14 April 2009

Somewhat Muddled Thoughts on Media, the Olympics and the Vancouver Gang War

Right, so this little piece in the UK's Independent has been getting quite a bit of attention lately. Every single piece that cites the British article simply can't resist quoting this gem of pulp-fiction style sensationalism:
As it prepares to host the 2010 Winter Olympics, what it's got now is not cuddly, eco-friendly publicity, but blood-spattered streets littered with shell casings and corpses.

Vancouver is the battlefield in a war between myriad drug gangs, which include Hell's Angels, Big Circle Boys, United Nations, Red Scorpions, Independent Soldiers and the 14K Triad. Guns – often machineguns – are fired almost daily.
It sure is catchy, huh? And it's getting around. I just did a Google search with the terms "blood spattered streets littered with shell casings and corpses" and "Vancouver" and came up with 585 results.

Naturally, the media response has been all about how much this hurts our reputation as an Olympic city, and how reporting such as this will affect tourism revenue in 2010. Nobody is talking about the rest of the article, which is actually a reasonably balanced discussion of the problems underlying the gang war (drugs!) and possible ways of dealing with the violence, which run the gamut from better-coordinated law enforcement to (gasp!) marijuana decriminalization.

Of course, none of that sensible discussion is actually going to get noticed if you stick it way down at the bottom of an article with the headline "From heaven to hell: 18 die as drugs war rages on streets of Vancouver". For fuck's sake, it reads like copy from a bad mob film.

Now, I live in Vancouver, and I have yet to notice much of anything "raging" on my streets* and I have yet to trip over a shell casing or get blood all over my shoes on my way to work or school. Of course, there was a gang-related shooting within a few blocks of my house two years ago...

but then, I live in one of those "seedy neighbourhoods" that all of this nastiness has finally spread beyond. I've never harboured any illusions that Vancouver wasn't a city like any other--crammed with people and subject to all the problems, including violence and organized crime, that come with urban living and poverty--even if I've always thought of it as a wonderful place to live. There's a part of me that's really fucking pissed off about the way that so much of the discussion around the recent violence has been about how it's affecting nicer parts of town--how the wrong people (read: the rich) are being put in danger.

See also: most public discussion of the recent murder in Pacific Spirit Park, which was a horrible event that people are right to be upset about **, that consistently carries the tone of "but how could this happen in such a nice neighbourhood/to somebody like us" or else "this used to be such a nice neighbourhood until all those homeless people started moving into the woods". It took the deaths of dozens of women on the Downtown Eastside to generate this much public outrage. Such things are expected, but not what happened out in Point Grey.

And part of me is glad that our city's lovely reputation is being tarnished. Is glad that people are starting to think about these things as city-wide problems. Is fucking glad that we probably won't be able to glide by on that stupid "Best City to Live In" ranking for much longer. Because this city of ours--fucking beautiful and valuable in so many ways--has problems. Big problems. Problems with homelessness (which is a complicated mess of poverty, marginalization of people with drug and other addictions, affordable housing shortages and a climate that encourages migration of people from other cities in Canada where you can't live on the streets in winter because you'll freeze to death), with gang violence, with an enormous drug trade and a million other things that affect a city of this size with our particular collection of geographic and social conditions. None of these problems are unique to Vancouver, but that doesn't make them any less ours.

We have to own our problems, as a complete city, without dumping them on law-enforcement or dismissing them as side-effects of poverty (most of them are: that doesn't mean it's right, or that they and the poverty that causes them should continue to exist). We need to get the fuck over our image and fix what's broken.

I'd love for this to be a wake-up call.

Of course, reputation damage control is already being done, and the odds are that this'll just get drowned out by more feel-good propaganda to ensure the Olympics succeed. And in a way, I can see the logic to that. It's easier, for one thing, and for another, the painful truth is that we need the Olympics to succeed if we want our city to make it through this recession. We're already looking at a cost overrun into the billions of dollars, and we need every tourist penny to recoup what we can. It'll still end in a loss, but the less successful this event and the more money we lose, the more the poorest and neediest segments of our city will suffer as the programs they depend on are cut (and they're always cut first) to help offset the new tax burden.

I did not vote for the Olympics, I wish that we weren't hosting them, but I still want them to succeed as much as possible because the alternative would be so much worse for all of us. I won't cheer their failure because I know there will be a human cost, and it won't be hitting the nice folk in Point Grey and West Van who voted for the fuckers in the first place. And so a part of me thinks, "tell the tourists what they need to hear to feel safe (maybe the truth--that it's a city like any other and not a magical eco-wonderland that looks and feels exactly like a postcard), and to come here and help pay off our stupid Olympic debt."

And yet, I still hold out hope that this recent media storm has helped more people to see the cracks in our precious image, and has pushed them to seek out and repair the larger cracks in our city's foundations, instead of just plastering over what's visible and going back to admiring how pretty it all looks on the outside.


* Except for the asshole in the next building who beat up his partner and had to get hauled away by the cops a few nights ago, but that had nothing to do with the gang war and everything to do with individual nastiness and domestic violence. Whoever you were, fuck you.

** And really, that should go without saying in each and every case where a human being dies violently, or quietly from hunger and exposure, or in any way that is not how they wished to go.

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