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Politics, Re-Spun welcomes guest contributions from activists, organizers, and people who really care about their causes and author pieces we'd like to highlight.

Disaster Tourism at the English Bay Oil Spill

By Emily Griffiths

In the wake of the oil spill a few days ago, I set out this morning with my partner to see the aftermath first hand. I really didn’t want to go, because I don’t enjoy feeling depressed or enraged, but denial isn’t a healthy choice, either.

We arrive at English Bay around noon. It’s almost as if nothing has happened. It’s like any Saturday, folks are just out here, doing their thing; people jog, walk, or cycle along the seawall, a mass of tankers blocks the horizon. We know something’s up, though, as a helicopter hovers by and the Coast Guard passes back and forth in their little boat. A bizarrely D.I.Y. handwritten sign reads “Oil Spill. Area Toxic. Do Not Touch Rocks or Sand. Do Not Go Barefoot” in blue Sharpie. A row of more formalized signs lines the shoreline, providing an official “Water Safety Notice” from The City of Vancouver.

Oil Spill 1.1

A lone Park Ranger in a neon orange windbreaker strolls back and forth across the sand, pausing intermittently to speak to folks wandering by. People are jumping for the chance to share their opinions and concerns regarding the spill, and are happy there’s someone official-looking to engage with. I overhear the Ranger thanking two women for “taking an interest in our beaches.”

There’s not a whole hell of a lot to see here, so we make our way along the seawall towards Stanley Park. En route, we come across a man lining up oil covered rocks on the side of the path. He’s wearing white latex gloves smeared dirty brown with oil. He’s repositioned one of the official signs as part of his display. His name is Jakub Markiewicz and until we ran into him, I was feeling completely powerless in the face of this ugly event. Just by standing here behind a collection of oily rocks, Jakub is asserting himself and his opinions. When I approach him, he is already talking to a group of passerby’s.

Oil Spill 2

Jakub is telling them that even though this is a relatively small spill, the effects will linger in the environment for a long, long time. It is impossible for us to totally “clean up.”

The older woman listening asserts that, since the tankers are so far out, we shouldn’t have to worry about oil washing up on our beaches. She’s clearly one of the Not-In-My-Back-Yard types; folks who remain unconcerned with catastrophe, so long as it doesn’t affect them personally. Who cares about the sea-life and smaller coastal communities?

I can’t help but feel that this spill was inevitable. I’ve been watching the tankers encroach over the past few years, growing in number each season. They assert a sense of foreboding onto the otherwise picturesque landscape. Each tanker can hold up to 300 million liters, hinting at a possibility much worse than a 3,000 liter leak. It’s evident that even 3,000 liters is causing its fair share of destruction.

Further down the seawall, a couple has parked their bikes and decided to create an impromptu art project. Using scraps of cardboard to protect their hands, they gather oil-covered rocks and spell out “STOP HARPER” in the sand.Oil Spill 3

We eventually catch up with the clean-up crews over at Third Beach. When I think of oil spill response and clean up, I think of special technologies separating out oil from water. I expect a large-scale, highly specialized and professional operation. This is not what we find. Instead, there are two white pick-up trucks with HAZ-MAT RESPONSE stenciled on the side and a smattering of volunteers dressed in full body yellow plastic suits with red lifejackets laying specialty paper towels along the rocks. I know these dedicated folks mean well, but how do they confront the futility of wiping off individual rocks with paper towels as multiple tankers float ominously in the background?

Oil Spill 4

A neon orange Park Ranger and a burly police officer supervise the rock scrubbing from a series of nearby park benches. The Ranger asks the cop, “Are you guys here because of protesters?” The cop responds, “We’re just here to make sure these guys can do their job.”

Sure, Friend. Who’s going to stop them?

Oil Spill 5

I get the feeling that this whole “clean-up” thing is little more than a token effort. The Rangers, the police, the yellow-clad cleanup crew, the helicopters, and the Coast Guard boats are only here to make us think that the city/the province/the country is doing something to rectify what’s happened. No doubt the media discussion will soon shift from the poor reaction time to the “success” of the clean-up.

Many of us out here today are outraged by the spill and are looking for a place to direct our energy. A wrong has been committed and we feel the need to do something about it. But what can we do in the face of oil spills, impending pipelines, the Harper Government and the global oil-based economy? Perhaps we can do what the Indigenous Land Defenders are doing, which is frontline direct action. But this comes at a risk of being arrested and charged with terrorism, under the new definition. This is a risk, but without risk, there is no reward. For many of us, it’s much easier to allow our energy to be coopted into volunteer clean-up labour.

Oil Spill 6.2

Pink Washing: Does This Pink Shirt Really Say Enough?

