If you live in Winnipeg, you will know this story, which was in the headlines for several consecutive days, and in the headlines repeatedly over the following weeks as civic authorities announced new initiatives in the war on crime. I was distressed by the story, because it involves the death of a young man – only 17 years old.
On Monday October 10, 2005, a young man was walking on Sargent Avenue crossing Maryland Street, with another man, a casual acquaintance. Around 11:00 PM, about a block away, other young men, identified by the police as associates or members of a new gang of teenaged criminals called the African Mafia, fired a .22 calibre firearm, from a house, identified by the police and local residents as a crack house. Members of a rival gang, the Mad Cowz, had been at the house and had fled in the direction of Sargent and Maryland. The police suggested that both gangs were comprised of recent immigrants from Africa. One or more of the occupants of the house had discharged firearms. As the story unfolded, they may have been attacked or believed they were under attack, or just trying to shoot their rivals who had come near the house, and the fled. One young man, named Philippe, was wounded in the abdomen, and he died. A .22 calibre bullet has enough force to penetrate clothing, skin and muscle, and to damage vital structures, although it does not have the momentum to cause massive shock. He was unlucky to have been in the line of fire, unlucky to have been hit, unlucky to have died within blocks of Winnipeg’s major trauma hospital, the Winnipeg Health Sciences Centre. Phillipe’s companion was wounded in the arm.
It happened too late for the story to appear in the morning papers on Tuesday October 11. On Wednesday morning, the story was on the front page but the police had not identified Philippe. The police had obtained a photograph from a surveillance video of his stop in a store nearby, a moment before the shooting. They ran it on TV Tuesday evening and in the morning paper on Wednesday. People recognized his picture. Meanwhile the police made arrests and released information about Philippe to the media early enough on Wednesday to allow the media to interview some of his friends. The media blitz started on Wednesday October 12 on radio and TV, Thursday October 13 in the newspapers.
The Free Press provides free access to some news stories on the day of publication. It provides access to a news archive on a fee for service basis. Some material from the editorial pages is available on line, but the news stories are locked away. The Winnipeg Sun, likewise, provides free access on the day of publication, and directs readers to a fee-for-service research service for older stories. Winnipeg Free Press crime reporter Mike McIntyre pursues some freelance ventures, including a weekly local radio program, and he has a web site, Mikeoncrime.com with an archive of stories about “crime”. There is a focus on Winnipeg stories, including most of his own stories. His site has most of the Free Press stories about this event, and the Free Press editorial material is available on line without going through their pay-per-view system.
McIntyre co-wrote the front page headline story in the Free Press on October 13 – Teen’s death ‘call to arms’. His site has the text of another front page piece – A tragic end to couple’s dreams – by Gabrielle Giroday, another Free Press reporter. He wrote a background piece on the deceased – Tattoo a memorial to a friend – based on an interview with the father of the deceased’s friend.
At this stage the media were reported, based on police sources, that the gunfire was related to a dispute between African immigrant youth involved in a gang, involved in the drug trade. The media reported that some members of the Mad Cowz had broken away to form a new gang, the African Mafia. There was no specific information about previous court cases against the members of the gangs or what the police had been doing – had been able to do – about these gangs or the drug trade. There was no information about the police response to the shooting, how quickly Phillipe was taken to the hospital or how Phillipe died.
Most of the coverage was about shock and fear, with some biography. The media interviewed Phillipe’s girlfriend, Isora, some of his friends from high school, and the father of one of Phillipe’s best friends who had died suddenly, due to an undetected medical anomaly during a hockey game – a loss that had shaken Phillipe. He was the one identified person who described Phillipe’s death as a call to arms, a posture that the Free Press later attributed to Phillipe’s family and friends collectively. We learned that Phillipe’s parents were professional people living in Charleswood – an affluent suburb. He had graduated from an expensive private high school and had elected to leave his parents’ house and live with his girlfriend in an apartment in the West Broadway area after he graduated earlier in the summer. He had started to work in construction but he had been injured after a few days of work. His choice to live with his girlfriend had lowered his standard of living and exposed him to many risks. The newspapers have never clearly said if he had friends among the squeegie kids, the street kids, the drug addicts and the other disadvantaged, disabled, and marginalized people living in the area.
