White Van Privilege follows the life of one white passenger van from conception to death: first roadtrip to final sale.
White Van Privilege is a collection of poems that considers the views from the front driver’s seat of a 2008 Chevy Express 15-Passenger van, and from standing next to a tent in a homelessness and drug-toxicity crisis made worse by a global pandemic. Turns out, the views are pretty similar.
All proceeds go towards my law school education with which I will use to rapidly dismantle the drug war and systemic racism, law by law, regulation by regulation. And/or authenticate your last will and testament. Either way.
Order today and there’s chance you’ll get it before December 25, but I doubt it.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating long-standing issues related to homelessness, including lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, wealth inequality, and ongoing impacts of colonization. Homelessness is often accompanied by narratives rooted in individual blame, criminalization, and reinforcement of substance use and mental health related stigma. Visible homelessness, in the form of encampments, are manifestations of government policy failures that neglect to uphold the human right to housing, and demonstrate eroding investments in affordable housing, income and systemic supports. Encampments make visible that some in our community lack basic determinants of health such as food, water, sanitation, safety, and the right to self-determination. In order for public health to effectively and equitably promote health and enact commitments to social justice, we argue that public health must adopt a human right to housing and homeless encampments. Embracing a human rights perspective means public health would advocate first and foremost for adequate housing and other resources rooted in self-determination of encampment residents. In the absence of housing, public health would uphold human rights through the provision of public health resources and prohibition on evictions of encampments until adequate housing is available.”
The following was originally posted on Poverty Kills 2020’s blog, and was written with help from Joshua at Poverty Kills. It outlines the ongoing pandemic shower saga and the City’s inadequate response.
Since the first COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in ‘victoria’ in March 2020, one survival service (of many) that has been restricted for those forced to shelter outside is basic hygiene access in the form of showers. While there have been several organizations that have been offering limited access to showers throughout the pandemic, overall these services have been reduced, restricted, and largely inaccessible to those sheltering in parks away from the downtown core. With ongoing changes to bylaws and enforcement, an order from the provincial government restricting sheltering in two locations, and increasing hostility from housed people, campers have been continually and increasingly displaced from the core of the city where most shower services are located.
On November 21, 2020, in massive numbers, bylaw enforcement officers and VicPD tore down community-built crowdfunded showers and a community care tent at MEEGAN. Shortly after this heavy-handed display of colonial power, the City announced a one-time Emergency Social Services Provision Grant to respond to immediate hygiene and survival needs until March 31, 2021 when the City is insisting everyone living outside will be housed (despite no apparent plan to achieve that). While more funding for resources and infrastructure is useful, the City is also the cause of many of the problems and this grant has political motivations and implications.
From the start the City has prioritized money for increased bylaw enforcement and policing, including a recent allocation of nearly $600,000 additional funding to hire five more Bylaw officers (which is intended to be permanent, at $491,000/year) and to pay police more overtime for increased policing near larger encampments. The City has repeatedly changed rules about sheltering, forcing people to move multiple times, and arbitrarily deciding on permissible locations with no thought to liveability of those locations — as was horribly witnessed a week ago when heavy rains flooded many people’s tents, destroying their belongings — and even spent money on a legal injunction to displace campers from one location. And the City has also repeatedly refused to communicate and work constructively with groups providing support and services on the ground.
Despite many misgivings about all of this, given the huge need for more shower access Nic, a community volunteer involved in shower advocacy, spent many hours sleuthing shower options and bringing groups together to support a collaborative, peer-centred mobile shower project. But the way the City set up the grant meant this was doomed to fail.
We are sharing Nic’s work for two reasons. As part of broader understanding about how colonial systems work, we want to illustrate how the one-time Emergency Social Services Provision Grant was inaccessible, problematic, and perpetuates colonial control, and how the City continues to interfere with unhoused people’s autonomy to decide what they need and who they trust and want to work with. We also wanted to share info on mobile shower logistics in case it helps people in other regions who are considering mobile showers to have a realistic sense of what is involved.
The City’s grant was limited to $100,000 one-time funding. To explore what could be done with that funding, as a starting point Nic consulted with LavaMaeX, a highly reputable and experienced mobile shower and hygiene provider who offers support and consultation to organizations looking to develop mobile shower programs across the world. For some items he also did additional research on costs.
