Articles on this page include:
1. The Woodwards Squat in Vancouver
2.The Struggle Continues – The Woodwards Squat in Vancouver
3. The Dismantling of the Woodwards Squat Tent City
4. What is a Squat? Why do I Squat?
Further reference: woodsquat.wordpress.com
The Woodwards Squat in Vancouver
an insurrectionary anarchist analysis
Monday, September 16, 2002
On Saturday, September 14, 2002, a group of homeless people and community members occupied a huge department building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that has been vacant for 9 years. During that time various different community groups and agitators have fought to have the building converted into social housing, only to have the government agree, and then go back on their promise. The old “Woodwards building” takes up an entire city block.
The Downtown Eastside is the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, and with the current Liberal government’s cuts to social services, social housing, welfare, and the lowering of the minimum wage, poverty and homelessness are growing; class contradictions are deepening.
Out of this desperate situation, a group of people have squatted the enormous old department building and plan to stay their until it becomes social housing. Many people have set up camp outside the building and donations of food, mattresses and other essentials have been pouring in. Banners have been hung from the windows, the sides of the building, and the large “W” on the rooftop.
Woodwards is owned by British Columbia Housing, and the government is threatening to get an injunction to evict the squatters because of “saftey issues”.
“We have moved into what we consider to be our building” said one of the squatters.
As of Monday morning, September 16, 2002, the squatters are still occupying Woodwards. The squat is now into its third day.
In our analysis, this action has become possible not only because of the growing divide between the rich and the poor in this province. The determination of the squatters to finally take action, at risk to themselves, should not be overlooked. The Woodwards building has been fought for year after year. A range of more conservative community groups as well as direct action organizations have struggled, using various tactics, to force the government to convert the building into housing. After 9 long years, the building is occupied. The potential is enormous. Hundreds of homeless people could occupy and use the building. An autonomous social centre could develop. The nature of this action, in finally squatting this landmark building, will surely lift the morale of the community and hopefully, spread an insurgent attitude among the exploited and excluded.
Currently, security concerns, experiments in self-organization, and the instability of the situation mean that everything is still “up in the air”.
In our view, the fact that this action was not taken exclusively by “career activists” is very positive. At the same time, an organizational structure must develop which is informal, egalitarian, and confrontational to the State. It remains to be seen whether this will occur. It largely depends on the ability of different social sectors to unite around this struggle in a decentralized way. The task for anarchists, as always, is to contribute their own methods and tactics of resistance to the larger body of the exploited.
Insurrectionary Anarchists of the Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver)
The Struggle Continues – The Woodwards Squat in Vancouver
Sunday, September 29, 2002
On Saturday, September 14, 2002, a group of homeless people and community members occupied a huge department building in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside that has been vacant for 9 years. The old “Woodwards building” takes up an entire city block (656,000 square feet of space, and 6-7 floors). The Downtown Eastside is the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, and with the current Liberal government’s cuts to social services, social housing, welfare, and the lowering of the minimum wage, poverty and homelessness are growing; class contradictions are deepening. The Woodwards building is owned by the B.C. Housing Corporation, the segment of government specifically designated to build social housing.
Over the past 9 years various different community groups and agitators have fought to have the building converted into social housing, only to have the government agree, and then go back on their promise.
Out of this desperate situation, a small group of people cracked open the building, and held a short demonstration and march to the new squat. Many people set up camp outside the building and donations of food, mattresses and other essentials poured in. Banners were hung from the windows, the sides of the building, and the large “W” on the rooftop. Over the first few days 15-30 people moved into the building. Initially the small group of activist organizers planned the action as a symbolic gesture, deciding to stay for a week, if possible, and to then vacate the building. There was no intention to have any organizational structure, any meetings, or any decision-making process that would include the homeless people who were now living in the squat. The organizers were hesitant to allow any more people to move in, although many wanted to call up local homeless shelters and call on hundreds of people to make the enormous squatted building their home.
Eventually an intentionally democratic decision-making structure was decided on, contrary to the initial organizers wishes, and daily meetings were held inside the squat. From the beginning, a small group of activists, as well as a small group of politicians who were supporting from the outside of the squat, dominated meetings and marginalized the majority of the homeless people, indigenous people, and squatters who had taken up residence in the building. Most squatters dropped out of attending meetings, although a few remained to challenge the authoritarian structure that claimed to be democratic and egalitarian. The initial organizers decided that the squat would be explicitly pacifist and that security guards, corporate media, and cops would be allowed to wander the building at will, without the consultation or approval of the vast majority of the squatters.
On Monday, September 16, 2002, a court injunction against occupation of the Woodwards building was presented to the squatters. As the days went on the resolve of the squatters to not abandon their new home grew stronger.
