It wasn’t til I was in my late-20s that it started to irritate me, a lot, to be referred to as “a girl”. Even by the most well-meaning people, it rubbed me the wrong way. Girl = wearing jewelry, fun, disempowered. Woman = competent, exercising sound judgment, adult. Words, names, matter.
Effective today, I’m no longer a “protester,” I’m an “engaged citizen”.
I live in a gorgeous little loft on the cusp of Vancouver’s notorious downtown eastside. For seven years I have lived and walked among people easily dismissed, and judged, and often uncared for by anyone, really — and in all of that – the dismissals, the judging, the uncaring – I include myself.
But somewhere along the way, I discovered opportunities to choose my response to these fellow citizens of mine, of ours – these fellow citizens some of whom shit in the park, who holler out profanities because they don’t get to take their anger inside anywhere, who inject right in public. And who sleep outside, and jaywalk with their worldly possessions in stolen carts, and congregate and spit in places like Pigeon Park.
The first thing that happened was I discovered I felt safe. That’s saying something: for the past 3.5 years, I’ve walked from Vancity by Science world right down Columbia street to gastown three or four nights a week, 9pm or later. And not once has there been so much as a whiff of threat to me. If you ever read articles about the need for increased police presence here so that people “feel safe” please wonder aloud who it’s referring to. It’s not me. I don’t mean to diss the VPD – probably I have felt safe in part because they are, indeed, a continual presence. But again, I have not once needed their help.
The next thing that happened was I started talking, a bit, “to” these neighbours rather than “about” them.
I chat to a guy who faithfully hoses off the sidewalks near my condo and gets paid under the table. He used to be a drummer in a band, does not do drugs, but has his own reasons for being on the margins of society. Most of the time he’s cheery; sometimes you can tell life is getting to him.
There’s another guy who once asked if he could say hi to my daschunds. He’s a hard-working binner who was living outside, then over the three years I’ve known him managed to get accommodation. He is entirely polite and often does our building the favour of emptying our overflowing recycling bins to take to United We Can to get $20 for his next day’s food. I’ll miss him a lot.
There’s a woman who clearly has a very low mental capacity and was gang-banged and will probably never recover. She’s not easy to be around but still has a will to live and dammit, a will to get the spare change she needs for some smokes. I am too intimidated to talk to her much, but I try to say “hi” when I can.
There’s the kid who still drapes himself in a sleeping bag like a security blanket, who every so often asks me to buy him groceries at Bills, the marvelously cramped corner store, and always gets the biggest box of Cheerios he can find, and 2L of milk.
There’s a grandmotherly woman – a beaut, when she was younger, I’m sure – who asks others for change, but not me anymore. Instead she just asks how I’m doing. I wish we could have tea; her presence is just lovely and I wonder what her story would be.
Oh – and there’s the guy who camped in Crab Park with his Very Big Very Gentle dog all one summer (he’s now living inside) who gave had been watching out for me one evening when a pitbull belonging to the courier-crowd went after my dachunds. (It ended ok, if you’re wondering. And I don’t object to the courier crowd cracking open their beers in the park, but this particular incident was not.cool.at all.) And being on talking terms with him led to a reluctant “I’m OK; You’re OK” nodding acquaintance with a very fierce-looking man who I doubt anyone would mess with.
I ask you: How could I not be blown away and angered when these people get “moved along” by the para-police (eg. Ambassadors) or handed tickets for sleeping in the park, when there truly were no other options?
So, I began inching towards engaging in politics a little outside my comfort zone.
It started with speaking up at city hall when there was discussion of building a 30,000 capacity stadium down the street. It would have been good for the sport, and good for the sports fans. It would not have been good for this fragile community of which I am a part. At all.
Then I started attending the STANDs for housing – just standing each Saturday with a group of people on the steps of my parish church, knowing other groups were huddled across the city, saying that we thought Vancouver could do a little better than leaving 1200 sleeping in the streets. Gregor Robertson made homelessness his #1 campaign issue, he won by a landslide, and who knows if by participating in the STANDs, I helped draw attention to this issue?
And then I went on a few marches – including one about a development on 58 W. Hastings street, which managed to bypass due process at city hall. Lo and behold, check out this article in last week’s globe and mail:
“We realize that the DTES community has an urgent agenda to solve, thehomeless agenda,” he said. “We want to work together with established community groups in the area to work towards that goal, along with city of Vancouver and the provincial government and any other funding groups.”
Speaking about the company’s purchase of 58 West Hastings St., Mr. Webb said it is possible the site could be used solely for social housing. In June, over the protests of more than 200 residents [ed note: that’s me!], the group was given permission to build 160 condominiums.
Today, I attended what will probably be my last march in quite some time (as I’m moving to Yellowknife).
I joined in solidarity with a whole lot of women who are insisting that homeless sweeps in preparation for the Olympics are not ok. Frankly, this march was a little uncomfortable for me. When slogans are shouted about keeping the “rich” out of the dtes, I feel self-conscious about my Fluevogs and purebred dogs. Am I being reverse-judged? When we stood in front of the police station and shouted about police racism, I wasn’t on board. The VPD are just doing their jobs, deal with a lot of crap, and many times go the extra mile to care for people around here.
But these discomforts of mine I set aside, as they are minor concerns in comparison to the larger question: How do we treat the most vulnerable, the most poor, in our society? This is the question to which these women – not the ones you see in People Magazine – were demanding an answer.
No doubt if the story is picked up by the press, we will as usual be referred to as “protesters”. This word connotes people who have nothing better to do, and are wasting everybody’s time because of course what we’re protesting doesn’t matter. Comments will likely be derisive, and off-base: Our contribution to society will be called into question, we will be told we should get jobs (new readers – I am a middle-class income earner, and have been my whole life), perhaps even told we should be arrested yada yada yada.
I’m used to that now.
But gentle readers, be it known that I throw off the label of “protester” as thoroughly as I throw off being called a “girl”. I am engaged citizen. I think we can do better (Yes. We. Can.) as a society, and I’m not afraid to say so, anymore, even if the saying-so is a bit rough around the edges.
Photo Credit: Cecily K