Radical media, politics and culture.

Tom Sandborn. Woodsquat

Anonymous Comrade writes Review of Woodsquat

(West Coast Line 37/2-3)

by Tom Sandborn

“The laws, in their infinite majesty, forbid both the rich and the poor to sleep beneath the bridges of Paris,” observed a sardonic French writer during the 19th century. Not too much has changed in the intervening years. Capitalism still creates agonizing poverty at the bottom, excess wealth at the top, and a “justice” system designed to keep the aromatic, unsightly poor from bothering their social betters.

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighborhood has served, almost since the beginning of European settlement here in the rain forest, as a holding pen for surplus labour and the marginalized poor who have fallen into capitalism’s spare parts bin. The neighborhood is, famously, Canada’s poorest and the home of one of the country’s largest concentrations of off-reserve native settlements.

It has been ground zero in the last decade for an epidemic of injection drug use and HIV/AIDS infection, and has seen a nightmarish level of violence against women--violence that has often targeted the sex trade workers who have been pushed, mortally vulnerable, onto its darkest street corners by a combination of police harassment and drug addiction.
In 2002, all through a rainy fall, a loose coalition of Downtown Eastside residents and supporters from the broader left in the Lower Mainland conducted an occupation of the old Woodwards building and then its surrounding sidewalks. The squatters called on the provincial Liberals and the city to protect the social housing component that had been promised for when the old department store building, a long time neighborhood landmark, was re-developed.

The squat began dramatically in September, with a SWAT team of activists swarming up ladders to break into the Woodwards building and announcing that they were there to stay until the various levels of government took effective action to address the housing crisis in Vancouver. The four-month drama that then unfolded included middle of the night raids by the riot squad, arrests, negotiations and political tumult. By the time the last squatters were swept off the streets around Woodwards just before the Christmas season, the Woodwards Squat had become a symbol of housing and anti-poverty resistance known across the country, and may well have played a role in the sweeping victory of the Coalition of Progressive Electors in that fall’s civic election. Voters turned in landslide numbers to the more or less progressive COPE slate to express the crisis of civic conscience about the firestorm of homelessness and disease sweeping through the city’s old skid row neighborhood, a rolling and lethal crisis the Woodsquat had put front and center on the public agenda.

The squat ended inconclusively, with the squatters moved out of their encampment in the public eye and into back street hotels run by social service agencies close to the new city government, but without the dramatic increase in social housing and other anti-poverty initiatives that the squatters had demanded.

So what did it all mean? Was Woodsquat another moment in Vancouver’s long and honourable history of direct action on poverty and housing issues, an energetic successor to actions taken by the WW II vets who occupied the Hotel Vancouver after the war to win themselves decent housing, or the street- punk/anarchist action in 1990 that turned a row of abandoned houses on Frances Street into a long running and high profile squat?
Was the Woodsquat a victory for popular resistance, or another unhappy lesson in the dangers of trusting middle class civic reformers, a debacle that allowed “poverty pimps” and politicians a few minutes of cheap publicity and revenue opportunity before the folks at the bottom were abandoned once again to die in the back alleys?

The debates that swirled around the Woodwards occupation during its lifespan will no doubt continue for as long as homelessness and poverty stalk the mean streets of the city, and Aaron Vidaver’s new collection of oral history and analytic articles on the Woodwards events will be an invaluable resource for historians, anti poverty activists and concerned citizens for as long as that debate continues.

Readers of this fierce, committed piece of editorial work will not look to it for journalistic “objectivity.” This is a book with a clear and partisan point of view. Like many of the contributors to this collection, the editor is deeply angry about the abysmal conditions of life for the marginalized poor in Canada, and committed to major social change to re-structure a fundamentally cannibal economy and political system that serves the interests of the business class at the top while consigning many to death and despair at the bottom.

This useful and informative collection concentrates upon the testimonies of Woodwards occupiers and their supporters, and allows them to tell their stories with all their tangled contradictions and tensions, while occasionally including police and bureaucratic documents that provide fascinating glimpses of life on the other side of the enforcement lines that divide the managed from their managers Vidaver and the other activists and academics associated with West Coast Line have been admirably unwilling to drown out the voices from the street with over-arching discourses from the academy, or to edit out elements that cast the squatters in less than romantic revolutionary terms. We hear, for example, often in Woodsquat about the dealers, the damaged and the thugs who became part of the scene around the squat, and about angry splits within the squat community, fired by suspicions that money donated to support the occupation was ending up in private pockets.

This level of unsentimental honesty is to be saluted in the editors, and, in the end, makes Woodsquat an even more compelling read and valuable social document than it would have been had the editing process been driven by ideology alone. This book is a must read for anyone concerned with social justice in Canada or with Vancouver history. We are all in debt to Aaron Vidaver, his colleagues, and, most important, the brave and desperate activists who made the Woodsquat occupation possible, and helped create this vital book that documents an important moment in Canadian history.