By Lyra McKee and Kit Rothschild
Today at 1 p.m., the Vancouver police board will hold its monthly meeting, part of which will be spent hearing from pre-approved delegations that may provide no more than five minutes of vetted feedback on its policies. A number of prominent nonprofit organizations and activists have signed up to speak against the discriminatory practice of street checks that, although illegal, are regularly conducted by the Vancouver Police Department and disproportionately impact highly marginalized communities.
We write as two white settlers on the ancestral and unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations and as staff members of PACE Society with lived experience of sex work, poverty, and social marginalization. At PACE, we provide peer-driven support services, education, and advocacy for, by, and with self-identified sex workers of all genders. Because of our extensive experience in providing peer-driven, frontline harm reduction services to marginalized sex workers in the Downtown Eastside, PACE was identified by Vancouver city council in Motion B.3, which passed unanimously on 27 July 2020, as a community group whose input will be sought out by city staff in the process of deprioritizing policing in response to mental health, sex work, homelessness, and substance use.
Rather than provide a “silver bullet” solution to the dire need for community-based responses to poverty and criminalization, we write today to address the abysmally exclusionary process by which the Vancouver police board, which has final responsibility for and oversight of all VPD strategies and policies, receives feedback from community stakeholders as well as its staunch resistance to ending the harmful, racist, and illegal practice of street checks. These two issues are merely symptoms of the pervasive disease of white supremacy that has infected and undergirded policing and the prison industrial complex since their beginnings and makes meaningful justice unattainable for a variety of marginalized communities.
Although we have signed on to the powerful open letter addressed to the police board by a number of our fellow community organizations and support their decision to speak at today’s meeting, we decided against sending our own delegation. We made this choice not because we have nothing to say on the subject of street checks, but because we find the formal process required to address the police board to be inaccessible and discriminatory.
In order to gain access to a strictly timed five minutes in the meeting agenda to speak on a specific policing strategy, a delegation must first apply to the board office with their written submission and a list of all proposed attendees at least one day in advance. This high-barrier, bureaucratic process effectively diverts and sanitizes important critiques of the VPD and puts the onus on community members rather than the police board itself to ameliorate harmful policing strategies. Even assuming there were no systemic racism in the VPD, as Chief Adam Palmer has erroneously asserted, the requirements expected of applicant delegations exclude anyone without access to email, the time to attend a midday meeting, or the writing skills to convince the police board to hear them.
At any point in the process, the police board may deny delegations for any reason, and the “Chair may curtail any delegation...for disorder or any other breach” of the policy that is, of course, designed and enforced by the police board. Considering that we know from community and professional experience that systemic racism does indeed permeate the VPD, the bureaucratic and authoritarian elements of the delegation process are only a fragment of the exclusivity it represents. While we commend our colleagues for taking on the onerous effort of speaking to the police board about the necessity of ending street checks, we refuse to participate in such a restrictive and exclusionary process. Our boycott of this meeting could easily go unnoticed, but our public statement will not.
We at PACE take direction from our community. Many of our members have made it clear that they do not consider the police a safe or accessible recourse even when they are facing dangerous situations. PACE staff therefore engage the VPD with caution and only when requested by our members. Due to the historic and ongoing violence and harassment by police that our members face, most, if not all, have understandably chosen to disengage from so-called police accountability processes which have consistently failed them. In a time where communities across our continent have made urgent and loud calls for divestment from policing due to the failure and evident inutility of reforms, we are appalled by the police board’s and VPD’s lack of proactive engagement with important community organizations like PACE Society and other groups named in motion B3. If our input were truly valued, we would have more than five minutes to address policing strategies, and the police board would take on the onus of initiating communication with us.
The Canadian prison-industrial complex, which includes all instances of policing, is a system that evolved with the central purpose of oppressing Indigenous Peoples and intimidating them into behaving according to colonial standards as well as dispossessing them of their lands and enforcing colonial rule. The carceral criminal (in)justice system has harmed members of our community far more often than it has helped them. While PACE will continue to advocate for the rights of sex workers here in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) and across all levels of the colonial system of government within which we are forced to operate, in this instance we have chosen not to participate in meetings such as today’s police board meeting as we feel they are performative, with far too much discretion on the part of the board to approve or refuse any given delegation throughout the process. Sometimes our voices are louder when we refuse to sit at a table that was not designed to host us. We hope that our absence from this conversation will be keenly felt.
As the Vancouver police board moves to operationalize sweeping changes that will finally reallocate funds designated as being utilized in response to situations involving sex work to more appropriate social services, it will undoubtedly need to access knowledge and data that are woefully missing from the carceral (in)justice system’s operational policies and strategies related to sex workers. They require our data, input, and collective wisdom. So long as we and other peer-led, member driven organizations and community groups in the DTES have to struggle over bureaucratic hurdles to be heard, we will raise our voices where they have more impact: among our neighbours, friends, and wider community, where we have found love and support for 25 years.