Although the mayor posted on her blog a picture of a three-stall mobile shower trailer from another region as an example of what the grant was supposedly making possible, the reality is that even a smaller mobile shower project can’t properly be done for $100,000. That amount is not enough to buy a shower trailer and cover the costs offreight and duty for the import of the trailer, a vehicle to tow the trailer, wages, vehicle insurance, liability insurance, ICBC coverage, materials (propane to heat the water, gas for truck and generator, towels, sanitizing products, etc.), laundry services, unit parking costs, and vehicle/trailer maintenance. Below we break down the expenses. All estimates are in ‘canadian’ dollars.
Shower trailer: We believe it is unethical to consider infrastructure that is inaccessible to people with mobility disabilities. However, for a more solid understanding of costs Nic looked at a full range of options, consulting both with LavaMaeX for a general sense of cost range and five commercial shower trailer suppliers for more specific estimates. A 3-stall trailer with stairs (which would have required ramping and other accessibility customization) or a 2-stall wheelchair-accessible trailer would have cost over $60,000, and a 2-stall non-accessible trailer (which would have required ramping and other accessibility customization) would cost over $40,000. Obviously, having only two stalls would significantly reduce the number of people who could use the shower on a daily basis. LavaMaeX estimated that a 3-stall trailer could provide 35 showers per day, already not enough for the 200+ people at all 11 different sites across the city to shower even once weekly.
Vehicle with towing capacity: LavaMaeX estimated over $50,000 to purchase a new truck with sufficient towing capacity. It’s a huge outlay especially for just a four-month project, but there aren’t other good options. Shopping on the used market means the vehicle risks being unreliable with high maintenance costs, leasing a vehicle is generally not possible or cost-effective if the lease is less than a two-year contract, most car rental companies will void their insurance if the vehicle is found towing a trailer, and U-Haul vehicles that are capable of towing a trailer weighing 9,000 lbs are not rentable by the month.
Wages: To run a three-stall mobile shower service operating 4 days a week with one day for deep cleaning and maintenance, LavaMaeXestimated a budget of over $28,000 per month for wages alone. This far exceeded the City budget so Nic tried to take it down to a bare bones level of what he felt was possible in local conditions and given the size of the City grant. In the peer-oriented staffing model Nic came up with, the labour costs alone to operate a mobile two-stall shower at a bare minimum of 4 days a week, with two positions (split between multiple people to support peer payments) at 8 hours a day plus 3 hours weekly for trailer maintenance, at $25/hour, would cost $7,875 per month in wages. This doesn’t include the extensive amount of time that would have to go into weekly coordination, or the coordination with the City around sites, safety protocols, and their required reporting (LavaMaeX estimated coordination as one full-time position). A two-position staffing model, even just for February and March and excluding prep training on operating the trailer, overdose response, etc., would total over $15,000.
Other costs: To run a three-stall mobile shower service operating 4 days a week, LavaMaeX estimated a core budget of $1,356 per month for cleaning products, laundering towels, propane, and water; they couldn’t provide any estimate for ICBC insurance, liability insurance, maintenance of the trailer and towing vehicle, gas, or parking as these are highly geographically specific. Nic didn’t do any in-depth investigation of these costs as it was clear by this point that there was no way to make this work within the terms of the City’s grant.
The bottom line: While $100,000 seems at first glance like a significant sum of money that should be more than enough to run a mobile program for four months, the reality is that acquiring mobile shower infrastructure is very expensive. The City either did no diligence around actual costs of purchasing or operating a mobile shower unit, or deliberately set up a funding competition that was hyped as being open to grassroots teams and organizations already on the ground, but in reality was viable only for large organizations able to augment the City’s funding with other funding sources.
