This afternoon, Tim Bousquet will be publishing the first part of his investigative piece, Dead Wrong, in the Examiner. The piece looks at the wrongful conviction of Glen Assoun and the unsolved murders of dozens of women and girls in Halifax. Tim has been working on this piece before Serial and Making a Murderer made issues of wrongful conviction and injustice in the legal system part of popular culture, but certainly the timing of the piece enters it into the conversation going on around the treatment of marginalized people by police, courts, and prisons and how wrongful convictions happen.
I remember reading an obituary for Donald Marshall Jr.’s mother Caroline Marshall-Hobbs, and it talked about the horrors that Marshall went through in prison. At the time someone close to me was being transferred to Renous and I just remember being so scared reading that. And I thought about how the article could be so open about the horrors of prison, and somehow it was only wrong for him to suffer those things because he was wrongfully convicted. I wondered then, as I do now, how we could feel that anyone, or any mother of a prisoner, deserved that treatment.
Wrongful conviction is appalling because so often it reflects systematic bias and failures in justice. The very foundation of our system, innocent until proven guilty, is based on the idea that it’s better to aquit guilty people than allow innocent people to be convicted. Tim’s story is going to explore, as he wrote, how “those on the margins of society” are also most vulnerable to injustice, and this is a hugely important story that needs to be told. But I also hope as we follow this series and think about the justice system, that we don’t only think of those who are wrongfully convicted, but that our vision of justice and humanity also includes people who may be guilty, but who still should not be subjected to inhuman conditions.
Because I advocate so much for prisoners, a lot of people think I’m a so-called “bleeding heart” or naive. A friend of mine tells me, “some people just need a time out, El.” She isn’t saying it in a spirit of judgement — she’s been through these experiences herself. And just because I advocate against incarceration and its damaging effects on people and families and communities doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the real violence and pain people convicted of crimes have caused.
I’m only human, and I can freely say that sometimes I get incredibly frustrated. Even understanding the obstacles that people face getting out, when housing issues and poverty and education and employment and addiction issues are all against people, yes, I still feel frustrated when someone who I’ve advocated for and made calls for and found supports for and called in favours for gets out and then calls from jail the next week because they breached. Or when someone goes back in for something it seems they could have avoided and you just think, Why the hell would you do that? I’ve had conversations with people where they seem very reflective on where they are in life and their desire to change, and then they turn around and scream and threaten their girlfriend.
I’m not saying these things to judge people but to say that of course people aren’t angels and sometimes people piss me off or worse. And a lot of people aren’t innocent. And that still doesn’t change the fact that systemic barriers to justice exist, and that they trap people in the system. And that still doesn’t mean that they deserve solitary, or to get stomped out in the cells, or to suffer trauma. Advocating for people doesn’t mean those people are perfect, or that they don’t make mistakes, or that they don’t act in ways you wish they wouldn’t. Sometimes I get angry with these things too, but it still doesn’t mean they are not deserving of being treated like human beings.
I’ve also talked to guys convicted of much more serious things, like guys who have been convicted and then killed someone inside. It’s not easy sometimes to wrap your mind around the person you can be talking to and what they did. Sometimes I hear stories that are chilling. Last week, someone was killed inside one of the prisons, just stabbed five times in the heart by other prisoners. And hearing the story was dreadful. These aren’t people who are wrongfully convicted either. And I still don’t feel that it justifies treating people like animals or denying them the right to defend themselves or get fair trials or to have the opportunity to change. Because I’ve also talked to people who spent long sentences and who did change their lives, people who are still inside doing decades of time who do take responsibility, and know the pain they caused, and have worked to do better and be better, and who could still end up leaving prison in a body bag.
And I still believe there has to be room for us also to try to hear their stories and allow them to be accountable and also allow that you can do terrible things and maybe not be a monster. I still believe that how we think about prison justice can’t end with the innocent people, but has to be able to think about the guilty ones too.
It’s so much harder when people did do it, but if we care about justice we have to find ways to deal with justice beyond wrongful conviction as well. Tim’s story is going to get us angry, and probably sickened, and maybe despairing or all sorts of other emotions. I also hope in the conversations we all have about injustice and all the complex and generational effects that we also think about how and why we punish people, and if punishment and inhumane conditions are the best way.
1. The revolution will not be televised…
In the context of heightened awareness of and organizing against police violence, erasing citizen video of arrests has implications beyond the charge of “obstruction of justice.” As this article from Truthout reveals, “When communities attempt to police the police, they often get, well… policed.”
