On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 8, Winnipeg Police officers shot and killed Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old Indigenous girl. Less than 12 hours later, at just after 5 am on Thursday, Winnipeg Police officers shot and killed 36-year-old Jason Collins.
Two people were killed by police in less than half a day. Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth told media: “This is an anomaly, or I certainly hope it is.”
Yet we know as a fact that police violence against Indigenous, Black, and working class people in Winnipeg (and everywhere) is the very opposite of an anomaly: it is baked into the very foundation of policing.
Seven people were killed by the Winnipeg Police in 2019 alone. Of the four whose names we know, three were Indigenous and another was from South Sudan. That doesn’t include the 16-year-old First Nations boy who was shot nine times outside of a 7-Eleven but survived, or the countless victims of police assaults, harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and incarceration.
Murdered by Winnipeg Police, cont.— Winnipeg Police Cause Harm (@WpgPoliceHarm) March 15, 2020
June 26, 2019: Sean Thompson, 30
July 14, 2019: Randy Cochrane, 30
August 2, 2019: Unnamed victim, 56
September 30, 2019: Unnamed victim, 27
March 10, 2020: Unnamed victim, 27#WPGPoliceBrutality
Over the last year, policing and security measures in Winnipeg have rapidly escalated in the city’s downtown library, its liquor stores and grocery stores, and its downtown streets—at the same time as worsening austerity is administered by the city and province, gutting funding to many critical services that low-income communities rely on.
Unlike what many liberals claim, police cannot be reformed with better training, oversight, or diversity. Nor can police violence be eliminated by following the victim-blaming advice from (mostly) white social media users like “improved parenting” or “better decision-making.” Both of these supposed solutions reflect deeply naive and ahistorical understandings of what it is that police do—and how police actively harm communities, especially those of Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities.
The left’s response to the police killings of Eishia Hudson and Jason Collins must be to recommit to the only just solution: abolishing the police and reallocating the massive resources currently committed to policing to measures that actually keep our communities safe, like housing, harm reduction, strong public services, non-carceral crisis response, food security, income supports, returning land to Indigenous peoples by acknowledging existing sovereignty, and a whole lot more. At the root of this demand is resistance to the call for a “better balance” of policing and social services. On the contrary, policing must be dispensed with entirely.
The questions not asked
Since the most recent killings by the Winnipeg Police, many white people have taken to the comment sections of Facebook and Twitter to defend the police and blame the victims for their alleged crimes that led to the deadly altercations.
In the case of Hudson, it was an alleged liquor store robbery, alleged car theft, and alleged dangerous driving while evading police alongside three other teenagers (the word “alleged” is used here because none of these crimes have been proven in a court of law, which is the accepted metric of truth for “law and order” fanatics). For Collins, it was an alleged domestic violence incident, an alleged possession of a gun, and an alleged confrontation with police.
Yet even if the victims are indeed responsible for these acts, that is no justification for executing them. Capital punishment is not legal in Canada, and all people have the right to a fair trial under the existing (colonial) justice system.
Of course, the so-called “Independent Investigation Unit” (IIU), Manitoba’s civilian body tasked with investigating use of force by police, would disagree. In almost every case of a police killing or assault, the IIU defers to the entirely subjective feelings of the police officers, who claim that they feared for their lives or the lives of others (in an indication of the IIU’s institutional weakness, the officers who shoot someone are not required to be interviewed for the investigation). As a result, the IIU sustains the doctrine of “lethal force,” and justifies the role of killer cops playing judge, jury, and executioner.
Such a set of assumptions—which the public and media largely rely on for their perception of whether use of force by police is legitimate or not—ignores a multitude of factors.
Those include: how does the very presence of police in a situation greatly escalate tensions and lead to fight-or-flight instincts by people who have lived experience of police violence? Why can most police officers in countries like the United Kingdom and New Zealand, who do not carry firearms, somehow manage to resolve situations? Why are police assigned to protect private property like merchandise in liquor stores, and why is poverty, sex work, and substance use criminalized by police? And why is it that mass murderers like Dylann Roof and potential mass murderers like Patrik Mathews always seem to be arrested by police with non-violent means, to say nothing of the white-collar criminals and corporate wage thieves who are treated almost like royalty?
Other questions include: what methods are available to de-escalate or resolve a situation in a non-violent way through the use of anti-carceral organizations grounded in harm reduction? How has an escalation in a “law and order” agenda increased the likelihood of Indigenous and Black people ending up subjected to police monitoring, harassment, incarceration—and loss of housing, employment, and community as a result of those actions? And what range of issues expose certain people to such police interactions, such as lack of public housing (including 24-hour safe spaces and low-barrier shelters), inadequate resources for harm reduction and mental health services, intergenerational trauma and ongoing colonial dispossession, and vicious austerity undermining the ability to attain healthcare, education, and employment?
Many white Winnipeggers defending killer cops simply refuse to ask such questions. The same goes for the police department, supposedly independent investigators, and mainstream media outlets. These questions would indict the settler-colonial power structures that they largely benefit from and fight to retain (both through their actions and inaction).
As a result, police violence is always justified because the police are viewed as an intrinsically trustworthy authority. Yet it is only through a radical de-investment from policing that we can begin to build a society that comes anywhere near providing “public safety” for all.
Killed over a few bottles of liquor
None of this is to naively suggest that “crime”, however we conceptualize it, will entirely disappear with the provision of basic needs like housing, food, healthcare, education, and mental health programming. Actions that harm other people, including gendered violence, will unfortunately persist, even within radically improved social conditions.