Realistically, it’s the big poverty industry agencies that corner a large portion of funding streams because of their official organizational status (many funding streams are only open to registered charities) and existing infrastructure (positions and wages that can be shifted to new projects, existing vehicles, ongoing funding from donations, work space, secure parking, liability insurance, administrative and fundraising infrastructure, etc). And indeed, in the end the only organization that submitted a mobile shower proposal was the Salvation Army, a mega-agency that, globally, has a long history of anti-queer and anti-trans discriminationand as a proselytizing Christian organization is not felt to be safe by many people who have experienced harm by Christian churches and missionaries. This is not an organization that prioritizes accountability to people who are unhoused; the local branch came under scrutiny in 2015 for having substandard living conditions in its shelter, and in 2020 was in conflict with outreach groups and people living outside about the way it handled its publicly-funded food distribution to people living in parks (which was abruptly discontinued by the Salvation Army after a few months of changing locations and times with minimal notice, choosing to leave their donated specialized food truck sitting idle rather than offering it to the outreach groups that were left scrambling to put together food distribution systems).
Grassroots groups and mutual aid organizing have the ability and willingness to collaborate with people sheltering outside in the design and implementation of infrastructure and programs, and are often centred around economic justice principles that mean recognizing the expertise and skill of people who are unhoused, prioritizing money for peer positions, and paying peers fair wages. But grassroots groups and mutual aid networks don’t have the same kind of financial leverage as poverty industry agencies. Even if no matching funding is required as a prerequisite for applying (as is often the case), functionally requiring matching funding means that large organizations who don’t work collaboratively with those sheltering outside are likely to be the only ones who can run a project.
Beyond the financial restrictions involved, the timeline restrictions involved in a project of this nature were also substantial.
Hurry up and wait: People living outside and the groups providing on-the-ground support have been calling for mobile showers since the COVID public health emergency reduced options in March. When the City finally responded eight months later, the amount of time between the grant announcement and deadline was 10 days. While several city councillors successfully got the deadline extended by one week at the last minute, it still proved, for most people and organizations on the ground who were already stretched thin and functioning at over-capacity, too quick and therefore unworkable to figure out a solid plan for something as complex as creating a collaborative, peer-based mobile shower program from scratch. LavaMaeX has suggested that most organizations take several months to do what the City required to happen in 10 days.
While the City expects organizations already working flat-out to hustle to meet the City’s timeframe, that’s not an expectation they hold for their own staff. Two of the three successful applicants funded through this program have not been able to begin their project one month later due to city restrictions and bureaucracy, making one question how much the City actually deems this an “Emergency”.
Unrealistic implementation timeframe & lost time due to City inaction: In its grant program description the City said grants would support programs running from December 1, 2020 until March 31, 2021. But in the process of calling mobile shower programs in ‘canada’ and all of the shower trailer production and sales companies Nic could find online, it quickly became evident that the earliest a shower trailer could make it onto ‘vancouver island’ would be mid-February 2021. This is largely because of the high demand of mobile shower trailers due to the COVID-19 pandemic, because other municipalities and organizations across the continent had been months ahead of ‘victoria’ in their decisions to pursue mobile shower trailers. Again, the City either did no diligence in creating its granting program or didn’t care that their timeline was unrealistic. Receiving a mobile shower trailer in February 2021 means 2+ months dead time until people are able to access basic hygiene services, with no interim solutions (and already-torn-down mutual aid shower stalls). There was a proposal for fixed-site showers — already constructed — that the City could also have opted to support, that could have been installed much more quickly as an interim measure.
Additionally, the grant only funds projects until the end of March 2021, which meant that for any team exploring the feasibility of a project there was only a vague guarantee of showers for, at most, 1.5 months unless organizations could come up with additional funding beyond that time. Some groups didn’t apply out of a feeling that $100,000 for 6 weeks of showers is not the best use of emergency funds.
While a mobile shower unit is something that will be needed ongoing as long as there are people living outside (even if fixed-site shower services return to pre-COVID service structures), many individuals and organizations are unable to take a project on with such uncertain funding for ongoing operation. The infrastructure is only a good investment if it comes with realistic operating timeframes and full accountability to people living outside in how it is operated.
The City pitched this project as taking care of people’s shower needs. But when you don’t ask people living in parks how they need things to be set up, it’s impossible to accurately scope an issue. Throwing out a random budget number with no sense of how well it meets needs is not a responsible approach.
