Red Braid responds to social media questions and critiques about the Stewart Squat and our community relationships

On April 18th 2020, Red Braid was part of a group of Downtown Eastside organizations and community members who started the short-lived Stewart Squat. One of the effects of the squat was that we received a number of questions and critical comments on social media platforms. Some of these came from the usual right wing and liberal middle class sources. Those we are not overly concerned about because we have always received those kinds of critiques whenever we have started and supported tent cities, squats, overdose prevention sites, and other actions that support the uncompromising and autonomous survival of poor communities.

But this time we also received questions and critiques from Indigenous youth and others who support the struggles of low-income Indigenous and working-class people against the forces of colonialism and capitalism. There’s a lot to answer and we have been listening. We’ve been going through the posts, and have grouped them under some themes, and will respond to the questions and concerns here in this single post.

It took us some time to respond because we needed to meet as a group to discuss and think through both these concerns and our response to them. One of our organisational protocols is to “listen to understand, not to respond” and we have made a conscious effort to exercise that protocol here.

COVID-19 danger

Why did you gather people together in a squat during a pandemic?

We are extremely concerned about the danger of the COVID pandemic. If there is an outbreak in impoverished communities, the Canadian state’s anti-poor COVID response will cause devastation in congregate shelters, temporary modular housing, and amongst those crammed into cramped housing conditions. We feel an overwhelming urgency to expose this crisis, to fight for immediate spaces of sanctuary, and also to influence the state response because so long as a single shelter remains open, we believe our people are at risk.

These dangers are part of what motivated us to take drastic action with this squat. The squat was far more COVID-19 safe than being outside or in a shelter, modular housing, and SROs because we had enough space to be 6 feet apart, sinks to wash our hands frequently, and access to face masks and gloves. We went over COVID-19 precautions before and after entering. One of our members took on the specific responsibility to study, implement, and ensure precautionary measures in order to help the group abide by best practices.

Exploitation of poor and Indigenous people

Did Red Braid have connections in the community or did you parachute in as saviours?

The short answer is that Red Braid did not organize this squat alone. We worked with the longstanding DTES coalition Our Homes Can’t Wait, and with an ad hoc group of residents of Oppenheimer Park tent city and the surrounding community.

While some Red Braid members have histories of organizing in the Downtown Eastside, we have been less active in the neighbourhood in recent years. We started Squat 2 Survive organizing in Surrey, where we have been more active and have confident roots in the community. We somewhat hesitantly came to meetings in the Downtown Eastside after receiving a call from an Oppenheimer Park resident and another community member who asked for help starting a squat. We reached out and connected with the Carnegie Community Action Project and VANDU and their coalition Our Homes Can’t Wait (OHCW) and said that we would only take part in meetings and a squat if they wanted to work together, because we did not want to undermine established DTES groups and their relationships with community members. We held meetings at Oppenheimer tent city 2-3 times a week since the last two weeks of March, always with the collaboration of OHCW.

It was at these meetings that the following decisions were made: to start a squat, that it would be public, and that it would be in a vacant publicly-owned, and habitable building as close to Oppenheimer Park as possible. Our Homes Can’t Wait published a statement that tells their story of the Stewart Squat and we encourage people to read it, available here: Our Homes Can’t Wait Statement on the Strathcona Squat.

Feedback we have heard in DTES low income communities before and after the squat is that it was enthusiastically supported in street communities in the DTES. We feel grateful for the relations of trust and collaboration that formed through the squat and which we will continue to foster and strive to live up to in days to come.

How is Red Braid supporting people who were arrested?

All 14 people arrested in the squat were charged with Break and Enter and all received the same bail conditions. Half of those who were arrested and charged live on the streets or in shelters, modular housing, or SROs; and half are housed supporters. Some of us had our personal property seized as evidence and others had theirs returned. In general, the cops are keeping the personal property of some housed Red Braid members and returning the possessions of others. We have been fairly successful in getting poor people’s possessions back and we are prioritizing replacing the belongings lost by low income people that we’ve not been able to get back.

We are in touch with low-income community members who were arrested, and have met together nearly daily since the squat. We have connected with a lawyer who is pledging pro bono work for all those arrested and we’re talking with them about the best next steps. We have experience navigating group criminal charges as a result of direct actions and feel confident that we can support everyone arrested through this process.

How does Red Braid deal with social power differences among members, and between members of the group and of oppressed people in communities? How do we guard against the development of exploitative dynamics?

