Blind Man with a Pistol

‘Police Brutality Is Not a Game’

spiritThe 2009 World Police and Fire Games kicked off in Vancouver this weekend. More than 12 000 police officers from around the world will compete in 65 sporting events over the next ten days. The event has prompted the Vancouver Anti-Poverty Committee to call for a mobilization against police brutality both locally and internationally, under the banner ‘Police brutality is not a game’. It is curious, then, that the Games chose this ‘Eagle Spirit’ image, by traditional Haida artist Garner Moody, as the official logo. The 1329-strong Vancouver Police Department boasts a meagre twenty-one First Nations officers (about 1.5%), and even fewer (if any) actual Haida officers. While this substantially less than the 4.4% First Nations make up the general population, perhaps the Games decided not to honour this small contingent by rooting their national heritage for the official crest, opted instead to salute the overrepresentation of First Nations our boys and girls in blue incarcerate: First Nations make up 18.5% of our national prison population, a bias even more acute in British Columbia.

This shameless appropriation of First Nations’ cultural heritage by the state has become a popular past-time in British Columbia, perhaps the most infamous example the Inukshuk logo of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. At least the Haida, unlike the Inuit, can be found within the borders of the province.

The audacity of the World Police and Fire games to choose the national art of the people they most brutalize and incarcerate as their logo bespeaks gross ignorance and criminal blindness.  The fact that the choice was probably meant to sell Canada’s ‘multicultural’ society internationally adds further insult. Just as the purpose of our police forces is not to protect its citizens, but to protect the state against its enemies—in this case, the autonomy and nationhood of our First Nations—its gamesmanship and recreation extend this defence to new fronts. By appropriating without honour or good faith, the ‘correctional services of Canada’ engage in an act of cultural violence against the artistic heritage of its favourite victim, the First Nations of Turtle Island.


Police on my Back

If you are a British citizen, you should be furious. The severe and brazen violence exercised by the London Metropolitan police upon its citizens during and after the G20 protests is the direct result of unbridled and rampant expansion of executive and coercive powers of the British state. The cream of the crop such expansion has sown is the alarming murder of Ian Tomlinson, a non-protestor who was batonned while walking away from police with his hands in his pockets. If you are a person of colour in Britian, this observation probably comes as no surprise. But the difference now is that the thugs responsible have been caught on tape. Indeed, one of the most disturbing revelations to come out of the profuse video evidence is that when  a police officer backhanded Nicola Fisher at a vigil for Tomlinson’s death, she remonstrated “Do you realise there are three film crews filming you?”  The police officer, who had his badge number obscured so as to evade identification, responded by swinging a baton at her knees.

There is no end to the outrage these incidents should effect. The 2005 murder by police of Charles De Menezes and the recent inquest revealed police tactics: lie, obfuscate and impede justice until the evidence is so indisputable that backpedalling becomes unavoidable. The six officers responsible remain on the force. It appears that this strategy has become standard policy. Police announced the ‘death’ more than three hours after it occured, with an additional insidious claim that protestors impeded health care workers from accessing Tomlinson. Although the IPCC knew that Tomlinson had had contact with the police, they did not inform Tomlinson’s family. An inquiry was not launched until the Guardian published a video showing Tomlinson walking away from officers with his hands in his pockets, severely beaten to the ground in an unprovoked attack by London’s finest. An initial pathologist report, also delayed, conducted by Dr Freddy Patel who, it was later revealed, was twice reprimanded for dubious ethical behaviour, concluded Tomlinson died of a ‘heart-attack’. A second postmortem discovered Tomlinson died instead of internal bleeding. There should only be one question echoing through Scotland Yard and the British public right now:  How is this not murder?

Britain is a world leader in CCTV cameras, keeping a policing and surveillant eye on its public. It has baselessly and dangerously expanded the maximum time police can detain a terror suspect, first to 28 days in 2005 (after Tony Blair requested a 90-day period), then briefly to 42 days in 2008 before it was defeated after public and opposition party outcry. The next longest detention period by a Western democracy is Australia with 12. The list goes on: national ID cards, DNA databases and municipal politicians who have access to police surveillance to spy on innocent civilians and local political rivals. The unrelenting result of these coercive policies is a police force that has come to conceive of its executive power as inviolate, boundless and absolute.