As mentioned earlier, LavaMaeX estimated that a 3-stall trailer could provide 35 showers per day. The Salvation Army was funded for a 3-stall mobile shower operating five days per week — at that rate the 200+ people at all 11 different sites across the city can’t shower even once per week. If housed people were rationed down to one shower per week, even outside of a respiratory pandemic, there would be outrage.
Instead of providing an amount insufficient for even one mobile shower unit, the City could have considered offering both a mobile shower unit (which might be the most feasible approach for smaller parks) and also fixed-site showers at the larger sites where there is significant volume of people needing to shower. The community shower-builders did submit an (unsuccessful) application that could have made showers immediately available near the largest park where people are sheltering, with an option for more fixed-site showers at other locations as part of the roll-out. Fixed-site showers definitely don’t meet everyone’s needs but the immediacy of their implementation at least would have meant that people in one site had access to hot showers near where they’re living during the coldest months of the year. And it would also have relieved demand on the mobile unit, making it more feasible for people at other sites to benefit from it.
While a mobile shower unit is great in its portability, if you happen to be at the wrong site on the wrong day, or have a schedule that doesn’t align with that of the shower trailer operators, then you are still out of luck. Fixed-site showers proximate to where people are sheltering can be peer-operated during hours that are flexible and based on what people living in the park need, without the environmental and financial costs of moving the showers around the city. But colonial systems don’t consider diverse needs and have little creativity around how to meet those needs.
Witnessing first hand the ways that people sheltering outside have been treated by bylaw officers and police through the pandemic (and well before), and watching the same forces do everything in their power to restrict access to showers at MEEGAN (including turning off a water hookup and digging it out of the ground, tearing down several shower stalls, and arresting one person), it did not feel right to even consider applying for funding from the City. A City grant released in the midst of City staff aggressively dismantling a mutual-aid shower project and community care tent is insincere and largely performative. Tearing down an already functional mutual-aid shower project to create a City-controlled shower option is a paternalistic, colonial, bureaucratic power move. The City’s PR person claimed to media that the community showers were shut down because grassroots people were unwilling to work with them, but after nine months of the City being obstructive to grassroots groups working on the ground, it becomes apparent that in the City’s eyes, “working with the City” actually means doing what the City tells you to do.
Additionally, while framing this grant as open to everyone, the reality is that the City’s funding processes are completely inaccessible to people living outside who do health and social service provision all the time with little recognition or compensation. One hopeful applicant sheltering in a park only heard about the grant three hours in advance of the deadline, as the City relied heavily on email to organizations and advertising on its website — impossible for people living outside to access when the City has refused to provide electricity so people living in parks can keep mobile devices reliably charged, and drop-ins are largely closed due to COVID. Council’s discussion of applications during a webcast meeting included a decision to remove the name of the individual who was the most heavily involved in the community care tent, and who had already demonstrated an ability to successfully do a community care tent (till the City tore it down), saying that instead the money should go to the church that was the organization listed as the co-sponsor (in compliance with the City’s requirement that an organization with insurance be identified as the co-sponsor for any informal team). The City’s processes speak to the inaccessibility of funding and the ways that involvement of people who are currently unhoused or have recent experience in the street community is largely tokenized. A peer-based project submitted by an unhoused person and a housed ally was submitted but it wasn’t funded.
Seeing the ways that this grant has been administered, the ways the funding has been distributed, and the ways that the implementation of its projects has been delayed and stretched because of bureaucratic process, demonstrates the ways that this grant — while partly well-intentioned and undoubtedly meaning to support good work in community — was also inadequate, insincere, and a public-relations tactic meant to sweep the City’s misdeeds and inaction under the rug.
A MONTH AFTER THE SO-CALLED “EMERGENCY”…
After a short extension to the grant deadline, the City decided to fund three projects: $6,500 to set up a new community care tent near (but not in) the park at MEEGAN (making it functionally inaccessible to people living in the park who can’t leave their belongings to access the tent), $22,400 to the Umbrella Society for morning “wellness checks” as part of delivering 120 breakfasts to the 200-250 people living outside (the food provider making the breakfast, who also submitted an application, was not funded by the City), and $86,520 to the Salvation Army Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre to provide a mobile 3-stall shower trailer in parks five days per week until the end of March. The total comes to $115,420 but the City is asking the CRD to reimburse the $15,420 overage from its original $100,000 commitment.
