During the first week of April, police and city workers once again descended on an encampment on Hastings Street in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) to enact a violent street sweep against unhoused working-class people. Over several days people were dispossessed and displaced, traumatized and terrorized, their homes and possessions trashed.
In social media responses, commentators pointed out that policing is not a response to homelessness and is not going to end homelessness. Governments have shown repeatedly that they are not interested in housing and supporting working class people. Encampment evictions through police violence are never about housing, safety, or community wellness—all the excuses governments spew when they launch decampments. The street sweeps and encampment clearances are about control of space and time for property and profitability. They express increasing central moments in capital’s drive for accumulation and the realization of profit.
Rather than displays of government incompetence or incapacity to deal with social problems like lack of housing and poverty, they represent governance by capital. Their mean spiritedness and cruelty shows the reality of capitalist profit seeking through dispossession and displacement—as it has always been.
While many still hold to beliefs of government as a buffer to extremes of capitalism or a vague social security, the current period shows us in bare form what we are really facing: capitalism, a thuggish, brutal force, is not open to appeal or consideration. There is a method to their meanness, and it is one that resistance must face up to.
The new waves of dispossession
The April eviction action means that In Vancouver alone there have been at least 10 encampment clearances in under a decade. All of these happened within several blocks of the intersection of Main and Hastings in the city’s Downtown Eastside. Notably these have happened under different neoliberal governments, locally and provincially, including under social democratic ones.
In 2014 the city acted to evict a tent encampment in Oppenheimer Park. In the time between that clearance and April’s decampment, Vancouver has deployed police to erase encampments on Hastings Street and Thornton Park in 2016, on Franklin Street and Main Street in 2017, twice again at Oppenheimer Park in 2019 and in 2020, at CRAB Park in 2020, and at Strathcona Park in 2021, and now, once again, Hastings Street (2023). Additionally, last year there was a partial clearance of the encampment in the same stretch of Hastings which was stopped by a mobilized opposition. Several people were arrested in that police action. This is on top of the everyday targeting and harassment by police and vigilantes that unhoused residents are subjected to.
Of course, encampment evictions are not unique to Vancouver alone. In Toronto, over the last few years alone police have undertaken major clearances at Trinity Bellwoods Park, Alexandra Park, and Lamport Stadium Park, where a mass deployment of police and private security brutality attacked unhoused people and their supporters while destroying the encampment on the Lamport Stadium grounds. The city has spent around $2 million to do so.
Encampment evictions have been carried out across the country, from coast to coast, over the last few years. In my home city, Surrey, British Columbia, unhoused people were displaced from their encampment on “The Strip” in 2018, following a lengthy struggle over years. As in other cases, city promised stable, long-term housing did not materialize. On the other coast, Halifax police have been condemned for violence, including pepper spray and arrests, during a decampment in 2021.
Neither are encampment clearances restricted to large cities. In 2022, the Fredericton Police Force destroyed an encampment in that city, with temperatures at the time around -20 C.
Behind the open cruelty of these new enclosures is an old motive—social control in the pursuit of profit. Under conditions of economic crises, logistical challenges and rebooting commodity circuits after COVID, and strained accumulation, in which capital seeks new and faster flows for realizing value.
Accumulation by dispossession
Accumulation by dispossession is a theoretical approach developed by the Marxist geographer David Harvey, in his analysis of neoliberal capital and capitalist expansion, especially in contexts of impeded profitability. Through his analysis of “accumulation by dispossession,” Harvey pinpoints the myriad uses of force and violence to literally steal value, from humans and from nature, under capitalism.
The theory of accumulation by dispossession lays bare significant aspects of how contemporary capitalism is experienced. Accumulation by dispossession highlights the thuggish, unadorned viciousness by which capitalism today ravages the planet in its desperate rush to turn life into commodities and open or speed up circuits of realization of profit—and capital’s need to remove barriers to realization. As Harvey explains in A Brief History of Neoliberalism:
“By this I mean the continuation and proliferation of accumulation practices which Marx had treated of as ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ during the rise of capitalism. These include the commodification and privatization of land and the forceful expulsion of peasant populations (compare the cases, described above, of Mexico and of China, where 70 million peasants are thought to have been displaced in recent times); conversion of various forms of property rights (common, collective, state, etc.) into exclusive private property rights (most spectacularly represented by China); suppression of rights to the commons; commodification of labour power and the suppression of alternative (indigenous) forms of production and consumption; colonial, neocolonial, and imperial processes of appropriation of assets (including natural resources); monetization of exchange and taxation, particularly of land; the slave trade (which continues particularly in the sex industry); and usury, the national debt and, most devastating of all, the use of the credit system as a radical means of accumulation by dispossession.”
The Downtown Eastside area targeted for clearance is one of extensive gentrification over the last several years, on all sides. The streets on which people have been camped represent a key space for flow of capital and accumulation. But, in capital’s terms, encampments stand as a barrier or impediment to that flow. They slow down or impede the circuits of surplus value realization. Capital needs to open the flows for consumption (in businesses, real estate, development). Slowing the time of realization of surplus value is a barrier to accumulation. So, dispossession becomes the means to accumulation.
