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Winnipeg’s media are stoking a racist frenzy with coverage of alleged liquor store thefts

Canadian Politics

The Ellice Liquor Mart in downtown Winnipeg. Photo by Austin Grabish/CBC.

Winnipeg’s media outlets are salivating at the chance to create a moral panic over alleged liquor store thefts. Nearly non-stop headlines regale readers with seemingly horrific stories of brutal crimes: an old man has his hand slashed while trying to prevent a robbery, guns and pepper spray are wielded, and businesses face the “darkest time in Winnipeg history” (according to the CEO of a security company).

Liquor store customers have taken to posting photos and videos of thefts on social media. The images and footage are now making the rounds across the country, while camoed shoppers tackle suspects to the ground in a sort of bizarre and unprompted citizen’s arrests to protect bottles of liquor. CBC Manitoba conducted a highly sympathetic interview with the founder of a Facebook group called Take Our City Back whose members promoted the use of vigilante violence against alleged thieves. CBC host Ismaila Alfa told the founder that her concerns were “completely reasonable” and “good on you for starting this group.” The same day, Alfa interviewed the CEO of a security company about the thefts.

By all accounts, Winnipeg is facing an unprecedented surge of violent crime threatening to destabilize peace and order. Yet this trend is also the basis of a forceful narrative being pushed by police, media, unions, and businesses. The prescription is — of course — more police, more security, and more punishment.

An image posted to the social networking service Instagram, showing comments in the Take Our City Back Facebook group founded in response to liquor store thefts. The group was sympathetically profiled by CBC Manitoba.

What is completely ignored in all of this is basic facts. Journalists have sensationalized these robberies to the point of parody, systematically refusing to interview anyone with an evidence-based perspective on the situation. The public has been provided little information about whether the number of alleged robberies, totaling 10 to 20 per day according to the police, is particularly unusual for retail stores in general, or why it justifies the commitment of enormous financial resources to counter.

Thefts reported to police increased from 658 in 2017 to 2,602 in 2018, but the public is not informed if policies like the protocol for reporting thefts to police changed during that period, or why such a media response is happening only now. Even 2,600 thefts in a year is a relatively low number, totaling just over seven per day. Winnipeggers have not been provided information about if those thefts are localized at certain stores, or informed of the crucial relationship between systemic poverty and incidences of robbery and violent crime.

There are 31 full-size Liquor Marts in Winnipeg. Hiring a security guard at $15 per hour for 12 hours a day, for 355 days a year, costs a total of $2 million per year. Even if there are 20 liquor store thefts a day, each would have to be worth $280 per robbery to justify the security costs: far higher than what is likely being taken. That does not include the cost of sending police to intervene in such robberies, which has become an increasing trend.

In a September 2018 press release, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries stated:

It should be noted that even with the recent increase in these types of incidents, our shrinkage remains low. In the past twelve months it was approximately 0.2% of total sales. In the previous twelve months it was 0.13%. This translates to an increased cost, of products stolen, of approximately $200,000.

The Crown corporation remitted $283 million in revenue to the province in 2018. These thefts represent a fraction of a percentage of that.

Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corporation has already been ramping up securitization of its stores in recent months, including the hiring of police officers as security guards, introduction of bag checks and bottle locks, and posting of people charged with theft — not convicted — in an online database (which one lawyer said was “incredibly offensive and it shows a remarkable lack of judgment”). Yet the Crown corporation has openly admitted that these tactics haven’t reduced robbery rates, with incidents “as high as [they’ve] ever been.” A spokesperson said: “We have police officers in our stores and they’re robbing us while an armed officer with a gun and a Taser is standing there, so I’m not sure what is supposed to fix this.”

The securitization of liquor stores, as well as the media and popular response to the alleged uptick, is fundamentally rooted in racist and classist violence. Indigenous people are immediately profiled by security and staff as suspicious upon entering stores: I have walked in with a backpack without security asking to check it, and subsequently witnessed officers stopping an Indigenous man to check his. This trend fits perfectly with the wider intensification of policing and security measures in Winnipeg to remove unhoused and racialized people from the city’s downtown to accelerate gentrification efforts (also witnessed at the lockdown of the Millennium Library and proposed removal of “homeless camps”). Winnipeg now spends over $300 million a year on policing, or 26.8 percent of its operating budget — up from only 16.9 percent in 2000.

And the Manitoba PCs are looking to commit even more funding to the Winnipeg Police. Like with the province’s catastrophic responses to the recent Manitoba storm and rumours of Pallister’s desire to privatize Manitoba Hydro, it cannot be ruled out that this media frenzy around liquor stores may be weaponized by the PCs to push for the selling off of the Crown corporation. At the very least, the government is using this to further entrench their racist, ineffective, and costly “law and order” agenda that will only see more Indigenous people incarcerated and homes destroyed.

