In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

In the Ghetto, On the Brink

Posted by seumasach on July 23, 2009

Kevin Annett

Hidden From History

19th July, 2009

We strongly recommend Kevin Annett’s film, Unrepentant

At one point during the film Sophie’s Choice, on the eve of World War Two, the protagonist learns of the planned extermination – “vernichtung” – of the Jews of the Cracow ghetto. Horrified, she hurries to the ghetto and walks through its crowds, a lone gentile, not knowing what to do.

“I looked at all those people, the women and children and old people, and I thought, What can I do to stop what is to befall them?”

Helpless, she returns to her home, the question unanswered.

My days are filled with a similar question as Sophie’s, as I walk the streets of Vancouver’s downtown eastside and watch and sense and document the looming extermination that is already taking its toll among men and women who have no defense.

Today was a peaceful Sunday most places in our city, but not in the blocks surrounding the walled-off grounds of Oppenheimer Park where once the homeless rested. I saw what few did today, for it was over quickly, like all assaults.

The attack by the police fell on the cluster of homeless men who have tried to reclaim part of their park by dismantling a small section of the iron fence that went up weeks ago, and relegated these men to the dirt and concrete. The cops overturned the table that held the mens’ belongings and flew at them with clubs. Bodies toppled, shouts of protest mingling with the dull crunch of metal on bone.

Old men and young were shoved into a police van to the curses and taunts of the police.

I recognized my friend Don who harbored a camera in his cell phone, and I asked him to film what was happening. A cop noticed us right away.

“Stop that you motherfucker!” he screamed at my friend, who backed away, still filming the chaos.

“You stop it!” he yelled back. “These guys didn’t do nothing …”

The cop grabbed at his cellphone and managed to wrest it out of Don’s hand. He threw it against a wall.

By then more cops descended, and Don and I were pinned against the cop van. I heard kicking and shouting inside.

“My name’s Kevin Annett and I’m being illegally arrested by the police!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.

At the sound of my name, one of the cops, a sergeant, looked distinctly alarmed. He spoke to another guy and Don and I were quickly released.

“You two get the fuck outta here!” said the sergeant.

“Where are you taking those guys and what are you charging them with?” I replied.

The cops ignored me and returned to their assault on the rest of the homeless, most of whom had scattered in terror. One cop began chucking the mens’ belongings into a garbage dumpster that had arrived. Another one banged his club violently against the side of the van, laughing.

And then it was over. The cops sped off with their prisoners as city workers began repairing the fence, closing off the park once more.

Don had vanished too, so I hurried to a phone and started making calls. One of them was to my family, including both my siblings and my mother, who awaited me at my sister’s home in Coquitlam. It was my daughter’s birthday.

“There’s been some arrests and I don’t want to leave until I know they’re all safe, especially the native guys” I said into my sister’s answering machine.

“I got assaulted by the cops so if somebody could meet me here it would help a lot. I can’t get out to you right away” I concluded.

I realized all of a sudden that my hands were shaking uncontrollably. My shoulder had been twisted by one of the cops. An involuntary sob escaped from my lips but it wasn’t from the physical pain. I collapsed onto some nearby stairs. But soon I rose and stumbled to the police station.

Nobody had been booked, said the desk sergeant, but neither were they being let go. I had counted three native men being shoved into the van, and I feared the worst for them. Friends of mine had gone missing and never returned from those jail cells.

After an hour’s vigil outside the station, I checked my pager. My daughter had left a cryptic message.

“Hey Dad, don’t worry. I’m to tell you from everyone that we’re going ahead with the cake by five. Hope to see you then!”.

And that was all.

The incredulous routinely wonder how hundreds of thousands of souls in the Polish Jewish ghettos could have been wiped out right under the noses of their fellow citizens, who went about their pleasant lives unmoved, on the other side of the wall. Today, my family showed me how it happens.

“Whoever stands with the outcast will suffer their fate” somebody once wrote. Homeless men and women have passed into the pale in Vancouver, alongside prostitutes, drug users, and poor native folks, and what happens to them is of no concern to the rest of society, outside the ghetto wall that rings a two mile area between Carrall and Clark streets. The list of the missing and the murdered in that ghetto continues to grow.

But what struck me today with blinding clarity is that to the cozy outsiders like my own family, even their own flesh and blood can join the ranks of the expendable.

This is how the Holocaust grows.

Fittingly, Mayor Gregor Robertson announced the closure of the last two remaining downtown homeless shelters today, as his police were attacking men who just wanted green grass to rest on. The Mayor said something about the city’s image. And tonight, a dozen men lie bruised and terrorized in a Vancouver jail to help preserve that image.

In the movie, Sophie eventually travels on the same train to Auschwitz as the ghetto dwellers she once pitied from a distance. Last night, as I tended my wounded shoulder and heart, I felt the ghetto wall encompass our entire city, as mandatory vaccinations and Olympic military occupations loom ahead for everyone – not just Indians, or homeless guys.

“I looked at all those people, the women and children and old people, and I thought, What can I do to stop what is to befall them?

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