A month after the grant deadline, there are still no showers in or near parks, and restricted showers elsewhere. There is still no city-built infrastructure in order to allow the City’s approved version of the community care tent. While the city tears down mutual aid projects and turns off water sources for people sheltering outside, while they drag their feet in forcing support projects through the “proper” colonial bureaucracy, hundreds of people are forced to live outside in heavy rain, winds, cold, and largely flooded fields. They continue to live without heat, without knowing if they’ll be displaced unnecessarily, without access to basic hygiene, without their human rights being respected by the City. And while it will be truly great to have a mobile shower trailer in the city in February and ongoing, it would’ve also been great if the City had worked with people living outside, and had listened and acted on a solution to the shower crisis a year ago, last March, when the struggle for showers initially began.
In 2002, a group of residents and advocates met at the intersection of Main and Hastings in Vancouver holding a 100-foot-long hypodermic needle made out of a giant cardboard tube, stopping traffic. They were protesting the forced closing of a needle exchange on the corner of Main and Hastings in the Downtown Eastside. Earlier, in 2001, front-line workers had distributed clean needles in a trailer outfitted with washrooms, and ensured those using in bathroom stalls didn’t overdose. Affectionately known as “the Thunder Box,” the trailer became one of North America’s first unsanctioned supervised injection sites.
These stories are among countless actions detailed in Travis Lupick’s Fighting for Space, which tells of the struggle that led to the implementation of Canada’s first official safe-injection site in Vancouver in 2003. The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude that was the only reasonable response to an outbreak of preventable disease and a crisis of premature deaths. Lupick focuses on the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), the groundbreaking housing non-profit that offered low-barrier housing to the city’s most vulnerable, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), the advocacy group that pushed for accessible health care and decriminalization of drug use. The two worked in tandem, with VANDU often willingly taking the heat for direct actions to protect the more diplomatic and funding-restricted Portland Hotel Society.
The history of the harm reduction movement is one of direct action and protest – an “act first, ask second” attitude.
The 1990s saw a dramatic spike in overdose deaths and high rates of HIV diagnoses in Vancouver – not unlike the current fentanyl crisis playing out across Canada. But this time the human cost is much higher, with 2017 being the deadliest year on record for overdose deaths in B.C. The strategies used by advocates on the West Coast, honed over decades of persistent work, can provide guidance for similar struggles being newly waged in neighbouring Prairie provinces like Saskatchewan, where fentanyl has killed over 40 people since 2015.
While revealing the staggering numbers of diagnoses and deaths is key to understanding the scope of the problem, it is the stories of the people who’ve lived through the harm reduction movement that makes this history real. By telling the accounts of people struggling for dignity against politicians and a public determined to dehumanize them, Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.
In one of their first organized meetings, members of the newly formed VANDU agreed that they wanted somewhere safe and healthy to spend time, a space that was free of police harassment. The Portland Hotel Society’s first residence was known as the “Hotel of Last Resort.” Simplifying their message to one of “health and safety” – one that politicians and the public couldn’t reasonably reject – has grounded all of their actions and successes in the harm reduction movement. Lupick concludes the book with an epilogue about a family — Mary, Molly, and Mikel — in a quietly triumphant story of three generations living in the Portland Hotel Society, all experiencing stability in their health and housing.
Lupick reinforces two basic claims of the harm reduction movement: people who use drugs are human, and all people deserve safety and health.
Lupick does not deify Vancouver’s advocates or their process – rather, he shows them to be people offering the simple necessities of safety and support, while working toward inclusive public health policy. He demonstrates a proven way to effectively build low-barrier health care and housing systems: through persistent action coupled with advocacy, and building partnerships with sympathetic policy-makers. Without this infrastructure, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. last year would have been much higher.
When harm reduction programs are routinely among the first to be threatened, the work being done by those of the front lines is delegitimized and destabilized.
For years, doctors, front-line workers, and advocates in Saskatchewan have been pushing for the province to declare a state of emergency regarding rising HIV rates. But if we continue to wait for a provincial government to take necessary action – especially as two newly elected party leaders wade in slowly, in a province where the health of First Nations people is systematically neglected — it may never happen. Prairie activists and front-line workers struggling through those bureaucracies must instead act upon their values and conscience to build systems of equitable health care and human services, regardless of whether they have been granted permission by the state.