Red Braid is a mixed group made up of Indigenous, racialized, and white people; we are majority working class, but also include people from other classes. Our organizational strategy thinks hard about organizing projects that do not replicate white-centred activist politics but also does not essentialize marginalized identities as markers of political radicalism or authenticity.

Red Braid is one big group with equal membership that is united through a strategic unity. Our unity is active; our unity does not boil our members down to a single subjectivity. What that means in practice is that the tie that binds us is a commitment to autonomy.

Red Braid’s Indigenous Leadership Council (ILC) is an autonomous body within our organization as a whole and has the mandate to not only organize Indigenous-only meetings and actions, but to expect the support of the whole organization in that work. While Bread, Roses & Hormones is not a leadership body like the ILC, it is an autonomous space for women and trans people, led by trans women, that strategizes how to fight patriarchal power in our organization and campaigns and support the survival struggles of poor women, trans, and gender non-conforming people.

Red Braid’s autonomous campaign spaces are not only what other political organizations have traditionally referred to as “caucus” spaces because they have autonomous power to make decisions and to expect the support of the organization as a whole, including the support of critique and discussion. Autonomy is the binding factor for our unity because we are, as a whole organization, committed to the abolition of the white race and to the abolition of colonial gender. We believe that liberation cannot arrive as a ‘gift’ and that oppressed people are the protagonists of any struggle that concerns our freedom. The organizational articulation of that commitment is a strategic unity premised on autonomy.

We have always thought of the politics of Red Braid, and of Alliance Against Displacement before, as developed through “dialectical” activity, which means that our politics are not declarations made by intellectuals cut off from people in struggle in communities. We understand our thinking process as taking place in the community struggle, not back in the central office of an organization. We are uncomfortable with methods of organizing, such as Saul Alinsky’s highly influential “community organizing” model, that depend on organizers to carry information from the community back to the group. In such models, the relationship between the organization and the social base is too dependent on the bottleneck of the organizer. Because we believe subaltern Indigenous and working class people are the protagonists of revolutionary transformation, we devote energy and resources to making our membership accessible to people from poor and street communities.

All that does not mean that there are not power differences within Red Braid. We organize against the abuse of power inside the group, and with communities, by naming and structuring power relations actively and consciously within the group. We have a Coordinating Committee (CC) that is elected once or twice a year at assemblies, where we also do visioning work. And we have a Support and Accountability Committee (SAC) that is also elected at these assemblies, and all members and people participating in our campaigns have access to accountability processes they can initiate, including against CC members, through the SAC. We developed the SAC through discussion with people involved in Philly Socialists and the Marxist Centre, who found that having an accountability body separate from a coordinating body is good insurance against some of the abuses of power that recently contributed to the self-destruction of the International Socialist Organization in the US, amongst many examples.

We have thought a lot about power relations in our group and with communities and have created structures with these concerns in mind, but we also know that there is no sure way to structure against abuses of power. We must be vigilant against abuses of power and that requires a mobilized, politicized, critical, and self-confident internal culture.

Food program

Did the Stewart Squat make the food program unsafe or inaccessible for poor families?

Some commenters have criticized the squat for bringing an increased police presence to the neighbourhood and jeopardizing a bagged-lunch program accessed by low income and Indigenous families, who already feel unsafe and threatened by cops. There is always a risk that the cops and other administrative powers in Canada’s state apparatus will react to resistance with collective punishment, and we think that is part of the challenge we face in struggle. If an escalated police presence had threatened families’ safety at Strathcona Elementary, we would have fought against that problem like we do whenever the police try to punish us for our community resistance. In the case of the Stewart Squat, the police certainly did take action to crush the squat, but not in a way that had any impact on the food program.

The building we occupied for the Stewart Squat was long-vacant and only being used for storage, not for any programming. VSB School Trustee Barb Parrott confirmed in a statement on her Facebook page that the squat “did not interfere with the provision of food needed by the school’s community.” The meals are not prepared on site, and are set up for pickup on a folding table outside the building. Even if the courtyard, which is typically being used for pickup, was closed by police, the pickup site could be moved around to the side of the building without any extra effort or use of resources.

Red Braid’s membership and internal democracy

Is Ivan Drury continuing harmful behaviour from his days in Fire This Time?

Ivan Drury, a member of Red Braid, has been transparent and accountable for his harmful behaviour over the four years when he was a member of Fire This Time (FTT). When he left that group in 2007, he published an open letter accounting for his role in harmful actions that FTT carried out, both inside and outside the group. Ivan says: “It has been 13 years since I left FTT and I still meditate often on the lessons I learned in that group about how to not organize. In my healing and accountability work after FTT I became aware of the damage done by sectarian groups, which put the interests of their organization above the interests of the movement and of communities, and of abusive, manipulative behaviour within movements and groups. I am deeply committed to fighting against these harms in my organizing work.”

