A Visit to the Anti-Gentrification Protests in Vancouver

Yesterday evening I participated in the anti-Gentrification pickets in front of Pidgin restaurant at Hastings and Carrall, and Cuchillo restaurant at 261 Powell street. Due to conversations with friends, I’ve become increasingly interested in the issue of Gentrification in Vancouver, and I thought that participating would be the best way to get a sense of what the pickets are about, who are leading it, and how effective and sustainable this form of resistance can be.

At 6pm the picketers met in front of Pidgin restaurant, which is directly across from Pigeon Park. It’s an odd location for an upscale restaurant. The patrons arrive, usually in taxis, wearing fancy clothes and jewellery – while across the street the locals drink, cuss and play soccer in the street. Just across Hastings there is a man laid out on the sidewalk in an awkward position while police stand around an an ambulance arrives. Two men walk by, loudly calling us “a bunch of losers”, my friend tells me they are drug dealers and dislike our presence because the pickets draw the police.

The picket is a lively place, not like a union picket – because it only meets for an hour or two a day it also serves as a meeting time for the people involved. Stories are shared, analysis is given if asked for. I’m told that the picket has been staffed by as many as 60 people, but what impresses me is that they come every day – every single day, even if there are only two or three. And it really bothers people. Just to have a few people standing outside a restaurant, explaining the connection between the upscale restaurant in a lower class neighbourhood at street level to the evictions that are taking place upstairs. And the evictions are taking place – above both Pidgin and Cuchillo, and the connection between the upscale resto downstairs and the evictions of low income residents upstairs is undeniable. Still, apparently quite a few diners patronizing Pidgin actually do engage in dialogue with the picketers. I’m told they tend to have lived in Vancouver a long time (in upper class neighbourhoods) and have somewhat thought-out opinions on things. I didn’t experience this myself because I didn’t notice any diners going in at all. Mostly we got yelled at by people who weren’t eating there, quite possibly by people who couldn’t afford to eat there. I suppose this illustrates the extent to which people have bought into the trickle-down, neo-liberal view that richer people are better people, and that if the rich are coming into this area of town, this must be a good thing. It feels strange to be yelled at, called names. I suppose it’s a kind of emotional warfare – are we suppose to feel bad at being called “losers”, or “get a job” (ironically the 6pm pickets make it easy for people with 9-5 jobs to participate)? Is this high school? Why are they so angry that someone opposes evictions of precarious, low-income residents, and draws attention to the connection between that and fancy restaurants?

And then I found out that the resistance against the picketing can go beyond name-calling. At an information meeting, right there on the sidewalk, I learned that the day previous several organizers had been assaulted by the building manager from one of the buildings that is picketed. Four women organizers were eating lunch in a cafe when the assailant stormed in, shoved one of them out of the way, grabbed their picketing sign and ripped it to pieces.  The police were called, but were dismissive of the organizers desire for justice and refused to press charges. This is clearly political, because in a previous incident where a picketer was alleged to have shoved someone, the police were more than happy to move forward with charges, with no more evidence than statements by the parties involved.

Because of the alleged assault, the picketers decided to move to the Cuchillo site, as this is the building where the building manager who intimidated organizers is employed. The picketers have for the most part stopped picketing at Cuchillo because, for a variety of reasons, the picket is more effective at Pidgin. Whereas Pidgin restaurant is located in an area with a lot of foot traffic, and Pigeon park across the street being community gathering space, Cuchillo is on a stretch of Powell which is quite desolate (perhaps in part due to the eviction of all the tenants in the building). Also whereas Pidgin is not a very busy or successful restaurant, Cuchillo was started by restauranteurs who already have a loyal following in Vancouver.

The management at Cuchillo seem a lot more antagonistic than at Pidgin. For one theres the assault, although that involves the building owners not the restauranteurs, who are renting the space from them. We did get a message from the restaurant, however, a few minutes after arriving:

Apparently if you know “shit about living here”, you know that evicting the entire building and keeping it vacant is good for business and good for the neighbourhood. Again this “get a real job” rhetoric – especially ironic because Nick (pictured here) does have a real job, he works in a kitchen. At least, I think working in a kitchen is a real job. Maybe we should ask their kitchen staff?