Sometimes they say that I work in the Arts. Sometimes they call it the industry. I tend to believe I work in the business of happiness; making people happy by selling them Art pressed into wax and Art pressed onto cotton, manufactured by people who are unhappy, someone’s boot pressed in the middle of their back, picking cotton, weaving cotton, sewing cotton, inhaling cotton, shipping cotton. And maybe wax.
Happiness follows the law of conservation of mass. Happiness cannot be created or destroyed. The total mass of the reactants equals the total mass of the products.
Ice to water, water to steam.
Former-happiness to cotton. Cotton to t-shirt. T-shirt to Art. Art to happiness.
Art doesn’t walk around town handing out twenty-dollar bills or cab vouchers or new rental lease agreements. Art doesn’t have its lifeguard safety—it doesn’t save people who are already drowning. Art is like whiskey, it makes you feel warm even though you’re losing your leg to the cold.
Where was Art when your friend was evicted by Regina Housing Authority and slept outside for a month and died in his friend’s kitchen? Had we finally convinced him to draw a picture for the Free Press, would Art have saved him?
Where was Art when your wheelchair-bound friend kept getting his cigarettes stolen by his brother who could have been painting miraculous animal scenes and selling prints but instead stole blind people’s cell phones to sell for crystal meth?
Art was in an office building, denying grants. Art was at a wine-and-cheese opening wearing a well-fitting shirt.
Fuck Art, man. Fuck the fact that this piece of prose is (debatably) a piece of Art.
Rocky sits in the the empty coffee room of a fading drop-in centre drawing portraits of people who may or may not exist, to give away to the first person she knows will praise her for it. Rocky draws because it’s the only thing that can help her cope with the fact that everyone she knows is dying in front of her.
Her aunt from Cote.
Hilliard, found frozen outside.
All in a week. She draws because what the hell else can we do?
That is, unless it’s used for its one and only true purpose, as with Rocky, as the antidote in a place dripping in poison.
Three blocks from the venue, down an industrial street in Denver like that in any North American city that boomed in the 1950s, was a small store inside of repurposed shipping containers that sold US-made backpacks, outerwear, and slacks. The store was clean and simple and catered to the young outdoorsy types who live inside but are able to sleep in tents in exotic locations outside.
“We were one of the first businesses in this part of town,” said the shopkeeper sitting bored behind a handmade counter, hair messily gathered in a bun on the top of her head like she had just crawled out of a tent in the Rockies that surrounded her city. “Since then all sorts of businesses have opened here, which is too bad, it used to be a cheap part of town. Now there’s a luxury hotel going up just up Larimer.” The woman expresses her displeasure just as I would. I agreed as I tried on a pair of outerwear pants behind the changing curtain. Their shop and brand are participating in making the neighbourhood more expensive by selling $150USD pants, but they are at least trying to create a manufacturing industry by making their products in the USA. I left without buying pants, wondering where the nearest goodwill was.
The next day, the venue was plopped in the same part of town, only in a city that was 500 miles away, a state and a half to the east. After load-in and soundcheck, the soundman asked “Where’d you go for food? The burrito place? How was it? I heard it wasn’t that good. Yeah, this was the part of town no one would come, until my boss opened this bar and the other one, we started booking shows here, and then other businesses started coming too. It was kinda the bad part of town, now it’s the up-and-coming part of town.” At the expensive coffee joint across from the bar arcade, next to the burrito place, they were giving out a free, one-page newspaper/zine/leaflet. In it read,
“Most American cities are run by real estate interests… In Omaha, the tactic for encouraging gentrification is Tax Increment Financing or TIF. TIF is a way for cities to return tax money to developers as an incentive to put up projects that the city wants (and the public makes up the difference). Unfortunately, no provision is made for the people who used to live in the cheap housing turned into gentrified apartments. The former residents are simply scattered to the four winds. Surprised by ‘shots fired’ near 108th and Maple? This is your City gentrification policy in action.”
