Fighting the Injustice of By-Law Tickets and “Proactive” Policing

By Dave Hamm
Originally published in the Downtown East Newspaper April 2013

My first ticket for vending happened at Denman and Robson. I had injured my back, and was staying with a friend in a hotel. I needed to get $10 each day to pay the hotel guest fee, so I would push a cart along Granville, Davie, Denman and Robson collecting items and selling them. I did that for a month or so. When I set up outside Safeway, they didn’t like it and I got a ticket for illegal vending. I couldn’t pay the fine so I fought it, hoping the cop wouldn’t show up and it would be thrown out. But she did and I got banned from the block for a year and ordered to keep the peace.

After returning to work for a while I encountered further health problems and ended up on social assistance. It was not enough to survive on, so I started selling stuff on the street. As I see it, vending is a benign way to survive within an economy of enforced poverty. It’s an informal bartering system that actually fits within the mayor’s Green City idea of renew, reuse, recycle.

But even selling the most basic things (used books, shoes, toasters, etc.) I still got a number of vending tickets. Some were dropped, and the rest were taken up by Doug King, a lawyer with PIVOT, as the basis for a constitutional challenge. After all, without income from this survival economy, my health and security of person was under threat. On the day of the hearing, my charges were dropped. This was a good thing, but it didn’t allow us to speak to the real structural and legal issues.

The DTES is being targeted for by-law infractions, whether it’s spitting, jaywalking, smoking in doorways, urination, defecation, or vending. In fact, 95% of these by-law tickets given out over the past 4 years have been in the DTES. It’s the result of a strategy called “proactive policing” where police don’t simply wait for a public complaint to step in, they take the initiative to enforce these by-laws. When people are stopped, the police run their names and check for outstanding warrants.

In my view, proactive policing is a strategy to get people into the criminal justice system and fill the new prisons being built (like the new Surrey Remand Centre). Some of these prisons are privately operated and need to be filled in order to make a profit. Mandatory minimums and practices like proactive policing help to fill the new jail cells. Prisons are disproportionately filled by indigenous people. Twenty-five percent of those locked up by the system are doing time for procedural (victimless) crimes (failure to appear, not paying fines, not complying with conditions, etc.). It’s a war on the poor, and targeting our community for by-law infractions is a strategy that has obvious ties to elite interests in the area, such as the Olympics and rapid gentrification.

But the community is resisting. The DTES street market began as a response to intense vending by-law ticketing. Community organizers created a space where vendors could work without the constant pressure of criminalization. People in other areas of the city can have yard sales or garage sales, so those without yards, garages or even homes and who live in legislated poverty ought to be able to sell what they find without fear. I’d like to see vending zones on every block where residents of each block could organize their own markets. I wouldn’t want vendors pushed onto one small lot with limited hours of operation and told that if they vend anywhere else, they’ll be criminalized. The constitutional challenge is still ongoing, with 4 or 5 people working with lawyer Doug King and hoping to get their day in court. We need to change the whole system and not just fight for some people to have their individual charges dropped.

My hands go up to all my eco-warrior brothers and sisters; I’m proud of everyone who refuses to give in to the systems of legal and social control. Let’s keep up the fight – we will win.