Originally posted December 2015. Updated Feb 9, 2018.
We sat bored as hell in the dormitory of our Christian high school. Tired of lighting carpet on fire, bored of fist fighting with hockey helmets and gloves in a boy-battle named Cage Rage, weary of quietly playing Nintendo with girls we’d never marry. The week before, a boy had chased a rabbit onto the highway, it got flattened and brought back as a trophy kill. He wanted more blood. We gathered in his dorm room–the home of one of those kids who grew up killing things for fun, the kind of kid who hides a compound bow under his bed–and slipped on camouflage jackets and gloves, orange toques and Santa hats, grabbed the CO2 powered pellet gun built like a rifle, and headed to the train tracks to shoot pigeons. Ten years ago this past December.
We walked through campus with an uncovered rifle, walked across an empty field, past several blocks of homes, down an alley, four of the dumbest and most innocent church kids there ever were, excited to rid God’s green earth of some of its other dumbest animals. We crossed a hill, maybe hopped a fence, and entered the railyard. We searched for any living thing; rabbits were hiding, squirrels were sleeping, but there were the pigeons, cooing from on high. I raised the gun to my shoulder, aimed to the top of the billboard where they glowed iridescent in the cold grey sky. First shot was low, hit the billboard, an ad for cell phones. Second shot was high, the pellet likely raining down on a passing-by car. Third shot was never taken, we heard a car crawl over the hill near the tracks. Flashing lights on top. Myself and the kid wearing the Santa hat took to run, but were stopped by our more experienced gunmen. Another cop car pulled up from around the gravel access road. From behind us came two cops on foot being pulled by pursuing German Shepherds.
I wasn’t shot dead in the CN Railyard. Ten years later, my mother does not mourn my death.
Tamir Rice, 12-year-old kid in Cleveland, Ohio, “whose size made him look much older,” approximately the size of a 17-year-old grade 12 student from a Christian school, was shot dead in his park. A year later, his mother mourns his death and the fact that greater society, the courts included, does not see it as a pervasive problem. Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old kid in smalltown Saskatchewan is shot in the head and the man who admitted he shot him in the head is acquitted.
* * *
At one of the two Christmas events I couldn’t avoid, politics came up. I was bureaucratically sorting my RACK-O cards from least to greatest, listening to peoples’ justified disbelief at a gun culture that allows people to be regularly shot down in the streets. Not a mention, save for the flight delay caused by Black Lives Matter protests at an airport, of racial inequalities, radicalization caused by the perpetual war state, the cutting of social programs. Polite Canadians can righteously shake their heads at their southern neighbours about their affinity for deadly weapons, but don’t bother condemning their southern neighbours for racial oppression because they can’t—-both places are equally as guilty and purposefully ignorant.
Without first hand experience, it may be impossible for those with privilege to fully understand systemic oppression. Systemic, meaning, deeper, more complex, often unnoticeable, traditional ways in which our society and our personal actions, whether we know it or not, play into oppressing a group of people. Systemic, meaning, racism based in systems such as policing, the courts, social services, healthcare that create a culture in which the general populace, who may have nothing to do with these systems themselves, still perpetuate racism through their own action or inaction. To even gain a glimpse of this oppression is done only by building relationship with the person who suffers from its crushing weight, learning about them, until you can clearly say that common understanding and camaraderie is shared.
The shooting of a Black pre-teen in the midwest, the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police, the Starlight Tours given to Neil Stonechild twenty years ago in Saskatoon, the murder of Colten Boushie, are the culmination, the physical representation, of the systemic racism suffered by people of colour in North America. They are not “perfect storm[s] of human error” or “freak accident[s]” or individual incidents. They are tied so closely together and so closely to the fabric of our colonial society. It is not simply the lack of gun control, but the lack of gun control that rests upon a bed of racism and colonialism. Not just a few bad police officers, bad apples, dealing with a few ‘problematic’ people, but rather a few bad police officers trained and conditioned by the organization meant to uphold the power of the privileged at the expense of the rights of Aboriginal peoples. Systemic.
Until the privileged come to understand that these attacks that seem (to the unoppressed) isolated and separate, are actually the continuation of a plan of assimilation and extermination that has existed since the inception of the settler state, innocent people will continue to be shot by police officers. And for people to truly come to understand how broad and sweeping the system is, how it permeates the lives of both privileged and oppressed, they will need to learn to grow in community with someone who might not even be aware of all the ways they are being slighted by society. Because before a person can have the will to create change, before they even understand why change is necessary, relationship must be nurtured.
* * *
We were told to put the gun on the ground and our hands in the air as the police officer had his hand on his right hip. I shouted that it was just a pellet gun; he repeated his demand. I placed the gun in the snow and we followed the officer’s orders, slowly approaching single file with our hands in the air.
Our only punishment was standing out in the cold for fifteen minutes with our hands exposed, turning red from winter’s bite. No parents were called. No dorm moms were informed. No one was shot. They even let us take the gun home.
The “perfect storm of human error” didn’t happen, in my case, for specific reasons. But “the perfect storm of gun-mania and systemic racism” did happen in the case of Tamir Rice, and Colten Boushie. Admitting our faults as a great racist continent isn’t easy, but neither is watching your unarmed son get shot.
Also read Beyond Bad Apples at Changing Suns Press.