A similar but more developed street newspaper in Seattle uses the G-word, gentrification, describing places like Africatown in Seattle being dismembered, breaking up the “home and haven for Seattle’s Black families and businesses”, and highlighting stories of people failing to maintain housing in a rapid-rehousing program because of the recent inflation in costs of rent. Large newspapers will only use the G-word when describing vandals in Montreal or Vancouver who are terrorizing business owners, as business is the uncriticizable holy grail of progress.
I am fortunate to be able to tour with world-class musicians, but each time I’m on the road I wonder how long such jobs will exist. How long will I be paid to burn fuel and watch music in ‘up-and-coming’ parts of American cities, while around the block, that neighbourhood’s previous inhabitants are clamouring to find shelter under a bridge or in a condemned building. I do it because there’s something in music and creation that is able to be unpolluted by corporate greed, though most times it has already been bought and sold.
When people ask what I got to see this trip, Linh Dinh answers for me in his book, Postcards from the End of America, in which he visits communities across the United States left with little or no economy:
You can’t really see a city or town from a motorized anything, so if you claim to have driven through Los Angeles, for example, you haven’t seen it. The speed and protection of a car prevents you from being anywhere except inside your car, with what’s outside rushing by so fast that each face, tree, and building is rudely dismissed by the next, next and next…Like television, the private automobile was invented to wean us off our own humanity. From each, we’ve learned how to amp up our impatience and indifference towards everything, and with life itself.
After tour ends I fly home to an ailing Saskatchewan. I’d heard of the government cuts while in San Francisco, when a friend texted saying WHAT. THE. FUCK. with a link to an article about the shutting down of the province-owned small town transportation and parcel shipping company. Now home, walking through the downtown, worried citizens are passing colourful clipboards around, asking passers-by to sign one of the multitudes of petitions that are circulating to Save Our Libraries, Save our Bus System, Save our Schools. I sign them all, knowing full well that no petition will be worth the millions of dollars that the government squandered on stadiums and tax cuts on resource extraction companies. The angry protests and province-wide campaigns might get them to preserve something, but the effectiveness of these actions will only go so far if we continue to work within the system that props up corporate interest over that of the public. Though it plays into the hands of the fearmongering government and high income class, one can see why smashing windows in Montreal seems more effective.
Government MLAs show their responsibility, boasting their 3.5% paycuts, which to them means 3.5% less income to spend on boats and cottages and home renos and filet mignon. The paycuts they make to those on social assistance, the paycuts they make to those once employed by the rural transportation system, the cuts they make to the libraries, all mean that thousands of low income individuals won’t have food, shelter, a way to travel for medical treatment, books, and significantly more.
Several years ago, after seeing Chris Hedges speak at the University, I worried that Saskatchewan was the next sacrifice zone—the places that are abandoned by industry, left in disrepair and a humiliating culture of dependency after being used and left behind because of their lack of monetary worth. This could be the beginning of that reality.
It starts with the desperate government selling its struggling assets to the highest bidder, then selling its most profitable assets. They begin begging oil companies to relocate to the province to help the crumbling economy, start giving public land to large corporate bidders. At this point, entire cities and provinces will be bloated with corporate-controlled land and buildings, and towns end up, in a way, like the middle-class urban centres of post-manufacturing North American cities, where no one can afford to pay rent. Eventually, when the government isn’t coddling big business enough, they’ll pack up and move to find a different government who will subsidize their existence. Thirty years later, when our industries have died and all that’s left is cheap bars and empty buildings, businesses that pander to middle class tastes will further move into parts of town with abandoned buildings and cheap rent and begin the process of displacement of those marginalized by the loss of industry, struggling to survive in the older neighbourhoods. We are no better than the economic destruction seen in the United States, we are just a generation behind.
All that will help in the midst of a breakdown of free, communal places of existence and of the breakdown of social programs, is the creation and maintaining of communities that support one another and support the other, the different communities who are similarly affected. I am the middle class that is being pandered to, and while being in these places, eating their burritos, buying their pants, is not inherently bad, it makes it all the more imperative to support and participate in the communities that are contrary to austerity. These communities—social groups, churches, activist collectives, sports teams, artist groups, musicians—must band together to build movements that support the racialized, marginalized, the poor, Indigenous, immigrant communities, who are most harshly affected by public cuts and an economy sucked dry.
