Thursday, September 10, 2009

Death and Advocacy

Thanks to Dave Mezlin for giving me permission to post his blog here. Mez presents a very sound and rational view of a tragic situation. For the original post and the comments click the link below.

I’ve been involved in community organizing for thirteen years, and I can think of many situations where an unfortunate death became the centre of gravity, around which a movement temporarily solidified and revolved.

Memorials provide a place and time for friends and family to mourn, but they can also serve to highlight a message or cause, giving voice to a marginalised community and creating meaning for an otherwise senseless loss.

My thoughts turn to Carlo Giuliani who was killed while protesting the G8 summit in Genoa, in July 2001. I helped organise the memorial in Toronto for him, on the day of his death. I did a live interview on CityTV, surrounded by mourners and candles, trying to explain why so many of us felt moved by his death. After participating in protests in Seattle and Quebec City, many of us felt like ‘it could have been us’.

I remember the death of Kimberly Rogers. She died a month after Giuliani, alone, in her apartment after being cut-off welfare during the Mike Harris years. I attended a memorial for her at Queens Park, organized by my friends Magali & Alex. Many saw her death as further evidence (one year after Walkerton) that the ‘Common Sense Revolution’ was short-sighted and dangerous.

I think of Gustavo Benedetto, who was killed by police in Argentina, during mass protests against the government. He was unarmed, and his death was caught on video. I attended a vigil for him, and during the six months I spent in Argentina in 2003, I sadly saw many plaques on the streets for people who had been killed in this manner.

I remember attending a couple of the monthly memorials organized by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, bringing attention to all the people who have died homeless on the streets of Toronto.

And of course, I think of the many, many memorials I have attended in Toronto for fallen cyclists. I remember standing in the middle of Queen Street at Gladstone, in 2005, together with hundreds of cyclists mourning the death of Ryan Carriere, who had been run over by a truck one week earlier. This was one of the many gatherings organised by Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC), who have consistently organised memorials for every cyclist fatality in Toronto over the last decade. I also remember attending a memorial for Galen Kuellmer who was also run over by a vehicle, at the underpass at Dundas and Dupont.

Each of these gatherings, to varying degrees of effectiveness and appropriateness, contributed to a movement, giving it focus and purpose, and relaying an important message to the greater public.

Obviously, I’m writing this blog post in the context of last week’s tragic death of Darcy Allan Sheppard. Hundreds of cyclists, who feel their lives are at risk each and every day on our streets, have expressed both anger and sadness about the situation. Two days after Sheppard’s death, a thousand cyclists gathered on Bloor street for a large peaceful event that allowed people to express their sadness.

I didn’t go to the memorial, as I had a family reunion to attend. But to be honest, I’m not sure if I would have gone if I had been available. In a way, I felt fortunate to have an excuse not to go, as it saved me from having to make a decision that I found to be both confusing and difficult.

Now, a week later, I feel a need to explain why I was confused.

Many of my friends attended the memorial, and I can understand why. There is so much frustration and anger inside the minds and bodies of cyclists, because of the conditions we face daily on our streets. Whenever we hear about a cyclist injury or death, we immediately conjure images of ourselves, or our friends, in the ambulance.

The point I want to make in this blog entry, and I know it could be controversial, is that as a movement we have to be careful not act on emotion alone. The stakes are too high. Many more lives are at risk, and our actions as cyclists will dictate our future successes or failures. Our current task at hand is to build a city-wide consciousness that cycling is a viable form of transportation that deserves funding, infrastructure and respect. It’s an uphill battle. For many people, bicycles are a nuisance, are for children, are for parks, etc.

When Kuellmer was killed on Dupont, it was a stunning reminder for everyone that more bikelanes could save lives. When Carriere was crushed under the wheels of a truck, it was a perfect example of why the 1998 Coroner’s Report had recommended ‘side guards’ on trucks, to prevent deaths just like his.

But last week’s death is more complicated, and pretending otherwise is a risky move that could trigger the opposite result of what cycling advocates might hope. In fact, I would argue that continued advocacy for ‘justice’ in this case, could re-enforce undeserved negative stereotypes of cyclists as unreasonable, righteous, and perhaps a little crazy.