To counter a threatened eviction a demonstration was called for Thursday, September 19, 2002. Hundreds of supporters showed up, including rank-and-file union workers, and many entered the building to see the operations of the squat themselves. Many more people moved in, and the police called off the eviction until the next day.
A group of autonomist squatters decided to self-organize and to attend future general squatter meetings as a bloc, in order to fight the marginalization they had experienced up to that point. A press conference was called for the next day, in part to deter another eviction attempt.
The police who had been assigned to negotiate with the squatters began to implement a “divide-and-rule” strategy, attempting to pit the older activists against the younger squatters. Sergeant Scott Thompson of the Vancouver Police Department told the Vancouver Courier that “…they tried to hijack the protest from the coalition… We went in to negotiate (Thursday) and there were faces, young faces, we had not seen with a very different attitude towards us. You could tell how they felt about us by their body language, the things they said, the fact that they were wearing masks…” (Vancouver Courier, September 25, 2002). Unfortunately, some squatters bought in to this ploy and began to be hostile towards the autonomists.
The next day, Friday, September 20, 2002, the autonomist squatters affinity group met and developed plans. The group decided to begin constructing barricades to slow down any attempt by the police to storm the squat. They also began building “lock-boxes” with which to secure themselves inside of the building and to make their arrests more difficult for the police. Up to this point the squatters in general had not developed any specific plans on what to do in case of an eviction. As the construction of the barricades began and the other squatters learned of them a meeting was called. Some squatters strongly objected to the barricades. Somehow the barricades contradicted the “pacifist” nature of the squat in the minds of some people, and it was said that they would provoke the police. “Barricades speak to violence” said one person. The pacifist squatters strongly believed that the police could be negotiated with. The autonomist squatters did not agree and argued that the barricades were merely defensive and a matter of safety precaution. Regardless, the autonomists ceased to construct barricades.
At the general meeting that night an indigenous woman spoke of how the indigenous people among the squatters had been marginalized by the general group. She also spoke of the necessity for recognition of colonization and the first peoples of the land, and more indigenous representation in press conferences and outreach. Some autonomist squatters echoed her views. It had become clear to many that the general meetings did not represent the majority of people who were living in the squat.
Word came that the police intended to evict at dawn. Some squatters decided to construct barricades. Almost 100 people were counted inside the squat that night. At 6am on Saturday morning more than 100 riot police broke through the barricades and stormed the building. The barricades allowed time for those who wanted to leave to do so. The majority of the group linked arms in a circle. Media was forced to leave. 2 people who were attempting to leave were pepper-sprayed while on the ladder and then arrested. A Vancouver Independent Media Centre reporter outside was also arrested outside. Squatters inside were choked, beaten and dragged away one by one, to then be taken through an underground tunnel to jail. The University of British Columbia student newspaper “the Ubyssey” reported on the eviction. “…It’s a far cry from the promise of a peaceful eviction that floated through the news last week. After telling the SFU Peak that the Vancouver City police “were fully understanding of the housing issue” in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver Police Inspector Ken Frail was among those who evicted squatters from the property Saturday. But of course, expecting the police to do as they say is foolish…”
The 58 squatters arrested appeared in court in the afternoon of Saturday, September 21, 2002, and all but one were released after signing an undertaking that they would not re-enter the building. By the time of everyone’s release tensions between the squatters had eased, as the eviction had unified them in rebellion to the forces of the State.
A defiant group of homeless squatters returned to the building Sunday night, only to have a public meeting be attacked by the police. Cops rushed in without warning and immediately began clubbing people and pushing them out of the area. The cops grabbed one woman and smashed her face into the concrete. One man had his arm dislocated. About 40 squatters were surrounded and then forced to leave the area and 12, including the squatters lawyer, were arrested for “obstructing the sidewalk.” A garbage truck immediately disposed of all the squatters belongings. An all-night demonstration took place outside the courthouse where those arrested were held, but they were not released until the next day.
On the morning of Monday, September 23, 2002, an angry and defiant demonstration and march made its way to the Woodwards building, at which point food was set up and everyone began spray-painting anti-cop and pro-squatter graffiti all over the outside walls. Two police officers walked into the crowd only to be shouted at and denounced and forced to leave. The group then marched a block over to where more police had gathered. The crowd screamed and yelled at them and chanted “No more pigs in our communities!” and “Get the fuck out of our neighbourhood” until the cops left the area in shame.
The next day, Tuesday, September 24, 2002, about 600 people rallied outside the Woodwards building to support the squatters, blocking off the surrounding streets for several hours.