Linh Dinh, states the obvious:
For any community to be healthy, local initiatives must be encouraged, nurtured and protected, so let’s reclaim our home turf, reestablish the common, and, in the process, regain our collective sanity and dignity.
It is ten years to the day that I started writing Balls of Rice.
If you read from the painfully embarassing first post, to the lost and meandering most recent post, you’d see how I went from proud flag-loving Canadian to dissident anarchist-in-training. You can see a public journal of mental health. Ten years later I still don’t know why I write, still don’t know what I’m doing with my life, still eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches for supper. All I know is that Balls of Rice has both saved my life and ruined it.
Naturally, the only posts worth reading were written in the last four years. The six years before that was trial and error, with more error than anything. These days there is less trial and about the same amount of error. The list below is not a list of the best writings, because reading over every single post could only end in crushing depression. But these ones are alright, I think.
Thanks to whoever has read this in the past decade for the encouragement. If it weren’t for you, I’d probably be a successful engineer by now. Instead I’m a squatter in the back of a pizzeria.
Thanks for still reading, mom and dad. Oh you stopped reading it in 2012?
A man walks down a dark Brooklyn side street with his pants at his ankles, genitals flailing. I am looking for pizza. Legitimate conerns are raised about that man getting shot by police but we push on to get some garlic knots at Ganni’s at midnight.
The Republican convention wraps up and everyone I know, including myself, fears the next four years, but knows full well they’ll survive it. The man walking down the Brooklyn side street, the newly arrived Syrian refugees, the Central American blamed with stealing American jobs, don’t have the privilege of knowing the same thing. In Hedges’ 2010 book Death of the Liberal Class, Chomsky prophesies of a population that seeks out fascism because of a series of politicians beforehand who have sold the rights of the population to corporate power. All they need, he says, is a charismatic leader who tells it like it is. And now he warns this.
“How much is this one?” I ask.
“Which one?” the shopkeep asks.
“The all black one with gold numbers.”
“$10.” He pulls it out, puts it on my wrist, it fits and feels as though I haven’t wore a watch in fifteen years, which I haven’t.
“Great.” I place $10 on the table.
“This one is $15,” he says. I place five more dollar bills on the table and leave, feeling as though I have paid the 50% tourist tax necessary to create a balance in the inequality of wealth that I have benefited from my entire life. The tourist tax necessary to quell my own personal guilt for existing in a marketplace and quitting my community job to travel the world for free. The watch looks great and hasn’t died yet. It fits oddly on my bulging ulna bone.
I finish my $9 juice and sit on a bench, calling my credit union and credit card company to tell them that I am in fact in the US and that no, my cards have not been compromised, and that yes, I’d like to withdraw money from my accounts so I can spend more money on American juice.
I loosen the watch strap one notch to relieve the sweat that accumulates under it in the New York humidity in what will likely be the 15th consecutive hottest month on record. I bought a watch so I could avoid pulling my phone out of my pocket so I could avoid wrecking my pants pockets so I could avoid buying new pants so I could avoid buying pants from a hellish factory in south east asia. And so I could avoid using my phone at all. My vain attempts at personal change are conscience clearing but not effective. I still don’t know how to live a life that affects change or isn’t dripping in privilege. You think by 27.667 years of life you’d know everything there is to know in the world.
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Ancient strings set feet a light to speed to her such mild grace
No monument of tacky gold
They smoothed her hair with cinnamon waves
And they placed an ingot in her breast to burn cool and collected
Fate holds her firm in its cradle and then rolls her for a tender pause to savor
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
Girl with the parking lot eyes
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her bravery is mistaken for the thrashing in the lake
Of the make-believe monster whose picture was faked
Margaret is the fragments of a name
Her love pours like a fountain
Her love steams like rage
Her jaw aches from wanting and she’s sick from chlorine
But she’ll never be as clean
As the cool side of satin, Pauline
Two girls ride the blue line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left her sweater sittin’ on the train
The other lost three fingers at the cannery
Everything’s so easy for Pauline
-Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Margaret Vs. Pauline