PNKTYTBy Emily Griffiths

Pink Shirt Day is almost upon us. The annual campaign to raise money and “awareness” on the issue of “bullying” takes place on February 25. As this date approaches, I’m sure you’ve noticed an inundation of bright pink. Even at this very moment, I am sipping my tea from a Blenz paper cup, wrapped in a festive Pink Shirt Day cardboard sleeve. Blenz is one of “a bunch of great businesses [that] are holding fundraisers during the month of February with proceeds going to Pink Shirt Day.” Blenz doesn’t actually give money; they just provide us consumers with a number to text, so that we can “have $5 added to [our] monthly mobile bill, to be donated to support anti-bullying programs.” For their effort, Blenz can piggyback on the all the symbolic glory of philanthropic pink.

The colour pink ties in nicely with the Valentine’s Day displays around the city. This is the season of love and compassion, or at least the symbols of love and compassion. Pink also works well as the spokes-colour for anti-homophobia, which brings us to the Pink Shirt Day origin story: Two high school students in Nova Scotia witnessed a male classmate being harassed by a fellow student for wearing pink, a colour associated with the antithesis of masculinity. The witnesses went to a discount store after school, purchased 50 pink t-shirts, distributed them to their classmates the following day and stood in solidarity with their previously demeaned classmate. This display of empathy, solidarity, and community action was inspiring! The Premier of Nova Scotia declared the day officially and momentum has been growing ever since.

This type of origin story is familiar. Without it, Pink Shirt Day might be read as a superficial government/corporate campaign to boost their image as community-based philanthropic entities, as well as a gross simplification of the real and complex problem of inter-student violence in schools. The origin story works to root the event in an authentic action, thereby lending perceived authenticity to the entire “movement.”

This tactic is nothing new. The Pink Ribbon Campaign for Breast Cancer “awareness”, introduced in 1992, has an authentic origin story of its own behind all the colour-coded marketing. Charlotte Haley is the “granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer.” She made peach-coloured ribbons by hand in her dining room, and distributed them at the local supermarket. This origin story does not have such a happy ending, as Haley rejected Estee Lauder’s request for her ribbon, saying they were “too commercial.” Estee Lauder lawyers suggested changing the colour of the ribbon to avoid a lawsuit and proceed without Haley’s involvement. Voila! The pink ribbon was born!

Both the Brest Cancer and Anti-Bullying campaigns involve the corporate appropriation of authentic political and community action. This can be called “Pink Washing”, and it functions similarly to Green Washing. Just as we are reassured that using reusable shopping bags will save the planet without any real effort or sacrifice on our part, so are we reassured wearing the official pink T-shirt, posting a selfie #pinkshirtday, or participating a dance flash mob will bring an end to inter-student violence, oppression, and harm. I love a good dance flash mob, but is this the type of action that facilitates meaningful discussion and problem solving, or is the effect more so one of surface appearances?

I am not here to claim that Pink Shirt Day offers nothing of value to those who participate. The colour pink itself can help youth question gender norms, and I’m sure some deeper conversations of empathy and community do arise. What I do propose is that Pink Shirt Day serves to simplify a complex issue. One way this is done is through the use of language.

We use the word “bullying” as a catchall. Why do we call a harmful act or series of acts “bullying” rather than homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and classism? These more specific and political words can help us more deeply understand the various forms of power and oppression rampant in our schools and broader communities. An awareness of interlocking systems of oppression can help us work to dismantle these oppressions from an educated and empathetic perspective. Calling homophobia by its real name can help young people make sense of their own felt experiences. This is the first step in talking openly and constructively about the systemic injustices they face, and working towards a place of safety and empowerment. Painting all oppressions with the wide brush of “bullying” undermines the intelligence of children and youth by artificially simplifying complex problems.

One reason I think we are so drawn to Pink Shirt Day and other similar campaigns is that it offers us a feel-good “solution” to a known problem, without us having to give anything up. All we are asked to do is wear pink and donate a little money and we can go about our day believing the problem is solved. If we are forced to abandon the word “bullying” and talk openly about patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, and the exploitation inherent in capitalism, we will be forced to acknowledge our own relative privileges within these power relations. When Amanda Todd committed suicide in 2012, the community was outraged at the horrific “bullying” she had been subjected to. The use of the word “bully” in this instance works to evade discussion of patriarchy and rape culture. We’re told the solution is to “stop bullying now” rather than work towards dismantling rape culture, problematizing male privilege, and empowering young women.

While we’re on the subject of language and how it can be used to obscure the truth, let’s consider who exactly a “bully” is. “Bully” is a word we use to call a human being. Naming a person “Bully” allows us to dehumanize that person and ignore the possible reasons behind their violent behaviour. How many times have we heard the tale of a school bully getting abused at home? This child is rendered powerless by his parents, and therefore seizes power in the only place he can – on the playground – and in the only way he has been taught how – through violence. If we really wish to eliminate bullying, we must look closely at the deeper causes.

People don’t often fit into distinct categories of “bully” or “victim”. Many of us do find ourselves in both of these roles depending on the situation and the specific power dynamics involved. Using language that enforces this binary is overly simplistic.

