Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Death by Uniform

The news in recent weeks has featured a few stories about citizens – guilty of disturbances that injured no one, or guilty of nothing at all – being killed at the hands of a uniformed authority.

- There is the 2012 Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman shooting, which involved the stalking and killing of an unarmed teenager by a private security guard.

- Just the other day, there was another legal chapter to the 2007 multiple tasings and subsequent death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport by four RCMP officers. The Polish immigrant had become agitated, and had thrown about some furniture, but was unarmed and presenting no threat to anyone.


- And finally, just a few nights ago, James Forcillo, one of more than a dozen police officers on the scene, shot and killed Sammy Yatim, a knife-wielding teenager, who had ordered passengers off of a streetcar, but had harmed no one and was, at the time, in no position to do so.


It is clear that each of these three killings was pointless. Of the three victims, only Yatim even had a weapon. In none of the cases was the victim posing a threat to anyone or committing a crime at the time they were attacked. The disturbances that the last two had committed had ended, and while it might be argued that there was a potential for violence by the perpetrators, there was no need to apply deadly force.

In other words, the application of deadly force had nothing at all to do with the actions or disposition of the victims, and it had everything to do with the disposition of the uniformed killers.

One of the striking aspects of Yatim's killing is that, while there were many armed officers on the scene, all nine shots were fired by a single officer. How might the situation have resolved itself had that one officer had not been present? It's impossible to say, but there was at least the potential of an arrest without inordinate force.

Two questions come to my mind, about these incidents and others like them. First HOW and WHY are police officers, soldiers and security guards trained, that the use of deadly force is sanctioned, encouraged and permitted when it isn’t necessary? And the second question has to do with WHO is recruited, hired and trained to carry lethal weapons in policing and security roles?

In relation to this second question, I recall a pamphlet I read many years ago. It was about the military draft, and it shifted my thinking about how a nation raises an army. The pamphlet was from the American Friends Service Committee.

AFSC is an activist, social justice, anti-war ,Quaker organization that had a very visible presence in the Vietnam era, and that I didn't know was still active until I googled it just now. I wouldn't have imagined that such an organization would support a military draft, but its reasoning gave me a whole new perspective. I had once faced the possibility of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, but was saved from having to respond to such a calling when the draft ended shortly after I turned 18. I had no use for a draft, and had no issues with the all-volunteer military that replaced it.

This pamphlet offered a compelling argument. It reasoned that the military attracts certain types of people, just as business, gardening, the arts, sports car racing and massage therapy do. It argued (and I'm paraphrasing here – I read this about 3 decades ago) that the military attracts those who are more aggressive, more comfortable with violence, amenable to regimentation and hierarchical structures, less empathetic, etc.

An entirely volunteer army, the AFSC claimed, would draw heavily from the part of the population that skewed toward these militaristic natures and attitudes, and it would under-represent the more docile, empathetic, democratic and free-thinking elements of a population. The all-volunteer army would tend to have more careerists, and it would likely be a more effective army, where it comes to purely military objectives. But it would also be less compatible with peace-keeping functions, it wouldn't relate as well to civilian populations and would be more likely to committee atrocities against them.

The AFSC argued in favor of a draft because it would keep the military more representative, more balanced and more humane. If a nation must maintain an army, let it at least be a more civil army. And it’s a powerful argument.

This rationale comes to mind when I reflect on atrocities like those described, committed by uniformed police and security guards against the defenceless. I’ve interacted with quite a few police and security officers over the years. I’ve mostly found them polite and appropriate in their actions, and I don’t suggest that most are anything but that. But I’ve also experienced aggressive officers, quick to use intimidation and control, who seem to be looking for confrontation, and eager to get physical.

When I look at the Dziekanski and the Yatim videos, I believe I’m witnessing the actions of this latter group, officers with little capacity for empathy, eager to use force, perhaps living out some long held fantasy, or expressing some psychological predisposition. What a frightening thing it is that such individuals are given arms and license to use them wilfully against the population they are sworn to protect.

I don’t offer any complete answers here, but at least some considerations. The idea of a draft to staff a police force is absurd (actually, maybe not so absurd). And I can only imagine the difficulty in screening candidates for an army or police force, and keeping those with the assertive skills needed while eliminating the sociopaths and power junkies. But a better job has to be done. And certainly more must be done on the training, oversight and disciplinary fronts, to assure that force is used in measured ways that don’t generate needless injury and death.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 25, 2013

When Pain is Good

It's such a basic idea that I sometimes wonder why so many of us have such a hard time with it, and why, as societies and cultures, we struggle with it so: the notion that Pain is often extremely useful.

How many levels and manifestations are there of this basic notion? They are infinite I think:

- The Pain of being Full can alert us to stop eating - even when the food is really, really good. (This has been key in my own life, as I used to regularly eat to the point of pain when the food was really, really good. Thus the struggles I've had with weight)

- The Pain of labor unrest can lead to better working conditions in an industry.

- The Discomfort of the rock in my shoe will make me stop and take it out, before it ruptures my skin, leading to an open sore, infection....