Big Brother is not only the most popular show on British television, it is the archetype by which the state models its public policy. Now that Britain has seen the fruits of these oppressive labours, it is time to take them back. Of course, the task is much more difficult now that a culture of surveillance and coercion is firmly established, but the British public has seen its closed-circuit image and it does not like what it sees. It is important now more than ever to honour the deaths of De Menezes and Tomlinson by reclaiming our right to public autonomy and show these thugs the door.

The Literary Veil

He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing…
He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and women as dreams or dots.

—Walt Whitman

In October, Ontario Justice Norris Weisman ordered that a Muslim woman, the complainant in a sexual assault case, must testify without the veil of her niqab in open court. Aside from the fact that the media is using this story to stoke the very popular ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate that has helped right-wing politicians stir up xenophobia  and anti-Islam sentiment in Quebec and the rest of Canada, it has also laid claims to questions of law and justice. Indeed, the headline of the cited article in the Star is: ‘Order to take off niqab pits law against religion’. Does it? And are law and religion really such polar opposites?

As Kafka knew more than anyone, the law is always before us. We are dropped into it without even realizing it. It precedes us, inhabits us and colonizes us. We wear it like a birthday suit: we don’t even know we’ve got it on.

It was this problem that prompted Kant to posit a symbolic definition of ethics in his Metaphysic of Morals (1785). That is, if we cannot establish an objective, a priori principle on which to found our law, we must live according to examples of moral law, or in Jacques Derrida’s helpful gloss in Acts of Literature (1992), a ‘typology’ rather than a ‘schematic’. So Kant advises us to follow subjective principles of action that progress towards the universal principle. He famously states: ‘Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a Universal Law of Nature‘.

The problem here, Derrida states (as he would), is that damned ‘as if’:

This ‘as if’ enables us to reconcile practical reason with an historical teleology and with the possibility of unlimited progress…it almost introduces narrativity and fiction into the very core of legal thought, at the moment when the latter begins to speak and to question the moral subject.

Or perhaps it is not a problem at all. As much as perhaps Kant himself would like to deny it, law is essentially oral history. Case law is a narrative of humanity’s struggle to define the just and the righteous. Indeed, without narration and fiction, how can we possibly determine the actions of a ‘reasonable man (sic)’ that features in so many court rulings?

In Poetic Justice: the Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), Martha Nussbaum argues that the ‘literary imagination’ should play an important role in deciding questions of judgement.

the literary judge has good reasons for eschewing skeptical detatchment and for preferring to quasi-scientific models an evaluative humanistic form of practical reasoning; these reasons are deeply rooted in the common-law tradition. She does pursue neutrality, but in a manner…requiring, rather than forbidding, sympathetic knowledge of value-laden human facts.

What is the difference between a ‘literary judge’ and one who is simply sympathetic to mores of social justice? Like the poet or  ‘equable man’ Whitman describes above, the judge armed with a literary imagination ‘sees eternity in men and women’, placing them in their narrative juxtaposed with the stories of others—in their whole history, with a critical but compassionate eye.

So what does this say about the Muslim woman prohibited from wearing her veil as she faces the man she has accused of raping her? It means heeding her explanation for preferring to be veiled:

“It’s a respect issue, one of modesty and one of … in Islam, we call honour,” she replied. “It’s also about the religious reason is to not show your face to men that you are able to marry. … I would feel a lot more comfortable if I didn’t have to, you know, reveal my face.”

It means situating this case and Canada’s hysterical obsession with the veil within our illegal occupation and colonization of Afghanistan and the ongoing war on Islam effected by the West in general. It means understanding that religion, too, is a birthday suit, and coincident with, not opposed to the law. It means listening to progressive Muslim women like Marjane Satrapi who do not wear the hijab nonetheless defend its use by her sisters. It means understanding that a vast majority of rape cases are not reported, and those that are have a sickeningly low conviction rate (5.7% in the United Kingdom). It means that the genesis of the phrase ‘facing your accuser in open court’ should be read democratically rather than literally. It does not mean removing the right of the accused to a fair trial and competent defence, but it does mean acknowledging that the system is failing and that removing the niqab from a rape victim is emphatically the wrong direction.