Across the nation, local police departments are responding to organized cop watching patrols by targeting perceived leaders, making arrests, threatening arrests, yanking cameras out of hands and even labeling particular groups “domestic extremist” organizations and part of the sovereign citizens movement — the activities of which the FBI classifies as domestic terrorism.
Seizing cameras, deleting tape, and otherwise preventing filming is not just about covering up police activity, it is also about intimidating people and sending the message that the police are not accountable to citizens. When we held a march in Halifax in solidarity with Ferguson and in order to raise awareness of policing in our own communities, we were met with the insistence that “that doesn’t happen here.”
Back in May, I wrote in the Examiner about witnessing and filming the arrest of a mentally ill Black woman outside the Halifax Central Library. As we were observing, a white man came across the street and lectured us about how Halifax isn’t like that and how lucky we are that we don’t have the problems with the police (and racism?) they have elsewhere.
This perception that police brutality is an American, or at least a “big city” phenomenon, allows violence and profiling against our communities to continue. By seizing tape and suppressing any evidence of police misconduct, this culture in Halifax of ignoring and burying the realities of police violence is perpetuated.
Quite a few years ago, before I had a smartphone, I witnessed three male police officers physically searching a very young Black girl in public on the street downtown. She was apparently accused of stealing packets of hair from a store. I approached the girl and asked her if she was okay, and if she wanted anyone to call her parents. The police threatened me with arrest if I didn’t stop interfering. At the time I didn’t know how to intervene in police stops, what my or her rights were, and I didn’t have to tools to film the arrest. Filming these situations not only helps potentially reduce police brutality, it also helps inform people about our rights, and inform us about police activity.
This article by Ajamu Nangwaya with the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence (Toronto) lists some of the ways communities can organize against violent policing including forming copwatch programs and downloading apps for recording the police. The importance of filming as an organizational tool for neighbourhoods and communities is exactly why police are targeting, threatening, and suppressing this activity.
Along with filming police activity, community organizing not only against racist police practices, but for education, housing, and other programs within our neighbourhoods is key. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues:
…Body cameras are the least divisive and least invasive step toward reforming the practices of the men and women we permit to kill in our names. Body cameras are helpful in police work, but they are also helpful in avoiding a deeper conversation over what it means to keep whole swaths of America under the power of the justice system, as opposed to the authority of other branches of civil society.
Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners. More it is to ignore the state of the house all around us. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.
Jacob Boon interviewed Nova Scotia’s environment minister Margaret Miller. This happened:
Q: A growing topic is the impact and legacy of environmental racism. What can Nova Scotia do to better protect marginalized communities and better regulate that kind of damage?
A: I don’t think we have to look at any segment or any part of our community as different than another. I think we have to respect the environment in all areas of our communities. I come from a farming and forestry background. The environment’s always been important. Our nature, our province is so important. Nova Scotia, in the past I’ve had the opportunity to travel a little bit. When you talk about Nova Scotia, people see it as a real Shangri-La. When you talk about environmental racism, I think we need to look after everything in our province. We need to be looking after our coastlines, our scenery, our natural resources — but yet make the best use of them too so we also have a sustainable province.
Wait, like does she think environmental racism is people being racist against the environment or something? Like, affirmative action for forests over the ocean is the problem? Like people are discriminating against the scenery? Like people have some kind of prejudice for deciduous over coniferous?
I mean, after all, doesn’t talking about environmental racism make you the real racist? Really, should we treat the landfills, poisoned water and soil, high rates of cancer, sewage treatment plants and hazardous waste in Indigenous and Black communities any different than we treat the scenery? And really, should we look at poisoned communities any different than we look at the coastlines? Isn’t that the real bigotry?
I also kind of like how she used an Orientalist term (Shangri-La) in a discussion of racism.
Here is the ENRICH site with information about environmental racism in the province.
3. Totally not content sponsored by bedbugs.
It’s weird. I got this email from Tim on Friday and he was all, hey El, don’t you think advertorial is the news of the future? And I was like what? And he was all, local news is for suckers. And then he sent me a poem he wrote that started, “Nova Centre, you so rad/People who are against business are just jealous and mad.” And in the middle there was a couplet that went “I’m sorry Peter Kelly/You were right and I am smelly.” And I was all, Tim, u ok man and he was like I have seen the light and from now on the Examiner will be run like the Chronicle Herald I <3 u management. So now the Saturday Morning File is going to be written by temporary, non-unionized employees, who can totally produce well-researched local news coverage just the same as actual fairly paid reporters.