The diners are Cuchillo are also quite different form those at Pidgin. The prices are affordable, at least middle-class affordable (from 8$ for a pulled-duck taqaria to 24 for diver-caught scallops). The crowd was neither urban hipster nor working class nor upper class chic, in fact the only word I can use to describe the crowd is…suburban. I don’t like to yell much at protests, but when people yelled out “get a job”, I felt like answering “tuck in your shirt” or “get some decent shoes!”. There are few positive interactions with diners, some feigned concern, but mostly bro-ish antagonism. Every fifteen minutes or so a car drives by honking its horn, the driver holding out a middle finger at us. I can see why the picketers have mostly stopped demonstrating here.

But they will persevere at Pidgin. There is for the most part support of the pickets by the area’s not-yet-evicted residents. I’m told that many have said they would participate in the pickets, and they support them fully, but they are afraid of being targeted by police. They live down there, and because basically everyone is involved in illegal activity from jaywalking to public drinking to drugs, the police can quickly make life difficult for any singled out individual. There is also a sense they are winning – at least Pidgin restaurant is not doing well, and the police are no longer religiously observing the protests. Mostly I’m just impressed at how a relatively small group of people have kept a daily protest going for many months, and had a real impact on the political discourse in the city.

Over an 8$ pint at a restaurant two subway stops away from the picketing, I asked my friend if he felt like there was any contradiction between going down to the DTES and speaking against gentrification and then whizzing over to commercial to enjoy a meal in the absolute same class-bracket as those diners crossing the picket line. He responded: sure, but this is the way it has to be. It isn’t going to happen any other way. And he’s right – the pickets aren’t against people eating at bougie restaurants, they are against the opening of bougie restaurants in locations which displace people. Displacement is wrong because it isn’t a solution – it looks at the problems in the DTES and then prescribes moving them over a few blocks in this or that direction. And while it’s unfortunate that the very people being evicted can’t always stand on the front line of their own resistance, this is just a paradox that we have to live with if we want to stand against dishonest social policy, and struggle against the exclusion of the most oppressed from any benefits of living in one of the richest cities in the world.

“Dialogue” beyond Liberal Illusions: from a-Political Surrender to a Hermeneutics of Resistance

Liberals love dialogue. They think that if we just sit down together over tea and coffee, and talk out our divergent needs and interests, that we’ll all bend and compromise to the point where any conflicts are resolved, and we can all just get along.

And they aren’t entirely wrong. In many situations, especially personal situations, even engaging in dialogue is a sort of opening up to others, allowing ourselves to be affected by the needs of others. In dialogues where the implicit rule is to not come off as a jerk, the mere exchange of perspectives can be enough to motivate change.

The key quality of a successful dialogue is that the exchange of perspectives between the parties have a reflexive character. What I mean is that in the dialogue the position of each of the parties bend, or flex, in re-lation to each other. The “re” is both recognition and re-peting. This relation is an integration, a crossing, a crux. Mutually affective, but not in a material or mechanistic sense – after all we are human, cognitive, understanding beings. In the reflexive dialogue our understanding works on our interest and our interest on our understanding, and we engage in a mutual becoming which facilitates new forms of life, new ethical postulates, new I’s and We’s. It is essential is that these transformations are both individually and mutually willed, or at least accepted consensually so that we can imagine transitioning to a point where we do will the compromises. But what is most crucial is that between the parties, a higher and more considered intelligence emerges – we might call it an inter-subjective comprehension of the situation as a whole. If you want to call this a metaphor, that’s fine, but it’s a metaphor for the active role that the relation, rather than the individual parties themselves, play in transforming the interpretation of the situation and therefore the situation itself.

But as was clear from the introduction, in my view the whole liberal project is a little naive. Naive because where there is a need for dialogue, there is often a power imbalance – which itself might a reason why grievances emerged. Asking people to dialogue in a situation where one party has more power than the other is to presume a false equivalency between unequal parties. Even if the stated goal is to overcome the injustices on the table, the effective goal is to normalize the status quo, and to get the weaker parties to accept their oppression as the condition of moderating it. More often than we would like to admit, slight improvements in their situation are offered as the payoff for peacefully acquiescing to the order in which the subordinate group is structurally under-privileged.

From the perspective of dialogue as reflexivity, we can state more precisely what is wrong with dialogue across large imbalances of power. Reflexion is self critique, and mutual critique, but most importantly it is allowing the perspectives of others to affect your own perception of your own needs. But if you are much more powerful than the other you are claiming to “dialogue” with, you don’t need to do this, you don’t need to change your own view of yourself – you can simply make an offer and then say that the cost of not accepting the offer is you will continue to enforce the status quo with your superior force. This is why accepting the status quo is a precondition for dialogue with rebel groups, even when accepting the status quo means accepting the superiority of the stronger party. This can not be called dialogue, it should rather be called discussions regarding the terms of surrender.