Pink Shirt Day does give the problem of inter-student violence status in the classroom and in the national consciousness, but I worry that the campaign elevates the image of solidarity above actual acts of solidarity. Perhaps wearing pink on February 25 is a step in the right direction; or perhaps it is a shallow distraction from considering the complex power relationships that underscore violence. Either way, the question must be asked: Does this pink shirt say enough?

The So-Called Transit Referendum: Don’t Be Duped!

Mulgrew: Costly Transit police force takes taxpayers for a rideBy
Emily Griffiths

The Transit referendum “Yes” campaign has been asserting itself all over Facebook, Twitter, neighbourhood news boxes, and I can’t help but ask myself, Since when is increasing a flat tax a leftist thing to do?

Oh! The word “transit” has been attached to the newest proposed consumer flat tax increase, therefore rendering it “left” and “sustainable”. Have we forgotten that the poorest members of our community are already shelling out $91-$170/ month just to be able to ride a crowded bus to work and back without risk of being detained by over zealous transit police (the only armed transit police in Canada)?

These transit thugs in bullet proof vests just love detaining non-white Lower Mainlanders, corroborating with Border Patrol, and imprisoning suspected immigrants. Heaven forbid one try to save some grocery money by risking the month without a bus pass. A lost profit of $2.75 for Translink can result in a $173 fine for the already struggling rider. Heaven forbid you speak English with an accent, for your fate could be much worse. (Read about Lucia Vega Jimenez).

In all this talk of “transit” improvements, where is the case for free transit? Instead, fellow “leftists” on our Twitter feeds are regurgitating Mayor’s Council propaganda to achieve an ongoing increase of our provincial sales tax. I’m not sure about every “leftist”, but I myself am not one to support Gregor Robertson and developer funded city council. Why would I trust the gash-grab excuses of the same folks who are destroying the DTES, China Town, and Grandview-Woodlands for unaffordable condo development?

Why would I trust that the Provincial Government, run by Christy Clark and made up of conservative “Liberals”, will funnel their new citizen-approved revenue stream into the promised area? I have heard more than my fair share of broken election promises. What makes the transit tax different? After all, there are no legal stipulations that this additional government income must indeed be invested in transit.

The “Yes” campaign rhetoric assures me that this cash will improve Skytrain infrastructure and increase bus service. Are we honestly expected to believe that the money Translink rakes in equals a benefit to transit riders? What about the $200+ million wasted on fare gates and Compass cards, an infrastructure that was already proven a failure in Chicago?

What about the salaries of transit cops? The minimum annual salary for a Transit Police officer is $75,000, with more than one third making over $100,000. What about the mere existence of transit cops? What about the salaries of Translink Officials? Translink CEO Ian Jarvis raked in $468,015 in 2013. Sure, this salary may be on par with other multimillion dollar corporation CEO’s, but should PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION really be rendered into a for-profit company?

I am confused as to why we are being asked to pay more money for transit. We already pay 12% provincial and general sales tax. What is this covering, if not basic infrastructure like transit, roads, and bikeways? I know some of it must go to other essentials like health care and education, but then why is our health system resorting to corporate sponsorship (#BellLetsTalk) or emotionally manipulative attempts at securing private donations (those tear jerker bus ads for Children’s Hospital), and why are schools being consistently underfunded, with ever increasing class sizes, less support for children with special needs, and teachers being bled dry when they try to stand up for their collective rights? If our tax money isn’t going to healthcare, education and infrastructure, where is it going? Perhaps it’s not more money our governments need, but better priorities.

And if it really is more money that our local and provincial governments need, why not lay off on all those corporate tax cuts (HootSuite, property developers) and we can get a little more money out of the multimillion dollar companies benefiting from the same infrastructural improvements that we residents will be. Doesn’t Telus need their employees to get to work? Doesn’t HootSuite want better bike lanes, to move employees and to enhance their green hipster branding? Won’t property developers be thrilled when new Skytrain stations pop up in Surrey, Guildford, Newton and Langley, providing perfect sites for new clusters of expensive glass high rises?

Our big corporate neighbours are all too keen on showing their sense of “community” and scoring the big tax breaks on their public philanthropy. What better way to show your dedication to the community than pay more taxes? Sadly, corporations don’t want to put their cash towards anything they can’t put their name on. Would Vancouver World of Science sound anywhere as good as Telus World of Science?

And what about income tax? There are residents of the lower mainland bringing in huge skrilla each year. Why can’t these folks contribute a little more towards the infrastructure that helps them get rich? A 0.5% increase of flat taxes hurts those earning $8,000/year a lot more than those earning upwards of $500,000. This is an old argument. It strikes me as incredibly odd that this criticism isn’t popping up more. Is Tax the Rich such an absurd slogan that no self-respecting politician will even mention it? What about any self-respecting “leftist”?

Emily Griffiths is a writer, performer, and child care worker, living on unceded Coast Salish Territories. Stay tuned for her upcoming book, Disney Dream Machine.