Yesterday I attended the Vancouver DTES Annnual Women’s Housing March, which demanded social housing, not condos for the old Pantages Theatre demolition site. A post-march Block Party was also scheduled in support of affordable housing, but the Eastside community was in no mood for celebrating. The previous night, Verna Simard was thrown from a sixth-floor window of the nearby Regent Hotel. Simard’s death marked almost a year to the day since Ashley Machiskinic, another Aboriginal woman and resident of the Regent, suffered the same fate. Incredibly, the Vancouver Police Department ruled Machinskinic’s death a suicide, despite several eyewitnesses who observed a pair of shoes follow her out the window a minute later.
This is the context in which a Vancouver cop has decided to launch a new blog, “Eastside Stories: Diary of a Vancouver Beat Cop.” The blog, penned by Constable Steve Addison, features photos of women shooting heroin on the street, homeless men sleeping on benches and brags about busting drug dealers a block away from InSite.
Addison admits that he does not ask permission of his subjects before he photographs them, claiming that “Words really don’t express a lot of what goes on down here” and defending his choice because technically, “if someone is in public, he or she is allowed to be photographed.” No word on how much choice a woman sleeping on the sidewalk has when it comes to being “in public.”
I’m reminded of Pamela Masik’s controversial art exhibit, grotesquely titled “The Forgotten,” which was due to exhibit at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology earlier this year, but was pulled when residents of the DTES vehemently objected. Masik’s series of 69 enormous eight-by-ten-foot canvasses portrayed the missing and murdered women of the DTES with crass and clumsy embellishments such as meat-packaging cellophane placed overtop one of the portraits. Another portrait represented a murdered Aboriginal woman with her head bleeding into a bucket. Even more disturbing, Masik’s source material for most of the women was police mugshots — so the legacy Masik hoped to create from these women (as what? A warning? A lesson?) was based on images of them after arrest, often intoxicated or otherwise compromised.
Like Addison’s blog, the audience of these works is not the residents of the DTES, who not only know personally the individuals represented in this exploitative way, but live daily under the same threats and risks which face the subjects. Addison claims that “There’s a tremendous appetite in the public to know what’s going on down here,” but fails to include the voices of those living that reality. Instead, his blog relies on tired sensationalistic and anti-poor tropes appealing to bourgeois affectation — he even publishes a poem by a homeless youth to tug at our heartstrings. This technique both serves to further marginalize the DTES residents by portraying them as caricatures rather than as fully formed human beings, and also channels Vancouver condo-king Bob Rennie’s daring refrain of gentrification, “Do you have what it takes to live in the Downtown Eastside?”
As long as the VPD continues to look the other way while DTES women are tossed out of sixth-story windows, this vibrant and autonomous community don’t need a Beat Cop to tell them how the VPD criminalizes and polices the city’s most vulnerable and most marginalized people.