I spend one evening a week helping out at a community centre downtown. Right now I’m spending some time with a group of 12 to 15-year-old girls, working on a radio documentary. The idea they had decided on with their other facilitator was to produce an “unauthorized biography” of their neighbourhood. “People think that we’re just about drugs and violence,” they said. “We want to show them what it’s really like. All the good stuff.” We spent some time talking about internalized stereotypes, what kinds of stories they wanted to tell, about their talented friends, their favourite neighbourhood characters, and how they were going to put their segments together. Our last session was particularly great. Their energy was excited and positive, and they had even done some preliminary interview work. We played with microphones and they spent some time recording soundscapes around the rec centre. We went over time and no one even noticed. It was about a quarter past eight when we finally wrapped up and said peace for another week.
I won’t make claims or exaggerate the shittiness of the neighbourhood I grew up in, because that’s not the point, but I will say that there’s nothing alien or alarming to me about the sound of gunshots. That’s why, standing at the streetcar stop after our session that night, hiding from the rain, I hardly paid attention when I heard a blast from around the corner. Generally speaking, when you hear gunfire, you don’t walk towards the sound.
“Nahh,” I thought. “That’s not a gunshot. That sounded too hollow, too muffled.” I shrugged as I watched two dudes break into a run, tripping over themselves as they darted from out front of the rec centre across the street. I wasn’t phased when I heard sirens either. When I saw two of my girls from the group standing on the corner, frantically waving down the first cop cars on the scene… that’s when I got concerned.
People wonder why no one ever wants to talk to the cops, how in a crowded space with a number of witnesses, nobody ever sees anything. There are at least a few big reasons why that happens. When someone looks at you, you can generally tell right away whether they’re looking at you with the curiosity of an individual, or with a disdain reserved for those they already have their minds made up about. Throw a power imbalance into the mix, and the difference between the two becomes that much sharper, easier to spot.
One of the first cops to arrive and step onto the sidewalk took up the job of herding the people standing around, combing for eyewitness information. Her arms outstretched stiff, head moving from side to side to scope the group of us standing out in the rain, she asked mechanically:
ANYBODY SEE ANYTHING?
ANYBODY SEE ANYTHING?
ANYBODY SEE ANYTHING?
Sounding like a robotic parrot. No emotion. No pausing for answers. My strong gut instinct was to get the hell away from this cold repellent woman, to recoil, so I wasn’t surprised when all the dudes who had been standing by their friend on the ground started to inch away from the scene. Nobody saw anything. Nobody wanted to talk.
It crossed my mind for a moment that I should somehow be documenting that moment. The kids, as they stumbled out from playing pool or basketball inside the rec centre, walking right past the lights and muted chaos with disinterested expressions. I thought of bringing out my minidisc recorder and mic, of talking to some of that one boy on the ground’s high school friends about… About what? The journalist mentality suddenly disgusted me, and I quickly killed the thought.
As I watched two of my girls go through the same post-shooting motions they had gone through so many times before, as I watched a woman from up the block shake her head angrily at the dumb beef that was invariably at the centre of this incident, as I watched one young man struggle with emotion at seeing his friend on the ground, as I watched the hard and blank expressions of the twelve-year-olds that shuffled past, I couldn’t help catching some emotion as well.
When I met Jamel Shabazz a few short weeks ago, he and I exchanged some words on the subject of today’s climate of hatred, of nothingness, of emptiness, of nowhere and noway and nohow and nolove. Of self-sabotage taken to the extreme. Of this North American-built wasteland of disconnection and cracked social dominoes.
This wasn’t my reality growing up. These barriers are so different from the barriers that held me down when I was fifteen. This anger is so different from my anger. So different from my hate.
A decade ago, a film like La Haine climaxes and ends in gunshots – violence – death roughly an hour and a half in. Today, that movie would have been over much, much sooner.