In order for dialogue to take place, there must be some equivalency between the parties in their experience of precarity. If your life is in no way precarious, then you have no reason to expose yourself to the possible transformative effects of a genuinely reflexive interchange with another. In inter personal drama, the mutual precarity of losing friends in common, or simply appearing to be a jerk, might be enough to drive both parties into a dialogue and genuine compromise.  However, in dialogues between representatives of groups, the stronger party can only be forced into dialogue if the conflict creates a precarity which is unsustainable for its own members. Thus we should be highly suspicious when governments say they “will not negotiate with terrorists” – because in fact governments can only negotiate with groups which create a precarious situation for their own citizens. A government declaring that it will refuse to negotiate so long as the precariousness situation caused by the attacks is maintained, is effectively declaring that for the sake of avoiding a dialogue with the rebels it is willing to sacrifice whatever human lives that might be lost in the military campaign to wipe out all of the rebel forces, to the point where their ranks are so weakened that they can no longer resist the status quo and will instead sign terms of surrender, or simply return quietly to their unrecognized subordinate position.

Rather than thinking about force and dialogue as opposed to each other, we should see how they work together. Force can prevent the possibility of genuine dialogue, but force that restores a balance of force can restore this possibility. Only precarious lives can dialogue, and in situations where force makes some lives precarious white protecting others, a countervailing force is one of the things that can restore equivalency.

Of course, on the other hand, precarious situations can drive people into recalcitrance, especially if they think they can appeal to their ability to mobilize enough force to blot out the source of their precarity. The anguish of fear is a prime breeding ground for fascism, for tribalist thinking, for racism, sexism, an idealization of the “golden age”, and all forms of cultural inertia. A complete account of the dynamics of reflexive dialogue across different situations of force would require unpacking this tendency, and distinguishing more closely what forms of precarity motivate entry into reflexive dialogue, compared to which tend towards greater and more self-destructive appeals to might-as-right. It is, however, possible that the difference between these reactions is not a matter of external factors, but the internal decision and freedom of the members of the society under pressure.

Syria: The Sovereignty of the Revolution Lives in the Bodies of the People in Struggle

Syria. Uttered in Arabic, we hear Sou-ree-ah. What is the meaning of this word today? Its utterance produces shivers, sighs, perhaps sparks of hope along with the horror. And of course fights. There is alive in the 2.0 world of print/blog media a war of words concerning Syria – is it a revolution? is it still a revolution? what about the islamists? what about Assad’s nominal anti-imperialist stances? What about resistance against American hegemony? What about American funding of the rebellion? It might be said that it does not matter so much what is said on blogs in the West about Syria, that the revolution or rebellion continues regardless of what we think about it. But there is a universal human obligation to try to understand those things to which one is connected. And a still more universal obligation to pay witness to suffering, and to those who stand up against oppression. There is something to be learned from every rebellion, every revolution, because there is a truth in the physical manifestation of standing up against injustice. Not because this standing necessarily leads to justice, but because it opens a door, a way towards justice. Because without sacrifice, there is no justice.

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Why I won’t fill out any more “doodles”

Doodle is an “easy scheduling” web tool that fits the needs of modern, busy, internet-connected types who don’t share schedules but need to find times to meet up for a work or social activity. Any person can create a poll that gives a group options as to when an event can take place in the future.  Then, by disclosing their availability, it becomes clear what times the most people are available, so the event can be scheduled.

Doodle achieves a certain ideal in the world of today – it fits perfectly with our busy yet flexible schedules, it gathers exactly the information we need and nothing more, it’s a kind of parato-optimal market solution for your time.

However, doodle has a pernicious effect on the meaning of the events that it helps schedule. By making it on-the-fly, which means non-repetitive scheduling, so easy, we no longer need to commit to weekly repetitive patterns. Instead of a weekly group meeting, say on Wednesday at 8pm, the meeting can be planned weekly to fit at the ideal time for everyone in the group, even if such a meeting happens every week. This is the casualization of events which otherwise would have gained a weight, a gravity that comes from repeating a practice in a cycle of time. Monday choir practice, thursday PTA meeting, can you imagine the way the meanings of such events would change if they were re-scheduled every week?