However, in order to achieve true justice, we must keep our focus on situations that genuinely harm other people. That does not include a vast majority of property, which can be replaced or repaired. Nor does it include many “crimes” like sex work, drug use, and “disorder” associated with living in poverty. Nor does it conflate the feeling of being “uncomfortable” with being legitimately unsafe.
The most immediate example of where failing to make these distinctions can lead is the absurd moral panic that led in part to Hudson’s killing: the alleged surge in theft of alcoholic beverages from liquor stores across Winnipeg.
The Winnipeg police, political parties, Crown corporation, media, and the union representing liquor store workers have actively produced a climate of fear and panic about liquor store thefts over the past year. Some customers ended up actively intervening in alleged thefts, which liquor store workers had been instructed to avoid doing to protect their safety. In response, the Crown corporation responsible for liquor stores installed “secure entrances” that have been criticized for violating privacy rights and potentially leading to racial profiling of customers, posting the names of people charged (and not yet convicted) with theft, and hiring off-duty police officers at a rate of at least $115 per hour to augment the existing security personnel.
Additionally, the province has increased the sentencing of people who take alcohol without paying by assigning special prosecutors, which has resulted in the incarceration of people who are children of residential school survivors and diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).
Yet a 2019 press release from the Crown corporation admitted that “theft of liquor products remains very low when compared to the retail industry average.” This followed a different press release from September 2018 reporting the increased cost in stolen product was a mere $200,000, totalling 0.2 percent of total sales. Meanwhile, the Crown corporation remitted $283 million to the provincial government in 2018. Incredible resources have been blown on securitizing liquor stores for a relatively paltry sum of money—which is already factored into the corporation’s cost of doing business through “shrinkage” calculations (the same is almost certainly true of grocery stores hiring “special duty officers” at obscenely expensive costs while denying their employees a living wage).
If the liquor store had not called police for the alleged thefts, Hudson and her friends would not have been pursued in a high-speed chase ending in crashed vehicles and a deadly shooting (that is not to fault the liquor store workers themselves: they receive instructions on how to respond to these incidents from management). The allegedly stolen vehicle would have very likely been abandoned somewhere, either to be recovered or covered by the owner’s insurance.
Instead, a 16-year-old was killed over bottles of alcohol and a stolen vehicle.
Police cannot bring justice
Complex questions of justice cannot and will not ever be solved by police. Winnipeg Police continue to consume the largest chunk of the municipal budget of any department: now over one-quarter of the total operating budget, up from a mere 17 percent in the year 2000. Yet they always demand more money. And “crime” never decreases. It’s a never-ending feedback loop of extremely expensive and damaging carceral policies.
That is because the police are an institution that was literally created and expanded to violently dispossess Indigenous peoples from their homes, suppress labour organizing, and contain the increasing mobilization of communities abandoned by the state across North America. Police continue to exist to protect private property and ruling class interests. As a result, their day-to-day function often serves to aid the capitalist forces of gentrification and property development by policing perceived expressions of poverty and “disorder.”
An institution designed to displace, dispossess, and break apart families and communities in the interests of capital cannot provide “justice.”
Genuine justice, seeking reconciliation and restitution when harms are done to other people, can only be fostered in social conditions that are well-resourced and led by communities. That requires the “standing down” by colonial systems of “justice” that rely on racist and punitive measures anchored in revenge. In its place can emerge many other approaches including restorative justice, reparative practices, and community-level responses to situations of intimate partner violence and other forms of violence including assaults and sexual assaults. These alternatives are grounded in harm reduction, decolonization, and community.
As described in the final report of Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission, published in 2001:
At the most basic level of understanding, justice is understood differently by Aboriginal people. The dominant society tries to control actions it considers potentially or actually harmful to society as a whole, to individuals or to the wrongdoers themselves by interdiction, enforcement or apprehension, in order to prevent or punish harmful or deviant behaviour. The emphasis is on the punishment of the deviant as a means of making that person conform, or as a means of protecting other members of society.
The purpose of a justice system in an Aboriginal society is to restore the peace and equilibrium within the community, and to reconcile the accused with his or her own conscience and with the individual or family who has been wronged. This is a primary difference. It is a difference that significantly challenges the appropriateness of the present legal and justice system for Aboriginal people in the resolution of conflict, the reconciliation and the maintenance of community harmony and good order.
In order for such systems to succeed, the police must be abolished. As has been so clearly and tragically represented by the terrible deaths of Hudson and the Collins—as well as the dozens of other people, mostly Indigenous, killed by police and in jails in Manitoba in previous years—the “solutions” that the police provide are too often deadly, fracturing communities and families and getting us no closer to any semblance of “justice.”
What the victims of police violence deserved were systems in place to provide for their needs and respond to crises in ways that promote conflict resolution, restitution, and life.
Many of the so-called “crimes” they committed which resulted in deadly police responses were to do with harms of private property, not people. For situations in which harm was indeed done to other people, they deserved the opportunity to make amends in a properly resourced context. The status-quo that most white Winnipeggers are defending is execution as a consequence of socially produced problems.
We must struggle to ensure such killings never happens again, by abolishing the police and replacing it with truly life-sustaining services that build a better world for all.
A vigil for Eishia Hudson is taking place on Sunday, April 12, from 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm at the intersection where she was killed. Attendees are encouraged to show up sometime in the four-hour time frame and show support in a way that makes sense for you. Bring your signs of support. Social distancing is still in effect. Attendees are encouraged to show up in their cars and remain inside or keep two arms length away from people if you are not in a vehicle.
A fundraiser for Eishia’s funeral expenses has been started by her family.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.