As of Sunday, September 29, 2002, all charges against the squatters have been dropped and the squatters tent city outside the Woodwards building continues and grows each day. More than a hundred people are now squatting the sidewalk outside of the building. A Woodwards Squatters Coalition meets regularly to plan further actions. The squat has emboldened the community and strengthened its spirit. The police repression has outraged the squatters and the greater community, and has only served to increase the determination to fight.
The squat served as catalyst, bringing class tensions to the foreground, and showing that simple direct actions can accomplish what endless rhetoric and “long-term strategic planning” consistently fail to. For anarchists the squat provided another living example of the necessity of decentralized organization and a confrontational attitude towards the State.
Although a some squatters and supporters objected to the autonomist affinity group’s self-organization and practical actions, the autonomists acted with respect towards the wishes of the larger group. At no time did the autonomists seek to act in an evangalistic manner, either by imposing its will on others or by trying to win recruits to its cause. Unlike activist democrats, anarchists do not attempt to represent others, and instead act and speak for themselves, struggling alongside other members of the exploited class.
The squatters gained invaluable experience through the action; lessons in self-organization and the reality of class warfare.
The support for the squat that came from “left”-politicians and union bureaucrats was interesting to the anarchists only in that it displayed the fact that these people have no ideas of their own and must jump on the bandwagon of those who do, in order to “stay in touch with the base”.
For insurgent anarchists squatting is the direct appropriation of what we need to survive, and an attack on the basis of the capitalist system: property relations.
For more and more people of the exploited and excluded classes, squatting is becoming a dire necessity.
We are going to have to fight this system tooth and nail, for life, freedom and dignity.
Insurrectionary Anarchists of the Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver)
Social Workers – Cops Without Guns
The Dismantling of the Woodwards Squat Tent City
an inurrectionary anarchist analysis
A recent article on the Victoria Police in the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper asked its readers to think of cops as “social workers, but with guns.” Which begs the question; is the opposite true?
After 3 months, an eviction by hundreds of riot police, a raid and assault by police on the tent city outside the building, numerous demonstrations, and endless court battles, the tent city around the Woodwards building is finally gone.
Underhanded double-dealings between Jim Leyden – a non-squatter city employee, the Portland Hotel Society and the newly elected COPE civic party, led to the dismantling of the squat and a move to the Dominion and Ivanhoe Hotels for about 60 squatters. Some have said that sending in the social workers was even more insidious than sending in the cops. Many squatters are homeless again. Many squatters lost possessions during the dismantling.
A militant direct action struggle for housing, carried out by the most dispossessed citizens of Vancouver created a movement and an upsurge in activity that no one could have predicted before hand. The issue of homelessness and housing was forced into the public light and onto election platforms. Brutal police repression was unable to crush the determination and resistance of those who had nothing to lose. Support came from rank-and-file union workers, and donations poured in from all over British Columbia. Nationally, a squatters movement erupted, and buildings were occupied across the country.
And in the end the city government did what they knew they had to; partially concede to the squatters, and offer temporary housing. Their act was not one of good will, but an effort to contain an autonomous struggle of excluded people. The threat of future squats loomed on the horizon. Fury at a maniacal police force was at a peak. The only way to defuse the situation was to offer a concession. Politics is simply warfare by other means.
The squatters discovered their power; despite their exclusion from society and the basic means of existence. Many squatters were willing to fight until the end, and many were eager for a warm, clean place of their own in which to live. In the absence of much outside solidarity, a 3 month stay in a hotel was a sensible option. The professional activists retreated from the struggle, and the momentum was lost, because it was not acted on.
Often fear, inaction and restraint are more limiting than the institutions of oppression arrayed against us.
But the lessons learned, the invaluable experience of real class warfare, and the freedom of autonomous organizing will not be soon forgotten.
“Today the field is open to action, without weakness or retreat.”
- Emile Henry
What is a Squat? Why do I Squat?
By an anarchist living in Vancouver, Canada, territory of the indigenous Coast Salish peoples
Monday, October 23, 2006
What is a squat? It’s any occupation of a building or space without permission from its owner or owners [in which the space is intended to be used for some purpose other than simply disrupting the use of an already occupied space, as may by the case in a "civil disobedience" occupation]. No rent is paid to any kind of landlord, neither a private individual nor a government-funded agency.
Why have I squatted and why will I squat again? Because I wan’t to take control of my life, of where and how I live, of the social and material conditions of my life. I don’t want to pay rent. I don’t want to have to work a job and be exploited in order to get a paycheck and then have to pay most of it to a landlord, a parasite who does next-to-nothing useful, when he or she does anything useful for my home at all. I want and need space to breathe, eat, drink, socialize, be creative and enjoy my life. I need space to think and plan and prepare, so that I can progressively expand my creative projects, which at the same time are destructive projects to undermine all the institutions of exploitation and politics.
