Watching the Watch
Of course in today’s world, church grounds no longer have the same status as a legal refuge. Symbolically however, church grounds remain a consecrated and safe place, unimpeded from the variations of the modern world around it. This is of course, unless the church stands within the boundaries of Winnipeg’s Downtown Business Improvement Zone.
Passing by Holy Trinity Anglican Church on my walk home last week, I noticed two members of the BIZ’ Downtown Watch program, on their two-way radios and pointing to the north side of the church. Curious, I watched as they walked brashly onto the church property, towards a man lying in the mid-afternoon shadows of Holy Trinity’s 1884 Gothic Revival exterior.
The man was asleep, and woke up as the Watch members arrived. Within seconds, the two patrollers had lifted him to his feet. They stood around him, his back to the wall. (Was anything learned in the Non-Violent Crisis Intervention courses all Watch members reportedly take?) After a moment of conversation between the three, the sleeping man was sent on his way. The watch members laughed as he walked eastward towards a sea of surface parking lots. Behind his back, the shorter of the two patrollers mockingly punched the air in his direction.
Further along my walk, I ran into a couple panhandling at Portage Avenue and Smith Street. Donald, 38, explained how most of the Watch is pretty good towards panhandlers, “but like with everybody,” he said, “there’s a few bad apples in the bunch.”
“Especially when someone’s intoxicated,” Donald went on, “they’ll take advantage of the situation.” Asking what kinds of things that Watch will do, Donald spoke flatly: “Kick ‘em. Kick ‘em while they’re still down.”
Donald’s companion Kathleen, 40, added that the situation can be worse for Aboriginal people. “Sometimes they’ll call us down because we’re Native.” One former member of the Watch, she explains, made a point of telling Aboriginal people on the street it was his job to send them back to the reserves they came from.
Unlike the Winnipeg Police Service to which they aspire to belong, the Downtown Watch are not subject to formal mechanisms of accountability such as the Law Enforcement Review Agency in the instance of abuse or mistreatment. Who holds these “bad apples” in the Watch responsible and ensures they do not continue to oppress certain members of the public?
The red coats do not serve the public good by upholding the law in all forms and to all people, as police do. Instead, the Watch serves private, ideological interests mandated to them by the Downtown Business Improvement Zone and carried out by regulating the users and uses of public sidewalks deemed subversive or unsightly.
Theirs is a mandate that is unfamiliar with the varying, informal, multi-social workings of the urban sidewalk. Signs of a healthy downtown are rigorously controlled or condemned: enterprising new immigrants--eager to participate in urban microeconomics--plying their wares on tables and ledges are subject to constant requests for permits; self-assertive local musicians hawking their CD’s to passerbys are driven away for “panhandling”; street performers entertaining the huddled masses at busy transit stops are shooed away.
It seems that even the most basic characteristics of city life are met with bewildered suspicion from the Watch. Sitting with a coffee and newspaper on a bench or stoop downtown, I have seen the occasional Watch member offering me ominous stares as they pass by, as if sitting in a public space is a strange and foreign concept.
In spite of this rigid, clutter-removing private agenda they enforce under a complete lack of public accountability, plans are in the works to give the Downtown Watch even greater power. Members of the Watch will soon be given “special constable” status, the legal authority to detain people, under the Intoxicated Persons' Detention Act, involuntarily for up to 24 hours.
That the BIZ Watch members may soon have this power should be of grave concern not only to poverty activists and civil libertarians, but to any citizen who enjoys the right not to be detained against their will by private parties. Giving special constable status to members of the Downtown BIZ, sets a dangerous precedent in our society. After downtown, other city neighborhoods could have young, zealous patrollers put in place to regulate both public spaces and private property. Maybe yours.