Protocols, organizational strategies, and safeguards within Red Braid reflect such lessons learned of how not to organize – our accountability to one another, our democratic structures, our commitment to supporting each other and our care around each others’ personal boundaries and subjective capacities. Membership requirements for Red Braid are only that members agree with our Basis of Unity and contribute to one meeting or action each month; when members exceed these basic requirements, it is on the basis of our own capacities and commitments. Members can always take a leave of absence from Red Braid and are welcomed back when ready.

Ivan’s many contributions to our group include the lessons he learned from Fire This Time, such as a commitment to democracy and holding difference, vigilance against developing sectarian tendencies, and supporting people to develop as leaders according to their own commitments and capacities, and at their own pace. We value his contributions; challenge and hold him accountable whenever appropriate; and consciously choose to fight alongside him as one among many leaders and comrades.

Is a member of Red Braid a millionaire?

One member of Red Braid, Listen Chen, is from a wealthy family. They have access to some of that money, but not, at this point, the fortune. Red Braid discussed this when Listen applied to join and we created organizational mechanisms to protect the group from the potentially corrupting effects of that wealth. Red Braid’s protocols are that Listen is not allowed to give money to members or members of communities we organize alongside. They donate every year to a member support fund, which is administered by a committee, in order to help members in financial distress. Other than that, their contribution to the group and to our movements is through their energies, which are significant and, we believe, more valuable than their financial wealth.

So why does Red Braid fundraise if you have a member from a wealthy family?

We consider fundraising to be a form of political work, of gathering support, and of accountability to communities beyond those we work with in survival struggles and other campaigns.

But also, functionally, Listen does not have access to the funds that we need to do our work so even if we wanted to rely entirely on Listen’s wealth, it would be unreliable, impracticable, and inadequate to the demands of our struggles. Depending on one member for the entirety of our funding would amplify power disparities within the group that we try to mitigate and minimize.

Why do you call yourself a working class and Indigenous organization when your leaders include white people and someone from a wealthy family?

We call Red Braid a “working class and Indigenous organization” as a characterization of our politics. We believe that the global working class is still, after all these years, the protagonist in the struggle against capitalism and for socialist worlds. And we believe that Indigenous peoples are the protagonists in the struggle against colonialism and for Indigenous sovereignty. “Red” stands for both Indigenous and socialist liberation, while the “braid” in our name refers to the interlocking of struggles against colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. We believe that no struggle against any one of these forces is complete without a “braided” struggle against all three.

Ma Maa Tea (Nuu Chah Nulth and Irish), a member of Red Braid’s Indigenous Leadership Council, explains the origins of our name, “I was part of the naming because of one of the many Indigenous teachings I received as an inner city youth from an Indigenous elder, who taught me of a braid. This was a spark of clearly illustrating and exercising the working of two groups: Indigenous and working class. The Indigenous strand stands especially for low income Indigenous people as protagonists in revolutionary change. The non-Indigenous working class is intertwined in the fight of colonialism.”

Of course, our demographic composition shapes Red Braid: if we had no Indigenous or working class leadership, we could not be a group that builds Indigenous and working class power. We would lack the perspective and intimate knowledge needed for these struggles to be relevant and real. But that’s not the case. Right now we have about 25 active members, the majority of whom are poor, including three people from homeless communities. Our active membership is roughly two-thirds white, with three Indigenous and four racialized members; roughly two-thirds cis, with eight trans or non-binary members; and roughly three-quarters women (trans and cis) or non-binary, with five members who are cis men.

In emphasizing the politics of our name, we are not claiming that the composition of our group is irrelevant. That Red Braid is majority settler impacts the Indigenous members of the group, who fight hard against the settler tendencies to defer all anti-colonial action and work to Indigenous people, and to conflate the experiences of poor, sovereign Indigenous people with poor, non-Indigenous working class people. Similarly, racialized members fight hard against a majority white membership’s tendency to reduce anti-racist struggle to class struggle, and against the persistence of white guilt, which reinforces and centers whiteness. These challenges have a historical character and are not unique to our group, and so we fight them collectively, along with the many other challenges of mounting revolutionary struggle in our membership and campaign spaces.

Those of us who are Indigenous and racialized are here because we want to be, and we are frustrated by the implications and outright claims that we don’t exist, that our leadership is marginal, or we’re the pawns of the white members of the group who “let” us do labour, or that we are suspect for choosing to be part of a group that isn’t exclusively Indigenous or racialized.

