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‘Carceral systems won’t solve crime’: An interview on theft, policing, and disability justice

Canadian Politics

A cyclist talks to a Winnipeg Police Service officer. Photo by Dave Shaver/Flickr.

Allen Mankewich is a disabled resident of downtown Winnipeg. His handcycle was stolen in May. Although he filed a police report about the theft, Mankewich was hesitant to further involve the police. He also turned down several interview requests from mainstream media outlets over concerns around further inflaming “crime and punishment” rhetoric in Winnipeg. 

Canadian Dimension interviewed him about the situation, the failure of policing and incarceration to address these situations, thinking about justice from a disability justice framework, and potential alternatives to involving law enforcement.


Canadian Dimension (CD): What happened?

Allen Mankewich (AM): Back in the middle of May, some people got into the building and stole a few bikes out of our bike room on the main floor of our building. My handcycle was one of the bikes that was taken. 

The people who did it seemed pretty organized. It looks like used angle grinders because they were cutting through u-locks like they were nothing. It sucks, but it is what it is.

CD: How did you find out?

AM: My friend was in the bike room coming home from work at 11:30 on a Thursday night. He called me as soon as he got home and said something like “I didn’t see your bike in the bike room, did you move it somewhere?” He knows where I park it and it sticks out like a sore thumb, basically. I’m like: “No, it should be there.” That’s how I found out. He started looking around and saw other bikes had been taken and there were u-locks sitting on the ground sliced in half.

CD: How long had you had the handbike?

AM: I bought it a couple of years ago just for exercise and recreation—something to do. I really enjoyed having it. It was something that was important to me and it helped me stay active, and biking with my friends was something I really enjoyed. It’s the first time I’ve had a bike like that in my adult life, too. I’d take it in and around downtown through the bike lanes. I biked to and around some of our city parks. I did the Manitoba Marathon last year. I was just really starting to get into it and then this happened.

Riding it was one of the things I enjoyed most. Now I can’t do that, and I’m not sure what my options are going forward, because one of the results of this is that the room where I kept the bike is being shut down in our building, and all bikes are being moved to another room. The way the room is situated in our building would make it almost impossible for me to get the bike in and out of the building when I want to go biking. 

So there’s a whole other dimension to this that people don’t think about. Even though the building I live in is less than five years old, there was clearly no consideration given to the design of the building in terms of people who might have a handcycle. It was about seven feet long so it did take up more space than a standard bike. And some people would make comments about how I stored my bike in the bike room and how much room it took up. These are things that most people don’t think about or experience, and always having to put in work like this to carve out your existence and do things that other people take for granted wears you down eventually. So as a result I probably won’t even bother getting another bike.

CD: It’s a pretty pricy piece of equipment, right? 

AM: For sure. The bike I had was built in Winnipeg at a company called Freedom Concepts. I actually got to go to the shop and talk to the people there and look at some of the products they offer. They had this one: it was a floor model and they gave me a really good deal on it, and offered it to me at cost. These bikes retail for upwards of $4,000 brand new. That’s the replacement value on it, essentially.

Mankewich’s handcycle, stolen from a downtown apartment block in Winnipeg last month. Photo by Allen Mankewich.

CD: What was the immediate response to the theft?

AM: I contacted our property management company and told them what happened. I also filed a police report, which I felt conflicted about due to my views on how society handles crime and punishment. But it’s one of our only options when our stuff goes missing and we want any hope of recovering it. It’s just the system that we have right now, unfortunately.

So I made a police report, sent the police a picture of the bike, and they followed up a few times with additional questions and to say they hadn’t had any leads or anything. Our security camera footage was forwarded to them as well. But nothing’s come up yet.

The police contacted me the other day and asked if I’d be comfortable talking to the media about it to try generate some leads—because it is a unique piece of equipment and they thought that would help. It’s not something I felt comfortable with so I told them they could release a photo of the bike and asked the public to be on the lookout for it. I was more comfortable with that kind of framing.

CD: Why don’t you feel super comfortable with involving the police in this sort of thing?

AM: In terms of the people who took it, I’m not mad at them. By involving the police by filing a police report, I felt like I’m potentially bringing more misery onto folks who may be dealing with a lot of stuff in their lives already. Putting them in a situation where they might end up with criminal charges wasn’t something I was interested in because I feel like our legal system trends towards retributive justice. I just wanted my bike back.

CD: Going through this experience, can you think of what it might look like to have a system in place that isn’t policing? What would be helpful that would offer an alternative?

AM: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have the answer. But I don’t think we’ve really bothered to explore the potential alternatives to our policing and carceral systems in any meaningful way. I think we need to come up with healthier ways to deal with these situations. We also need to do a better job of supporting people so they have what they need, as a way of preventing situations like this from happening in the first place.

I live in a city where we spend over 25 percent of our municipal budget on policing. If you add to that the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on carceral spaces for a very small percentage of the population, I feel like those resources could be better used to build stronger, healthier communities. If we did a value-for-money audit on policing and carceral systems and the outcomes they produce, I think we would realize we could be using those resources in a more productive way. Policing and carceral systems won’t solve crime. Building strong communities will. 

I’m also a disabled person who’s taken time to learn about disability justice and disability history. This has included learning about the history of institutions, and also the link between disability, policing, and carceral spaces. This has helped me evolve in terms of my approaches to various situations, including this one, so again, I don’t want to be part of a process where involvement in these systems might be the end result for someone. 

CD: What can people do, whether specific to this situation like potentially fundraise for a bike, or more general things people can do?

AM: I’ve had offers to set up a GoFundMe or whatever. I know people are very sincere and want to help which makes me feel good. But as a disabled person, I feel uncomfortable with things like fundraising because of the impact the charity model has had on devaluing disabled people. I also have a feeling that it would get funded fairly quickly because I have a bit of a public profile, so the way that GoFundMes become this sort of popularity contest bothers me. I’ve seen many of my disabled peers set up GoFundMes to help them meet basic needs and it’s just devastating to see. When I see people raising money for things like making their homes more accessible after an accident or what have you, it also kind of reiterates how we’ve completely failed to address these issues in more meaningful and systemic ways. I feel like the successes of certain GoFundMes over others can reflect some of the hierarchies and systems we should just focusing on abolishing in the first place. So all of this is to say I have a huge aversion to and uncomfortable relationship with fundraising. 

CD: Is there anything you wanted to make readers know? 

AM: Another aspect to this that bothered me was some of the reaction on social media. I just put up a post saying “my bike is missing, let me know if you’ve seen it.” I didn’t say that someone stole it. I wasn’t trying to foment any outrage against the folks who did this or anything.

You have some people sharing it and saying “I can’t believe these scumbags did this” or things along those lines. I’ve rejected about half a dozen media interviews because I know that’s going to be the reaction of some people and I didn’t want to fuel that. The media outlets who contacted me are some of the larger ones in the city, and while I appreciated their interest in this and their offers to help get the word out, I just found it to be too much to handle at the time. The police did a media release about the bike and some media ran it, which I appreciate, but felt uncomfortable with playing a larger role in this story. I didn’t want the focus to be on the crime and punishment angle and didn’t want to give some people more excuses to use social media to tee off on the people who took my bike, which is always a potential when these issues end up in the media.

At the end of the day it was a property crime, and the only things that were hurt were my feelings and my bank account and both of those things should recover eventually. I can bounce back from having my bike stolen. But it’s a lot harder to bounce back from criminal charges or spending time in jail.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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.

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