In recent statements, Vancouver’s police-endorsed mayor has made it clear that the new city government is more concerned with impacts on capital flow through the DTES than the lives of the working-class people being displaced. In a roundabout way Vancouver’s police chief identified the importance of flows through the area when he said, “I would suspect that most people watching this would probably drive through there and think this is not a safe area, and they’re right, it’s not a safe area. So we’re there to restore some public safety.” Emphasizing the concerns of outsiders traveling through over the material living needs of unhoused people is a choice. But those traveling through are potential consumers or investors—in many ways tourists.
Vancouver’s economy rests on a shaky foundation of tourism dollars and real estate. It is worth noting that the fear panic stoked by businesses, police, and politicians over the DTES have given tourists (consumers and investors) a special place. The April encampment clearance comes at the opening of tourism season and the Easter shopping long weekend.
Community organizers put a finger on it after the decampment: “In the past, encampments in Vancouver have been organized in parks or vacant lots. The Hastings encampment allowed people to live in the centre of the only neighbourhood in Vancouver where unhoused people don’t face intense stigma and prejudice; close to the greatest concentration of services for unhoused people; close to friends, family and social services.” And this is absolutely key. The Hastings encampment was at the center of an area of significance for capital flows, for opening new flows, and for speeding up current ones. Put simply, the encampments posed a barrier in a place where it matters for capital. While good for people, the central location was bad for capital.
As if to put a subtle emphasis on the point, only a day after the decampment Vancouver’s ruling government announced they would pass a motion increasing or doubling allowable frequency of events held in informal venues each month. They justified this as creating “greater flexibility for the arts and culture sector.” It would allow event organizers to use warehouses, factories, studios, retail spaces, wholesale spaces, and offices and use them more frequently. This is about opening new flows for accumulation and eliminating barriers. And doing so goes hand in hand with removing the human barriers that would block or slow movement to and through those spaces.
New enclosures and the commons
One of the greatest impediments to accumulation, and one that capitalism’s origins are based in overcoming, are commons—shared land and space of communities. These are the foundation speed bumps to capital. As Marx outlined, capital presupposes sources of labor that have no basis to sustain themselves and thus are forced to sell their labor power at the capitalist labor market. This source of desperate labor is made possible through enclosures of commons, the separation of people from the land and from means of sustenance. It is a process that has been globalized through colonialism.
In his discussions of so-called primitive accumulation, Marx points out that this is carried out through state violence, whether in the direct violence of policing or the abstract violence of laws. More contemporary analysts, such as feminist scholar Sylvia Federici or Indigenous scholar Glen Couthard, have pointed out that rather than being a feature of capitalism’s emergence, primitive accumulation continues as capital requires new sources of land, labor, and markets.
Encampment clearances represent acts of new enclosures, which reinforce private property relations in various ways. One is preserving property values on the capitalist market for landowners. The securing of public space, a commodification, for capital, whether in the form of increased land value for properties near a park or the use of space for profit-making purposes such as film shoots or festivals. The preservation of private property ownership and control includes, of course, the imposition of value in rent.
Another, less obvious perhaps, is the moral regulation of working-class residents—the sanctioning of specific (individualist, consumerist) behaviors as conditions for accessing the city. The disciplining and domesticating of the working class.
Finally, and this is crucial, even if the land on which an encampment is based is not needed immediately for some private purpose, what is essential, above all, is the maintenance of private property relations. The space cannot be available as, or seen as, a commons. It must be a space of control and regulation on capitalist terms. People must not be able, or be seen to be able, to access land to meet survival needs such as shelter. They certainly must not be able to do so for free.
Resisting enclosures and rebuilding the commons
Encampments are sites of survival. They are also, significantly, manifestations of collective self-defense, mutual aid, and refusal. Refusal of state-imposed placement in conditions that the people affected view as unsafe of unhealthy, such as shelters. Refusal of human warehousing. As activists with Stop the Sweeps and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users explain it:
“Consensus at these meetings repeatedly affirmed the importance of the encampment—that unhoused people are safer when they live side-by-side with other unhoused people. When people live together as a community, there is less risk of injury by fire, because their neighbours are on hand with an extinguisher if one should start. There is less risk of their possessions being thrown away by city workers, because their friends keep an eye on their homes when they are away. There is less risk of death by overdose, because they are surrounded by caring people who know how to administer naloxone.”
An understated purpose of the extreme government violence deployed against encampments of unhoused people is breaking collective organizing and efforts by people toward some form of self-determination. In this the violent destruction of encampments is a continuation of the function states have always performed in the service of capital—enclosing commons and enforcing dependence on states and labor markets. As people have always resisted incorporation into capitalist property relations and labor markets, states always have a need to impose this violently.
Opponents of the clearances have turned increasingly to mutual aid and re-commoning. In response to the Hastings decampment, marvelous forms of mutual aid and care were organized, quickly and autonomously. We need to strategize ways to build from these, building the spatial commons that impede capital. And connecting encampment defense to broader movements to defund the police, and to build working class power to democratize workplaces—to evict capitalism from the land, our labour and our lives.
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