Trying to understand a tragedy
This week I have spent my days reading news articles and blog posts about Raymond Taavel, crying, and selling Pride flags to solemn customers.
I work at Venus Envy, the queer feminist sex shop and bookstore on Barrington Street. Since Tuesday, all of the customers who have come in to look at the many rainbow flags, bracelets and buttons we sell have only expressed kindness and solidarity.
This is not true all of the time.
Last week I was working by myself when I noticed some strange behaviour from a customer. The large, 30-something man was staring and gesturing at other customers and talking to himself. When everyone else eventually wandered out and the two of us were left alone in the store, he came very close to me and asked, “Are there cameras in here?”
“Yes,” I lied, nervous.
“Do they have microphones?”
“No,” I said.
He proceeded to tell me that he was watching the other customers because he knew what they did. He knew that gay men came downtown to sell their children to other men at Reflections. It sounds ridiculous, this gay-man-as-pedophile homophobic propaganda, but he was a large, angry man with obvious mental/behavioural issues. I was a small queer woman in a store with a large selection of rainbows, and I was shaking.
He left after he had finished venting. But the next morning, when I was working alone again, he came back. He was following people around the store, talking to himself, staring at me. I didn’t know what to do. We have a panic button at the store for emergencies. Pushing it brings the police. But this was not an emergency, and I don’t like the police.
I called my coworker instead and she told me she would be at the store in a few minutes. She’s clever and calm and good in a crisis, but if this stocky man with hateful, deluded ideas about gay people was to become violent, it felt like there really wasn’t much we could do about it. After she arrived, we quietly discussed the situation and decided to call our boss to ask her to come downtown. Safety in numbers, we thought.
The man left the store before our boss arrived. She had called the police. She was looking out for her customers and her employees, and I respect her choice. But I felt deeply uncomfortable when the two officers came into the store and began asking me about the man. What did he look like? Did he threaten you? Was he aggressive? Which way did he go?
The police are very kind when I’m a young white woman just doing my job, contributing to society. But when I’m at a protest they will follow orders to hit, kick, and pepper spray me. If I had been one of the queer women arrested and detained during the G20 protests in Toronto, as I easily could have been, I would have been subject to threats of rape, vaginal-digital “searches,” and homophobic threats and insults by officers.
Police blame rape victims for “dressing like sluts.” Police give black Muslim cyclists fines of $1,316 for eight bicycle violations in the course of two minutes. Police beat native youth unconscious and leave them to die in the snow. As a woman, a queer person, and an anti-racist person, I do not trust the police. I do not trust them not to harass and abuse me, and I did not trust them not to harass and abuse the man who was making me so nervous in the store last week.
I told them which way he went. “But listen,” I said. “If you see him on the street, don’t pick him up. He didn’t do anything. He didn’t steal anything or threaten anyone. Don’t pick him up.”
And this is complicated, because someone who is aggressive, who suffers from delusions and expresses hateful thoughts could become someone who commits hateful acts. I do not have the ability to protect myself, my friends, or the general public from someone who is violent and wants to cause harm.
Two days later, I saw this man at the shelter I volunteer at. He was really calm. He thanked me for the meal I served him. He told me about when he used to work as a chef and his favourite thing to cook was curried chicken. He didn't remember me from before.
This man was not the man who killed Raymond, but he could have been. Shelter staff who knew him better than I did suspected he was in a prolonged state of psychosis. He did end up being picked up by police and taken to the hospital later that week for aggressive behaviour and threats, but they released him, saying there was nothing they could do.
There are so many failings around us. Of the police system, for being corrupt and unaccountable, for targeting and abusing women, queers, people of colour, poor people and people with addictions. Of the mental healthcare system for failing to provide people with the medication and therapy and support they need to not harm themselves and not harm others. Of the justice system and the prison system for being far more likely to lock up black and aboriginal people, for not providing incarcerated people with the support they need to function and thrive once they leave prison, such as addictions counselling and job training.
Last summer in South Minneapolis, a young, black trans woman named CeCe McDonald was violently attacked by a group of white adults. As she walked by the group standing outside of a bar, they shouted racist and transphobic insults at her and one hit her across the face with a bottle, cutting through her cheek. A fight broke out, during which one of the attackers was stabbed. CeCe was arrested, and now stands accused of murder, while her attackers face no charges. The fact that she was acting in self-defense seems to be irrelevant.
If things had gone differently on Gottingen Street at 2 a.m. Tuesday morning and Raymond had hurt or killed Andre Denny, it's possible that Raymond would be in prison for defending himself as CeCe is now. I know that people are feeling grateful to Halifax police for arresting Andre after Raymond was found on the sidewalk, but it's important to examine the oppressive ways in which the police system, the justice system, and the prison system treat and have treated gay people like Raymond, aboriginal people like Andre, and trans women of colour like CeCe.
So where does this leave me? I can't say I know exactly how to support a person like Andre Denny, who deals with systemic racism as an aboriginal person from a reserve, who faces enormous challenges and stigma for his schizophrenia, who has problems with drugs and alcohol, and who has the ability to harm and kill people from my queer community, and from his own community, without a real understanding of the harm he is doing or why it is wrong.
I want to feel safe walking down Gottingen Street. Down any street. I want to kiss my lover outside, in bars, in restaurants, anywhere. But I don’t feel safe in a largely misogynistic, homophobic society, and I don’t feel protected by the police. I don’t feel safe knowing that, if I did manage to defend myself against violence, I could be charged and imprisoned.
I want a government that increases funding to our healthcare system, not one that cuts all funding to the National Aboriginal Health Organization. And not one that spends money building more prisons, and passes bills intended to lock up more of us for longer terms.
While I mourn Raymond's death and its impact on the Halifax LGBTQ community, and while I think of the difficulties facing Andre Denny and his family, I want to reflect on the failings of our society and its institutions that allowed this to happen. I want to keep these reflections in mind when I think about the Harper government's crime bills and healthcare cuts, the Native Women’s Association of Canada's campaign to push the RCMP to investigate the many unsolved cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women, the open homophobia professed by members of both the Wildrose and PC parties in the Alberta provincial election this month.
These problems, this institutional corruption, these prejudices and forms of oppression are complicated, layered, and have been going on for centuries. We need to pay attention, think critically, speak up, and work for change in the name of social justice. I think it's the only way to begin to make sense of a tragedy that feels so senseless.