Hello readers! Totally uninterested objective party here! You might have been reading some leftist propaganda about bedbugs on Halifax Transit. It’s like people object to having their blood sucked or something. Well, as a member of the blood sucking classes, I’m here to report on the real issues. Despite the whining of the anti-development types talking about preventing bedbugs from taking up residence, these “heritage” types just don’t want Halifax to be the world-leading city it can be. Let me ask you this: Is the problem with the bedbugs, or is the problem the jealousy and small-mindedness of stuck-in-the-past citizens who just can’t keep up with the superior strength and capability of bedbugs? Oh, what’s that? “The bedbugs are going to want someone that is laying very still and quiet…?” Sounds like all you lazy “social justice” hippies. There are some people in this city who see the give-er get up and go spirit of bedbug entrepreneurs and start talking about “regulations” and “pest control.” It’s typical of these outdated types that they would be fixated on “public” transit and “stopping bedbugs from moving in” and “the people should own the means of blood production” and “stable adequately paid jobs.” Well, get with the times, commie-plainers:
That’s right. This is a capitalist society, and when the bloodsuckers are encouraged to do what they do best, we all benefit. Call it a trickle-out economy.
4. As if all the horrifying pictures of bedbugs weren’t bad enough…
“Former Conservative MP Peter MacKay says he has not closed the door on running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.”
he strategically stabbed Harper in the back leadership contests are good for the party and good for the democracy of the country and turnover in the party is good.
“It generates new blood and brings new people into a party.”
Continuing on in the article, we learn that, “The former MP said a life in politics can be hard on a family. MacKay is the father of two young children.”
“I was lucky. I entered politics without a family and left with a family. For some people, it doesn’t always work out as well. “
Yeah, like the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, for example.
“I think we need to have dedicated, honest, hard-working people enter politics” said Mackay.
Ugh, the prospect of a Jason Kenney vs. Peter MacKay leadership battle…
5. I read the comments.
Basically all the news stories today are about Ikea opening a store in Dartmouth Crossing.
First of all, sorry Mayor Savage, but this photo is hilarious:
He just looks so tragic. Made worse by the super happy ad of the man in the background. Maybe the photographer caught him in a moment where he was contemplating the story of Ikea monkey:
Moving on, there are over 300 comments on the story on CBC news. Leaving aside the complaining about CBC moderating the comments and rants about the traffic in Bayers Lake vs. Dartmouth Crossing (isn’t the prejudice against Bayers Lake ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM?,) here are some highlights:
From commentator On a Journey:
“…Curious to see the ‘pictorial’ architectural plans and if local builders can understand them without having pieces left over….”
So now our mayor is holding press conferences for a retail store opening? Is this really something of importance? Great for the shoppers and those that will work on construction (the retail jobs will not be great jobs) but when can I expect him to cut the ribbon at Dairy Queen when they introduce a new flavour of blizzard?
This comment by canuck 009 is…bizarre:
Remember guys, following those arrows around makes you lose some testosterone. Let the wife do the shopping. Eat some meatballs and load the car, that’s it. Rona is a better place to hang out.
Truer words, in this comment by DoTell:
It’s news because regardless of whether you like IKEA, it’s of huge interest to a large part of CBC’s audience
Canadanavian strikes the warning note:
As a person of Scandanavian decent, but first and foremost a Canadian, I must give warning…..this is just the beginning of an invasion. They will use these stores with their reasonably priced fashionable furniture and low-priced foods to lull you into a false sense of security, and the next thing you know, legions of axe-wielding reindeer riders will be patrolling your streets.
(image from illogicopedia.org)
1. Are you a true Canadian?
Halifax Media Co-op takes a look through the Discover Canada study guide and what it teaches about Canada and Canadian history. Listen to the interview with Yazan Khader at the link.
2. El vs. the internet.
I was googling around idly looking for info about the Halifax Regional Police while trying to come up with news commentary, and I came across the Canadian Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement site. Then I ended up spending the morning reading the Nova Scotia decisions.
This case from 2000 deals with domestic and emotional abuse by a male police officer in his relationship with a female officer. It’s disturbing reading.
In this case, Truro police watch a building supervisor kick in the door of a 17 year old single mother and then after searching her apartment threaten to apprehend her child and call social services on her (the child is with her parents at the time.)
There’s also an awful lot of complaints by officers in Truro against each other.
Anyway, we’re not linking to the Herald during the strike, so in the absence of cranky letters (and seriously, why is that letter about music in downtown Yarmouth still the last letter sent in the Vanguard? I demand new cranky letters!) maybe reading old police disciplinary decisions will suffice.