I don’t want to take away from the tragic death, and the mourning that it deserves. I have visited the memorial site, and spent a moment reflecting on his painful death. But I was there as a neighbour, a Torontonian, a fellow human. Not a cyclist. I also made a contribution to the trust fund that has been set-up to pay for his burial and to assist his children.

Without getting into the details, I think it’s fair to say that the altercation between Michael Bryant and Sheppard was complicated, had external factors beyond ‘road rage’, and was not a typical case of a bike-car collision. In fact, the police have listed the death as a ‘pedestrian-car’ fatality, and I would agree.

It’s possible that Sheppard, already in a bad mood and perhaps intoxicated, exercised incredibly poor judgment and attacked Bryant in a way that made him fear for his life. In that case, Bryant would have every right to try to drive away. If Sheppard at that point decided to jump onto the car and hold on, then once again he’s making a choice that put his life at risk – not as a cyclist, but as a person. Should Bryant then have hit the brake? Maybe. I’m not sure what I would do if I was driving a convertible and I thought someone hanging on my door was trying to attack me. Sheppard may even have been the one who grabbed the wheel, turning the car to the left.

It’s also possible that Bryant was drunk (he didn’t take a breathaliser test), was also in a horrible mood, had an earlier argument with his wife, let all his anger out on Sheppard, responding to a mild conflict with crazed aggression. In which case he should spend a long time in jail.

But the fact is, we don’t know, and there is no point trying to guess. The truth likely lies somewhere between those two scenarios and it will be the judge’s difficult task to get the facts and make a decision.

As a cyclist, I can relate to people’s anger. But I’d like to reflect on a few points that might help non-cyclists understand where the anger is coming from:

1) Michael Bryant is a politician. I think on some level, this is really fuelling the collective emotion, because in our minds we actually connect each and every cyclist death to politicians. The lack of action, by all three levels of government, to create safe space for cyclists on our streets is criminal. Promises are made, Coroner’s Reports make recommendations, Bike Plans are adopted, but very little actually happens. Toronto’s Bike Plan in particular is crawling at a snail’s pace. Originally adopted in 2001, and scheduled to be complete by 2011, only a small fraction of the plan has been implemented. Recent road reconstructions on Lansdowne, Roncesvalles and Bloor (near the site of Sheppard’s death) have prioritized cars and pedestrians over cyclists, perpetuating unsafe conditions. Cyclists are smart. As much as they get mad at drivers, they also know where the blame really lies: City Hall, Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill. In our minds, our lives are being put at risk, daily, because of ineffective gutless politicians. So when Michael Bryant ran over a cyclist, the emotional trigger was powerful. I think for many cyclists, perhaps even subconsciously, the death represented tangible proof of what we’ve felt all along. Politicians are killing cyclists. So here, I want to encourage people to try and separate the rage you may have against politicians as a whole, when judging Michael Bryant’s actions. The situation is complicated enough without being clouded by historical anger directed against his entire profession.

2) It happened on Bloor. Cycling advocates have been pushing for much needed east-west bikelanes on Bloor for years. Bells on Bloor is an annual community group ride that attracts over one thousand cyclists, calling for bike lanes on Bloor. Take the Tooker is a group that has been running a campaign for bike lanes on Bloor, and proposes that the east-west bike corridor be named after the late cyling advocate (and personal friend) Tooker Gomberg. With narrow streets, and lots of parking, Bloor can be a very frightening street to ride on, as cyclists have to navigate a very narrow strip between moving cars and opening doors. Miraculously, there have been no deaths on Bloor in recent years… until last week. It makes sense that advocates would jump on the chance to link Sheppard’s death to the need for better infrastructure on the street. But we don’t know if better infrastructure would have made any difference in this case, since we don’t know the details of what actually happened to trigger the conflict. It’s possible that a bike lane could have prevented the original collision. But even then, it doesn’t explain the unusual escalation and the ensuing events.

3) Cyclist/Police relations aren’t always warm. There is a long history of cyclists feeling that collisions involving cyclists and drivers aren’t taken seriously by the police. There are many examples of charges not being laid, proper witness statements not being taken, and of officers assuming the cyclist was at fault, simply for being on the road. Bicycles are still seen by many as a frivolous waste of space, and this attitude has sadly been verbally expressed by members of the Toronto Police Force. Relations between cyclists and the police have been improving, but there is still a significant history of cyclists feeling marginalized, and mistreated in the context of a collision.