It means listening to people like Thomas King when he points out, in his brilliant Massey lectures, ‘The Truth about Stories’, that listening is always a better path to understanding.

In Genesis, we begin with a perfect world, but after the Fall, while we gain knowledge, we lose the harmony and safety of the garden and are forced into a chaotic world of harsh landscapes and dangerous shadows.

In our Native story, we begin with water and mud, and, through the good offices of Charm, her twins, and the animals, move by degrees and adjustments from a formless, featureless world to a world that is rich in its diversity, a world that is complex and complete.

Finally, in Genesis, the post-garden world we inherit is decidedly martial in nature, a world at war-God vs. the Devil, humans vs. the elements. Or to put things into corporate parlance, competitive. In our Native story, the world is at peace, and the pivotal concern is not with the ascendancy of good over evil but with the issue of balance.

So here are our choices: a world in which creation is a solitary, individual act or a world in which creation is a shared activity; a world that begins in harmony and slides toward chaos or a world that begins in chaos and moves toward harmony; a world marked by competition or a world determined by co-operation.

And there’s the problem.


Modern Tragedy

Josef Fritzl. Nothing can possibly be said. An unspeakable tragedy. A ghastly act of sustained horror the likes of which cannot be recalled in history or in imagination.

Yet something must be said, because he is to stand trial. The debate over whether he is mentally fit, whether sentences in Europe are long enough (and if, at 73, he would survive an appropriate one anyway), and whether or not his case merits capital punishment. A lifetime (maybe two) of rape, four childhoods stolen, inconceivable abuse and imprisonment must now be translated into prison time.

How absurd. What would a punitive sentence accomplish? As a deterrent to future Josef Fritzls? As a stern lesson in the hopes of rehabilitation? A crucible for his soul? The barbarity of his crime has eliminated the possibility of justice.

Usually society is spared such futile calisthenics. When Nickel Mines killed five Amish school children in October 2006, he thankfully turned the gun on himself. The villain behind Austria’s other recent rape and imprisonment narrative, Wolfgang Priklopil, threw himself in front of a street car hours after his prisoner, Natascha Kampusch, escaped. Suicide provides closure to tragedies that would otherwise offer too many questions, that mock, rather than demonstrate our system of justice.

The day after Kimveer Gill opened fire on his Dawson College classmates on 13 September 2006, killing Anastasia Rebecca De Sousa, the Toronto Star ran the headline “Killer loved guns, hated people,” as if it were that simple. As if Kimveer Gill was an anomaly, a one-off who by some hellish mischance developed both a love for guns and a hatred for people. The blame, such a headline suggests, is wholly his: what could possibly be done about such a nutcase?

The logic of such headlines characterize our editorial pages in the aftermath of Josef Fritzl. “How could his wife not have known?”, they question. They could as easily ask how any of us could also not have known: we neighbours, we fellow Austrians, or we fellow human beings who were equally duped. This question, this displacement of blame, reveals that we did know—we do know. Likewise, ridiculous questions concerning the severity of Fritzl’s sentence distract us from the difficult social introspection of which his suicide would have wholly absolved us. We place the onus on Fritzl’s wife, on Gill’s love of guns, on anything that will do because we know, in our heart of hearts, that we are to blame.

The truth is that society failed these individuals catastrophically. When Oedipus Rex tears out his own eyes on stage in one of the most violent scenes in art, it is the price he pays for revealing the hypocrisies and impossible contradictions of the social contract. And the audience watches on, unsettled by the violence but satisfied that he has paid for his crime, that justice has been served. Yet what is truly tragic about Sophocles’s play is that we are complicit in Oedipus’s plight. Our laws and our social mores, the matrix in which we participate and which we reproduce daily, necessitate and determine Oedipus’s fate even as we punish him for it. And Oedipus, blood running from dull sockets, shows us his eyes as if to urge us to revelation.

This is the hard lesson of Josef Fritzl. What kind of society can create such a monster? How do we, as its citizens, contribute to such atrocity? How can a civilization that fantasizes about capturing and torturing women, that imprisons children in illegal concentration camps for a third of their life, that endorses endemic rape and violence in Africa, possibly be surprised when someone shows us our eyes?