Photo courtesy of Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries

These alleged thefts are happening in a city literally built on land stolen from Indigenous peoples, and secured with violent policing and incarceration. Manitoba has the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the country, with a vast majority of prisoners of Indigenous descent. These material conditions, and local history of racist attacks on Indigenous peoples, helps explain why there has been such a visceral response to these alleged thefts. White customers attempting to tackle people removing bottles are living out latent fantasies of racist conquest. “Crime” is being pathologized as something committed by depraved vagrants, without any consideration of factors like poverty, mental health, hopelessness, or simply lack of opportunity.

The fact this frenzy is taking place around the subject of liquor makes it even more ironic. Alcohol contributes to 75 percent of the substance use-related deaths in Canadian hospitals. It caused 77,000 hospitalizations from 2015-2016, more than the number for heart attacks. There is a long and complex history of trauma in Indigenous communities caused by alcohol, a substance initially introduced with colonization. Governments are directly benefiting from the sale of a particularly dangerous drug while continuing the criminalization of far safer drugs including psychedelics which are proven to be effective in treating a broad range of neurological disorders, from depression and addiction to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. White customers of Manitoba liquor stores can afford to drink themselves to death in the comfort of their own homes, while poor and unhoused people are constantly harassed and prevented from having access to the same drugs afford to well-off residents.

The response to these alleged thefts is not more police and security. That will only escalate incidents, and lead to the increase in surveillance and harassment of Indigenous people. It will not protect staff dealing with stress and anxiety stemming from the thefts, either. A Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries spokesperson has said “criminals are brazen and dangerous when confronted,” confirming that most violence only occurs when police, security, and civilians attempt to intervene. The Winnipeg Police has already killed seven people this year, mostly Indigenous men. Introducing more violent state power will lead to more deaths, injuries, and trauma (to say nothing of the immensely increased cost, which both the city and province pretend to care about until it comes to policing).

As Katharina Maier, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg, told CTV, more security, surveillance, and police “doesn’t really solve the underlying issues of why people may engage in crime in the first place which are very complex and often rooted in structural issues and disadvantage.”

Police and security does not make Winnipeg safer. So what are the solutions? Staff trained in conflict resolution, de-escalation, and harm reduction — with an explicit opposition to working with police. That means more money for hiring and training workers, far more public housing, income and wealth redistribution, and meaningful, unionized work that provides good pay (if you want people to pay for things, pay them a decent wage).

Similarly, improving harm reduction can be achieved by building more safe consumption sites, facilitating the safe supply of drugs, and full decriminalization. This would require an end to austerity, recommitting funding to social services that provide mental health supports and community spaces to spend time and a massive return of land and money to Indigenous peoples. Finally, we need far less policing, and the redirection of funding currently earmarked for carceral institutions toward communities to rebuild after centuries of colonization and white supremacy.

These are all solutions to the alleged crisis of liquor store thefts that media can report on, and experts can speak to if asked. Unfortunately, outlets have overwhelmingly adopted a reactionary tone that spreads fear to not only people in Winnipeg but across the country. In turn, this produces the conditions that allow conservative politicians to dedicate more money for policing and security, restarting the violent cycle of incarceration — instead of directing concerned readers to actual solutions that improve the lives of everyone. “Objective” journalists turn into police propagandists as soon as they report on a story about “crime” and drug use.

The same goes for the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU), which represent liquor store workers (and prison guards), and the Manitoba NDP that is now collaborating with the police to host public meetings about violent crime. Rather than buying into the narrative that policing is the only solution, these institutions can use their resources to promote responses grounded in anti-racism, harm reduction, and decolonization. Staff will be best protected when these thefts are understood in the broader sociopolitical context of poverty, housing crises, and colonization, with responses geared to promoting empathy and reducing harms rather than escalating them with state violence.

Liquor store thefts do not pose a threat to public safety. For the vast majority of incidents, those involved will not use violence unless met with a physical reaction from police, security, and civilians. Staff should not be put in the terrible position of having to fret over a tiny amount of stolen merchandise — profit from which is remitted to the government, allowing the state to avoid increasing income and wealth taxes on the rich. Placing additional police and security into stores exacerbates a war-like mentality rather than seeing alleged thieves as human beings mired in particular socioeconomic situations who need publicly funded supports.

If journalists and politicians really care about dangers facing Winnipeggers, they would turn their attention to a lack of public housing, pedestrian deaths, and police violence itself. And if money is their primary concern, they could pay some mind to the province’s appalling low minimum wage, the fact a single family in Manitoba owns $6.6 billion in wealth, or the ever-increasing police budget that diverts funding away from public transit and community services. Until then, we can only conclude the media are consciously peddling in racist and classist fear mongering for clicks and votes.

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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