Another interesting element here that could be fueling the tension, is that charges have been laid only against Bryant, and not against Sheppard. This may give the false impression that there was only one aggressor in the conflict. But the one-sided charge may actually only be a result of the fact that Sheppard died, and thus couldn’t be charged with anything. Based on what we know, it’s quite possible that had Sheppard been injured, and not killed, that he may have been charged with assault, in addition to whatever charges Bryant would have received. Both would deserve fair trials, and Sheppard may have been found completely innocent. Sadly, he’ll never have his chance to explain his side of the story. But the fact that he wasn’t charged shouldn’t let people think that this is as straightforward as it may appear.

I don’t want to be critical of the memorials that have happened or the anger that has been expressed. In many ways, it’s the natural reaction to a gruesome and tragic death. The solidarity and emotion that was illustrated by friends and cyclists is a testament to the existence of a community of people who feel threatened and scared for their own safety. And while the discussion in the media has been often divisive, it has also lead to some good reflections and balanced, thoughtful journalism on an important topic.

So let’s not look backwards. But I do want to raise a concern about where we go from here, as the trial approaches. I think at this point, more rallies, protests or demands for justice, in the context of all the information we have, could be counterproductive. Language like “this is another example of what cyclists face” or “this could have happened to any of us” needs to be challenged. Do you really think that any of us would have been run down by Michael Bryant on that evening? I have trouble thinking that I would have ended up hanging off his car, as Bryant tried to knock me off.

Personally, I want to fight for people’s right to ride a bike on our streets and not get killed. It’s not a lot to ask for. I’m not prepared to fight for people’s right to get into fights, escalate conflict, make risky decisions, create an unsafe situation, and not get hurt.

Focusing on this case, and holding it up as an example of what “we all face on the streets” only distracts attention away from what we actually all face on the streets, and from the cases where cyclists are being run over, by accident, due to poor signage, inadequate road markings, insufficient driver education and a lack of infrastructure. Those are the cases we need to highlight. My fear on the streets is about being accidentally knocked over by an opening car door and run over by a truck without sideguards. I’m not scared of being chased down intentionally by a driver.

If we rally around every incident that involves a cyclist, even when there are other factors that seem to imply that the interaction had little to do with cycling issues, we risk losing credibility and distracting people away from our real cause.

Let’s allow the trial happen, and not pass judgment until it ends. At that point, let’s respond with an informed reaction that takes into account all the evidence. Bryant may spend the rest of his life behind bars. And he also might be found not guilty on either charge. Based on the facts I’ve heard at that point, I might be content or angered by either outcome. Either way, I’m unlikely to relate it back to the cycling issues that I’m passionate about. I’m also unlikely to attend the trial, or organize around it, or comment on it while it’s in progress.

However, if Michael Bryant were charged with being complicit in a government that puts cyclists’ lives at risk through negligence and lack of action, now that’s a trial that I would attend religiously, and I would organize rallies that demand justice.

In the meantime, I want to continue to fight for cyclists’ right to travel safely on our streets without fear. That means providing safe space for cyclists, and incorporating our needs into every single re-design and road construction project. I want to work against negative stereotypes that paint cyclists unfairly, and I want to work against the notion that bicycles aren’t a viable form of transportation.

And along the way, I’ll do my best not to let the angry emotions that fill me, dictate my actions. Let’s all remember what we’re fighting for, and try to make sure that we’re always moving towards a goal. This week’s outpouring of emotion shows that we have a strong movement of passionate people. People who are angry and thirsty for change. If we can focus that energy, we can build the streets we want.


  1. I saw an officer riding College Street this morning clearing cars out of the bike lanes and checking parking passes. I'm sure he could cover his salary by sweeping from Bay to Grace all day. It was nice to see, I look forward to when it's not such a rare sight.

  2. Thanks for the comment Anthill.

    I wish that everyone who saw an officer doing it would post a comment so that all could see how many officers are actually out there everyday. But, in the end, I'm glad you saw this one and I too look forward to when people don't see it as such a rare sight.