Our weeks, our cycles of time take on significance by, among other things, the things we do in them repetitively. This is why a Thursday afternoon has a certain feeling to it, why we might feel obligated to socialize or “have fun” on a Friday or Saturday night, and why Monday is the unofficial start to the week – despite the fact calendars tend to imply that the week starts on Sunday. By hunting for those empty spaces, and being so good at it, doodle moves us towards a world where our schedules have less and less repetition, where we can less so count on the familiarity of our own lives.

If we need to schedule important events that occur most every week by a Doodle poll, because we can’t find time in our schedules to give the event a repetitive, weekly time, we might ask ourselves if we are too busy? Which means, are we committed to too many projects, are we involved in too many involvements? Our involvements take time, but they should also give us time, in the sense of give us meaningful time, time activity which satisfies us, which grounds us, and which gives the time around it an aura of meaning too. If our involvements are becoming schizophrenic, if we are mere task-oriented, focussed on the completion of imagined goals and therefore lose track of time as not merely a resource but also the time of our lives, who has time become? Or rather, who have we become, such that time governs us, rather than we give meaning to time.

So, when I say I won’t fill out a doodle poll, I don’t literally mean that I won’t fill out a single doodle poll for the rest of my life. But what I do mean is that I will resist the causalization of events, the last-minute-ification of what ought to be planned carefully out in advance. It may be the case that this resistance will result in losing-track of some otherwise completable tasks, but this is better than losing track of ourselves, of not taking care of our own time, of being attentive to the meaning of our time. And when we take care of our time, we take care of ourselves.

Liberalism, Power and Justice and the Israel-Palestine Conflict

The question for liberals and radicals is a fundamentally different one. Liberals ask how can something proximate to justice be achieved, given the restrictions placed upon the situation by powerful interests? In other words, the oppressed are asked to compromise, to peacefully accept a more reasonable version of their dispossession  Those who refuse are called intransigent, impractical, or even “terrorists”, while those who accept are lauded with complements like “pragmatic”, “forward looking” and the like.

Radicals, on the other hand, ask how can the circulation of power be shifted to fit the requirements of justice, or even how can it be shifted by the requirements of justice. Radicals, in other words, take justice itself to be a power, a source of motivation, a cause for sacrifice. Not merely an “ideal”, but a force that aims towards an ideal, thrusting to bring it about.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and different approaches to “solving” it, serve as a paradigmatic examples of this divergence between liberal and radical approaches. I am not, however, going to argue that liberals are those who endorse a two-state settlement, whereas radicals are those who demand a one-state resolution to the conflict. Rather, the distinction can be found in what attitude a person takes towards the Israeli government and electorate, who have since the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel continually refused to accept the principle of partitioning the land according to International Law. Liberals take the feelings of those in power to be part of the game, and demand that a compromise acceptable to both sides be found in the space between the desires and aspirations of the two parties. In such a compromise, justice is never actualized but at best approximated, and the greater compromise is always taken by the weaker party. Radicals take the feelings of those in power to be part of the problem, an obstacle to Justice and something not to be appeased but struggled against. If the oppressor feels offended by the struggle, this is not a problem for a radical, although it becomes part of the tactical landscape. Whereas, for a liberal, it is more important to change the feelings of the parties concerned, so tactics that alienate are to avoided at all costs.

This distinction over tactics, over caring for the feelings of the oppressor, truly divides liberals from radicals. Not because liberals are nicer, or because radicals are mean, but because radicals believe politics to be about the reforming of the structures of power, while liberals believe politics is about changing what those in power do with that power. Liberals don’t want Israelis to have any less power, they just want them to use it for good rather than ill. Radicals, on the other hand, see the imbalance of power as a basic cause for the reproduction fo injustice in the situation, and something to be overturned through struggle.

Part of any radical position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will very likely include support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). This is because the BDS movement has adopted a set of goals that conform to basic requirements of justice and international law, and pursues them by means of a non-violent strategy that can be adopted equally by anarchists, marxists, and pacifists. Liberals will likely reject BDS on the basis that it does not propose a solution based on the mutual compromising of aspirations between Israelis and Palestinians, pretending them to be parties with equal power in a disagreement. However, there are also radicals who might reject BDS and appeal instead to another formulation of the requirements of justice, and try to mobilize a movement on this basis. Two examples of this have been the prominent intellectual and critic of Israel Norman Finkelstein, and the International Socialists.  Finkelstein has expressed concern over BDS not because he is a liberal, but because he is not convinced that its formulation of the requirements of justice can reach and motivate a broad public. The International Socialists reject BDS on the basis that it alienates the Israeli working class, and draws the delineation of the conflict along the colonial, effectively national lines, as opposed to along class lines. The International Socialists are not liberals, but they are radicals who draw the requirements of justice from a class rather than colonial analysis of the situation, and therefore disagree on the question of who is the oppressor, and therefore, whose feelings do we not need to consider when developing a politics.