- The Pain of having my butt spanked by my Dad kept me from commiting a lot of willful acts that might otherwise have been too tempting to pass up. (Yes, I know that's a controversial one. Many parents manage to set firm, instructive limits without inflicting physical pain. Instead, they use measured psychological discomforts - like disapproval, taking away privileges, etc. The parents that scare me are the ones afraid of subjecting their kids to any form of negative pressure at all, leading the child into the infinitely more Painful condition of having no limits, no internal controls, and no reasonable sense of how the World works)

- There is the Pain of physical exercise, that makes the body stronger.

- There is the Pain of self-sacrifice and self-awareness, that makes the Spirit stronger.

- There is the Pain of Laws and their enforcement, that allow societies to function.

- There's the Pain of the flame, which teaches us not to play with fire. (There's an unforgettable lead character in the fantasy series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson. Covenant is a leper, and lacks tactile sensations. He runs the constant risk of severe injury or death, because he cannot feel when he is burning or being cut, or experiencing any other physical harm that his other senses don't pick up.)

And there are obviously so, so many more.

Which is on my mind because there's been a reshuffling at work which has removed me from the auspices of the most Pain-Inducing Boss I've had in my five years at my current job. The other bosses I've had have all been very supportive, able to give direction, and quick to acknowledge good work and to offer encouragement. But only my most recent boss has been willing to offer direct and specific and consistent critiques, and specific direction for correction. She is, by far, the most micro-involved of the supervisors I've reported to. I don't embrace all of her controls, and her style generates a degree of grumbling among the staff. But her supervision has made me stronger in precisely the areas in which I'm weakest, while she's left me to employ my strengths totally at my own discretion. Which, it seems to me, is exactly what good supervision ought to accomplish.

There's an aspect of professionalism that inclines us not to welcome close supervision and critique. We like to think ourselves beyond the need for such support. Which is great when supervision is not necessary or beneficial. But when it is needed, it can be so hard to apply when the defenses of professionalism are in place. And I've worked within programs and agencies where there was such resistance to serious self-examination and critique that stagnation was the rule.

This is all kind of ironic because the recognition and acknowledgement of Pain, as a natural consequence of life and the choices we make, is such a fundamental part of Social Work, that I can hardly imagine doing without it. So Here's to Useful, Growth-Inducing, Healthful and Enlivening Pain. May we all Survive it and Thrive!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

City-Shaping Art

One of the many professions I imagine that I would have loved is that of City Planner. Cities evolve via such interesting and dis-similar routes, responding to factors that enliven, and to others that deaden, and to forces both intentional and unforeseen. I think I'd have enjoyed creating public spaces, contemplating traffic flows, and debating zoning restrictions, all in the context of helping to determine how an urban space develops.

As a writer, it's not uncommon to have a reader take from my words substance that I had no intention to impart (and I know this is an experience shared by creators in all media). How fascinating it is, when that reader perceives a motive in character that I was unaware of, or catches a symbolic thread I did not consciously weave.

How much more fascinating it must be when a city street or park or neighborhood takes on a character, draws in or radiates a kind of social energy, that its designers did not foresee - could not have foreseen!?

A tiny and an historic example of what I mean:
- How is it that the parking lot at Lakeshore and Leslie in Toronto fills up with motorcycles every Friday night, instead of some other?
- How did Harlem, formerly the domain of the Dutch upper class, become the center of New York City's Black Community, when the Black population had originally been centered in lower midtown?
And maybe one more:
- How did San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury become Haight-Ashbury?

But I've strayed from my original topic, which is the Art that springs up around a city, and how it flavors the city and the community. I won't theorize about it - not now, anyway. Except to say that I think that Art is one of those unanticipated intangibles that comes along and actually shapes and guides a place. And I'll say that the particular public art of a city is special to me.

That said, here is some of the public art of Toronto that I love.

Most of it comes in the form of Wall Paintings, and a lot of that is to be found in the midst of all the Graffiti in alleyways just south of Queen Street West.
This next piece makes over the entire side of a building as an underwater world of fish.
A couple of my favorites are larger scale and apparently commissioned pieces.
The first is on Dundas East, just west of Carlaw.
This next is on McCaul Street, just south of the Ontario College of Art & Design.

On the other end of the spectrum, in terms of scale, are the dozens of utility boxes that artists have decorated. Many of them are amateurish, but the quality of this one is pretty high.
 But there's also art that is in media other than painting. For example, I like this chair perched in a tree, to be found in Grange Park, more than I can explain.
And finally, there's this unique installation of yarn works that adorn the fence around Jones Avenue Park in Leslieville.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


I’ve been wondering how to convey the beauty of the fireflies at Cloud in the night.
There were hundreds of them hovering over the fields and pond,
each one flickering every moment or so, forming a brief pinprick of light against the surrounding darkness
Their illumination too slight to capture the lightshow with my camera.

I thought I might search online for images of fireflies, or even a video clip, to capture their drifting, flickering light. But I haven’t tried.
What the camera catches in its eye is not what I perceive through mine.

How to convey the magic? Comprised in part of the mid-night landscape shrouded in fog, and by the gilded light of the moon. Add the croak of a frog, many times over, which to my ear is akin to the twang of the plucked, loose string of an old guitar.

Time is suspended, hung on the thread of a moment, moving – everything here is full of movement – but not progressing. What could be progress from here, from now?

I thought I might try a poem – contrasting the lights and landscape to that of the sprawling city I’ve come from, invoking the poverty of environment we city-bound don’t know that we suffer.

But again, words are inadequate. Only imagination – or experience – will do.