I enjoy squatting, both the initial act of taking the building and its maintenance, which is also its defense. I’m happier in a squat beyond comparison to life in a rented home.
For a few days in September of 2002, I lived inside the Woodwards Squat, a huge department store building that had been long empty and was the size of a city-block in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the poorest neighborhood in Canada. It was an incredible experience, despite its many contradictions and problems. At that time, various political activists and activist groups, some of them being non-squatters, were calling for the government to turn Woodwards into social housing. If the government had agreed to that right then, we squatters would have had to leave our new home so that the government could get to work renovating it. At least one of the guys who opened the squat wanted us all to leave after a week. He and some other guys didn’t really want a bunch of homeless people to come into the squat and live there. I guess it made their protest harder to control. But their protest was our home and some of us didn’t want to leave voluntarily.
For the first few days, the cops would enter the building to check things out and talk to the activists and squatters. Some of us wouldn’t talk to the cops and avoided them and this made them uncomfortable. Some of us made barricades and left when the riot cops eventually busted in. The activists got a bunch of squatters to sit in a circle and be arrested. Some of the activists had gotten angry about the initial barricades and had spoken against them at a special meeting. After the inside of the squat got evicted, some people came back and set up camp around the outside of the building. A few people had been doing that from the start, but this new tent city grew quickly all around the outside of the building. Many weeks later, the city government and the Portland Hotel Society evicted the tent city and put some of the squatters in welfare hotels. The cops were waiting in the background as backup, because some squatters had said they wouldn’t go willingly. In the end, I didn’t hear of any resistance. No activist group voiced or put into practice any opposition to the eviction.
Recently, most of the Woodwards building was demolished to make way for a redevelopment by Westbank Projects and the Peterson Investment Group with 500 condos, 200 units of social housing, businesses, and educational and community spaces, according to the City of Vancouver’s website. Over the decades, a lot of a welfare hotels have been evicted in the Downtown Eastside and lots of condos have been developed and are under development all around the neighborhood, which is caught in a vice grip between the tourist district of Gastown on the north side and the yuppie towers of Yaletown on the south side. With condos comes the demand for yuppie shops and more cops. The hotel evictions have increased over the past couple of years, partly because the 2010 Winter Olympics are coming here. The cops have also launched multiple crackdowns over the past years, targeting drug users and dealers.
Yesterday, I went to check out the squat called for by the Anti-Poverty Committee, which was one of the groups involved in the Woodwards Squat. Their poster for the event said “buy it or guard it”, because they want the city government to live up to its promise to buy one welfare hotel a year and convert it into social housing. They’d rather not squat apparently and are only doing it now out of desperation and to put pressure on the government. A handful of people were occupying a hotel that had been shut down by the city, but nobody else could get into the squat at the support protest outside the building. The media reported APC as saying this was because they don’t want to get homeless people arrested or have a confrontation with the police and they are waiting for word from the cops before letting more people in. The cops praised the protest as peaceful and said they support social housing and won’t evict the building before talking to the landlord.
At Woodwards I was able to go into the building the first day and it was inspiring, despite the activists. This APC squat was mostly a spectacle for the people outside and the media, and I found the whole thing to be both sad and frustrating. Nobody put forward any ideas on how to support the squat other than to just stand around and protest, which obviously won’t stop the cops from evicting it. It also doesn’t seem like APC wants to resist eviction. The whole thing is much closer to an act of civil disobedience than a squat, because APC say they’ll leave if the city buys the building. Social housing may be better than welfare hotels, but I think squatting is better than both. More social housing won’t stop condo and business development, all of which drives up property values and rents and drives down the living conditions of poor and working people in the Downtown Eastside.
A squat is an act of dignity, a direct action, an act of taking what’s needed and desired without asking. The APC’s occupation of the North Star Hotel is a protest to pressure the government to provide housing for the homeless, rather than an action taken by the homeless to house themselves and inspire others to do the same. It’s intended as a temporary occupation, whereas most squatters try to hold onto their squats as long as they can or as long as they want to live there or use it as a social center. Most squatters want to use their squat itself, not just use the squat to convince the government to do something. A squat can certainly be very useful and enjoyable when it’s used as a base for other actions and activities, for building free and mutual social relations, but the squat also has value in itself, as an occupied space that the occupiers create for themselves.
Squatting can inspire the possibility of a world without capitalism and government, while social housing can only further delay the urgent task of freeing ourselves from government control, wage slavery and landlords. Social housing in itself won’t stop the onslaught of development or police crackdowns, but direct action that grows into social rebellion can, and in any case is more dignified and joyful.