It is easy to say that there ought to be unity between radicals, but radicals can be separated from each other almost as easily as they separate themselves from those who stand in the way of the requirements for justice. This is why it is so valuable for the prescriptions set by radical groups to not throw justice into conflict with power, but do so in a way that is motivating to a broad base. The BDS movement at this time is by far the largest radical Palestinian solidarity movement existing in the world today, due in no small part to the fact it has broad support from Palestinian civil society and approval from all the Palestinian political factions. There may be alternatives, but none that I know of which don’t alienate a significant portion of the Palestinian population, as well as a large portion of activists.

The question for intellectuals today is: do you want to be part of power’s self-justificatory functioning? Or, do you want justice to enter the field of power as an actor, do you want to be motivated by a social force which can turn against the realities of power, and be another actor in the field of history?


Mustafa Barghouti speaks in Toronto

Dr. Barghouti spoke tonight in Toronto, presented by CJPME. Mustafa is the leader of the Palestine National Initiative, one of the 3rd parties in Palestinian politics. He has played the role of a mediator between Hamas and Fatah, and he is a champion of the Non-Violent resistance movement.

CJPME is a bind by bringing him on a speaking tour, because as much as Mustafa speaks about Unity, his promotion of BDS is actually not in line with CJPME’s politics. In most ways Mustafa supports at least for now the kind of settlement CJPME desires – the two state solution. But he is careful to point out that the situation in Palestine (all of Palestine) is one of apartheid, and an apartheid which maybe can not be overcome by a two-state solution. Maybe soon, such as after 1 year, the Palestinians will need to shift towards a 1 state solution.

I appreciate Mustafa coming here and telling CJPME to endorse BDS and to cooperate with campus groups which are promoting BDS. He said “you need unity here just as we need unity in Palestine”, and this is true.

However, Mustafa’s political analysis is not up to his principles. He might endorse the right of return, but says nothing about what force can bring about the return. For him I think the return is a dream, a dream which you say to keep people happy, but what does he do to fulfill this dream? BDS? Ok yes, BDS, but how BDS? What are the tensions in BDS, what are the difficult arguments, why is CJPME not already endorsing BDS?

And although Mustafa might affirm the right of the Palestinians to armed resistance, what is the relationship of the BDS to armed resistance? With the great powers like America, they use boycotts and sanctions, and if these don’t work, military force. Should the Palestinians employ a similar tactic to the one America is pursuing with Iran? Why not? But no, only simple affirmations, no analysis, no talking about the hard questions.

Finally, what about BDS within the Palestinian national liberation movement? If his party supports BDS, and he thinks BDS is absolutely essential to the achievement of the Palestinian National demands, is he promoting BDS to Hamas and Fatah? Could BDS be something they could maybe agree on, to push Fatah away from Oslo compromise, and draw Hamas away from focussing only on armed resistance?

As for his focus on non-violence, I am unswayed. Israelis treat Palestinians who resist with “non violence” with the same brutality as those who resist with violence. So what is the point? The difference is, if you resist non-violently it is very easy for the Israelis to shoot you, no one is even shooting back at them! You can argue that people in America will see the pictures and see how horrible the Israelis are and work to stop supporting them and maybe this is true, but the problem with this is it makes the Palestinian weapon against American/Israel Palestinian suffering itself, and then Israel can quite rightly say that Palestinians are using their own suffering as a political tool. Non-violent resistance for the sake of propaganda does not have the inner purity essential to non-violent resistance movements, and the evidence of this is that it does not mobilize large segments of the population to resist.

We must take Mustafa Barghouti’s talk and his declarations and move forward to make stronger our solidarity movement to support BDS in all the north american pro-Palestine groups.

A question for the “post-materialist” left

The question I want to ask is directed towards a certain style of activism, a certain kind of organizing, a certain way of privileging demands and deciding who, given the vastness of our mixed up world, should we direct our solidarity efforts towards?

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