Part of what excites us about Red Braid is an anti-racist and anti-colonial praxis that is sovereigntist, internationalist, anti-imperial, anti-capitalist, and actionable. We are very much interested in respectful political discussions with Indigenous and racialized people who share these principles. For those who are interested, our ideas about how global white supremacy is structured and why representational identity politics are not antagonistic to its processes are outlined in position statements we’ve published on race, colonialism, and imperialism, all of which you can read here.

Our unity between autonomous struggles is an active, strategic unity. So long as a white working class member recognizes the primacy and protagonism of the Indigenous Leadership Council in struggles against colonialism, we believe they can also bear responsibility for breaking with and fighting Canadian colonial power. We believe in the transformative power of collective struggle, and that individuals with access to oppressive power based on their class and social position can overcome their oppressive roles by committing themselves to the struggle against colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism. We believe in revolutionary social transformation, and we test that belief inside our own group and in all our activity.

Squat strategy

Why did you announce the squat and not make it secret so people could have a place to stay?

The Stewart Squat was organized, like the Hothouse Squat in Surrey, as an open, public action that tied the survival needs of homeless communities with political resistance that interrupts the narrative that the state is caring for the “most vulnerable.”

It is true that there is a tradition of underground squats, but there is also a tradition of open, public squats that openly challenge the rule of property over people’s lives. Both strategies have their place.

In this case, we hoped that the abject and horrifying conditions of homelessness in the face of COVID-19 would create a political climate where it was less easy for police to use force to clear a vacant building of people seeking shelter. We think that the Stewart Squat did succeed in highlighting the contradiction between the needs of property owners and the state, and the needs of communities, and that this has increased the confidence of poor communities to fight back.

The primary goal of our organizing is building the collective self-activity and power of people in survival struggles, rather than achieving reforms. But the public nature of the Stewart Squat and its location have resulted in the Vancouver School Board unanimously passing a motion to engage in “discussions with the City of Vancouver to determine how some unused school spaces could be used to alleviate the dangerous situation for the homeless in Vancouver.” It is clear that the power of a public squat by unhoused people and supporters has highlighted how publicly-owned buildings are sitting empty, some long abandoned, while there is a deadly lack of COVID-safe housing for people on the streets or in shelters.

But that’s not to suggest that we are committed to the above-ground, public squat strategy alone. In our opinion, these are strategic and tactical problems, and not absolute goods or bads.

Social media practices

When and why do you delete social media comments?

We regularly receive hateful, right-wing backlash on our social media accounts and have a practice of deleting these comments and blocking the accounts they come from. Our reasoning is that it is not our responsibility to broadcast opinions that are directly antagonistic to our political project, or to our people.

During and in the wake of the Stewart Squat, we deleted comments that were not exclusively from the typical right-wing commentators, but that contained content that was either untrue or, in our opinion, abusive toward the oppressed people involved with or in our group. For example, somebody commented “I feel this woman is being exploited” on a video interview we posted of an underhoused, Indigenous squatter. We deleted the comment because the assumption that Indigenous people from poor and homeless communities are incapable of political agency, leadership, and vision goes against everything we fight for.

We blocked one Indigenous person’s Instagram account a few weeks before the Stewart Squat. They had sent us a direct message in February, asking questions and sharing concerns about Red Braid, and two members of our Indigenous Leadership Council (ILC) responded by inviting them to speak in person. We felt that their reply to the ILC members was condescending and disrespectful. About a month later, in response to the launching of the Hothouse Squat in Surrey, they posted a story claiming that our group is “not really working class.” We blocked the account then because it seemed clear to us that they were uninterested in good faith exchange.

Who operates your social media?

While all Red Braid members have access to our social media accounts, a few settler Red Braid members have taken on the work of operating our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts. These individuals have been responding ad hoc through our accounts to comments and questions.

What will your social media strategy be moving forward?

One concern we’ve heard is around the subjectivity, or voice, of our organization, particularly as it is expressed on social media. We cherish the collective “we” that we use in much of our organizational writing, because we fight hard to create a space that, we feel, can hold our multiplicity. Having multiple “we’s” that we can move in and out of in our writing is a formal expression of the distinctions between our three strands as well as their braided, strategic unity.

But we have heard that some social media users feel this “we” is hard to locate, or that our single voice on social media feels non-transparent. For that reason, in the weeks to come we will be revisiting how and why we use social media and developing new protocols. In the interim, we will be using social media for announcements only, and will refer to individual accounts for live-tweeting or commentary.