurers, addicts, and people passing through town, began on September 14th, 2002, and lasted for exactly three months. Although the building had for decades been the focal point for housing struggles in the city, being passed back and forth between various provincial governments and developers until it was quietly left to the pigeons and rats by Gordon Campbell’s neo-liberal government in 2002, a full-scale occupation of the building was by all accounts not on the radar when the building was “popped” by three local residents. Once this group was inside, a small demo was held, during which ladders were raised to the second floor of the building (there were security dogs on the first floor), and people started to make their way inside. Some spent the night, and by the next day, local anti-poverty groups began referring to “the Woodwards squatters” and calling for support in the form of food, blankets, and mattresses.

Aaron Vidaver, the editor of this collection, is a trained archivist, and it shows. In addition to this expertise, he also produced during the squat a daily zine with news, statements, minutes from meetings, poems, safety tips, etc., unofficially assuming a role as the squat’s samizdat publisher. Thus, the material he includes in the collection reflects both his training and his position as a “witness-participant,” someone both inside and outside the occupation. In his collection, we find a multiplicity of competing perspectives on the occupation – those of local homeless people, of native squatters, of the activists who saw the squat primarily as a “tool,” the police who saw it as an affront to their clumsy “law and order” approach to the area’s problems, and, finally, of the municipal government who, tellingly, assigned the squat to their Sanitation Branch. These perspectives are documented in public statements and speeches by squatters and activists, individual testimony and interviews, photographs of the building and of support rallies, poems, flyers, comics, a wonderful series of portraits of the squatters taken by Vidaver, academic essays on gentrification and media coverage of the squat, and numerous documents obtained though freedom-of-information requests (some of which are censored), such as police surveillance reports, stills from police video footage taken during the first eviction, and internal memos prepared by city staff.

Taken together, these documents demonstrate better than any third-person analysis could the political composition of, and tensions within, the squat. Vidaver makes these tensions very clear by opening the collection with Theresa D. Gray’s piece “Canada is All Native Land: Non-Natives Are All Squatters: The Devil + Canada are One.” Indeed, the squat was never able to fully address the problem that it was, from a First Nations’ point of view, a kind of meta-occupation (an occupation of already occupied land), nor could it resolve the contradictions between its immediate use as “a self-managed poor people’s site of reclamation,” as Vidaver calls it in the introduction, and its more commodified or symbolic use as a bargaining chip in a campaign for state-controlled social housing.

For instance, in “Squatting as an Organizational Tool,” Lisa Wulwik describes squatting as an instrument deployed by renters and the poor in their struggle with the state over “effective rent controls” and “social housing.” “People squat,” she writes, “for various reasons: to live free of huge rent prices and overbearing slum lords, to live in occupant-controlled housing, to open community spaces and social centres, to publicize the need for social housing and to call attention to the number of vacant homes and buildings…[activists have] been very successful in using squatting as a political tool to demand social housing.” This perspective is echoed in another piece by Mike Krebs, titled “Demands.” Here, the author seems to be under the influence of Trotsky’s notion of “transitional demands” – short-term demands for concessions that can be achieved under capitalism, in the course of a long-term struggle for socialism – to explain why the Woodward’s squatters needed to “define the movement for housing.”

While this perspective – that the squat was primarily a means-to-an-ends, and that those ends were social housing – is very prominent in the collection (possibly because activists, due to the nature of their work and experience with the media, are often articulate and charismatic and good at securing air time), it frequently encounters challenges from other statements and perspectives that call for a break with the politics of demand. Lyn Tooley, for instance, in “We Need to be Left Alone,” describes how six months of homelessness – “of having to live [her] private life in public space” – amplified her need for “solitude” and “creativity.” Linking the Woodwards squat to autonomous movements in Europe and South America, Tooley argues that “we don’t need government interference to solve our problems. We need to be left alone, unmolested and unharassed be police brutality and government do-gooders….We are not asking the affluent sectors of society to give us charity…We are taking responsibility for our own needs using the only resources left available to us: waste spaces, garbage materials and our creativity.” T. Forsythe, also, suggests that the final neutralization of the squat was tied directly to its reification in the media as part of an activist “campaign” before it had a chance to develop autonomously: “[Leftists] seem to be attracted to media cameras like flies on shit. This phenomenon of self-policing leftists seems to be limited to North America…I remember one meeting where this womyn was telling people not to ‘spare change’ and not to use drugs because ‘it would look bad in the media.’ Come on, you don’t walk into the ghetto, straight out of the white middle class progressive leftist circus and start telling poor people they can’t use drugs or panhandle…it was people like this who sold out Woodwards in the end.”

Today, a “stylish and modern” 560 square foot condo in Woodwards – featuring “9 ft polished concrete ceilings, laminate floors, a Juliette balcony, customized doors, glass tiles & floor to ceiling windows” – starts for around $400,000, and local arts organizations are lining up to get their hands on some cheap office and gallery space.

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