Lindor Reynolds, a Free Press columnist with a broad mandate published a story on October 13 – Will Phillipe’s killing be last straw? which addressed the anger and grief of the families of victims of violent crime. These families are unified in their losses, and tend to be unified in calling for harsh sentences for denunciation of crime and retribution for their losses. She mentioned other cases that had generated publicity when the families of the victims had been critical of sentencing policy. A day or two later, the Chief of Police blamed the courts for not locking up the people the police arrest Police Chief: Manitoba courts too soft on gang members. This was one of many articles and letters favouring taking a harder line with lawbreakers. A retired corrections officer offered his views in the Interlake Spectator on November 4 – We all deserve to walk our streets in peace.
McIntyre interviewed a members of the African Mafia who was not, apparently, involved in incident and reported in a story on October 14, An insider’s look at a violent gang war. The title oversells the story. The individual complained about the police and the media stigmatizing young men in the inner city as members of criminal gangs. He said that a few identified groups had evolved for mutual protection against racist violence. He denied that these groups were gangs, and he denied that they were involved in the drug trade. He admitted that some individuals in these groups sell drugs. The Free Press seems to pleased to have discovered African gangs. It is a change of pace from writing about Asians and Aboriginals, and it gives Winnipegers something in common with Toronto. However the gangs aren’t homogenous, and the people who were arrested weren’t immigrants from Africa.
On Saturday October 15 veteran journalist Charles Adler published his opinion column in the Free Press – Imagine if Gang of Six lived in core which provided a cynical assessment of the way politicians respond to tragedy. He predicted, accurately, that various players would proclaim firmly that they were handling their responsibilities, and denounce and blame someone else. I am going to come back to Adler’s essay in another entry, because I think it illustrates the toxic role of the media in covering policy-making and performance in government.
On Monday October 18, the Free Press published a story by Bill Redekop reporting that City heeds “call to arms” in wake of shooting. The title was unfortunate. Redekop wrote a piece that reported a number of different events, unified in the sense that people had several ideas about making the community safer and gangs less attractive. There was some emphasis on the difficulties of immigrant families in adjusting to language and culture and dealing with racism. The story was less sensational than the title implied and not particularly supportive of a more repressive police practices. Most of the items reported related to community development.
Lindor Reynolds interviewed Phillipe’s girlfriend Isora and her mother Susan – a Unitarian minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg – for a story published in the Free Press on October 18 – A chance to share our disgust over gang violence. This piece publicizes a “rally” being promoted by Susan Van Dreser, who is Phillipe’s girlfriend’s mother. Susan’s views are reported but later tied to a different perspective. “Rev. Susan Van Dreser worries there is a lost generation growing up in this city, teens whose lives are so interwoven with violence that they have lost their capacity for optimism.
‘How do you learn to say yes to life when you are surrounded by death?’ she asked yesterday.” Susan’s emphasis on positive psychology and optimism counters the repressive agenda promoted by Reynolds’s earlier stories, although it seems to be a faint response to the problem of teenagers expressing their identity through power, and their power in through crime and violence.
This story reports that Phil and Isora’s parents were unhappy with their children’s situation, and trying to keep them safe: “Their parents supported them in no small measure. Phil’s dad wrote him a monthly cheque and took them out for dinner. His mom dropped over and helped out. Susan Van Dreser would give them cash and feed them. The teens made some poor choices. Isora freely admits there was a lot of drinking, occasional drug use and a real reluctance to get out of bed in the morning. Like any mother, Susan Van Dreser worried about a lot of things. She never thought to worry her child’s boyfriend would be shot dead on the street.”
Reynolds then provides a sentimental image of Susan holding her sobbing daughter, and ends the story by saying that Susan hopes “that we attend (the rally) in the tens of thousands, hope that we scream and shout and denounce the evil that walks our streets.” Reynolds used Suan her badly in getting her confidence, linking her to other grieving victims, and implying at the end that she was holding a rally for anger and retribution, instead of a vigil of grief and empathy.
The part of the story about what parents do when children make bad choices – moving out when they can’t support their lifestyle and taking risks with drugs – was the most interesting. It reports reports something that parents need to know, which the media never addresses. Reynolds brushed over the facts in a vague way, and she had no insight into the issue. What do parents do when children make disastrous choices, put themselves at risk, and harm themselves? Why do some children take responsiblity for their own lives and other children draw their parents into supporting their bad choices? What can parents do when their children appear to fail?
Reynolds’s story is an excellent example the standards and methods of journalism. The story was subjective, sentimental, self-righteous, inaccurate, and manipulative.
The predictions in Charles Adler’s column were validated by the Chief of Police and the Mayor when they held a press conference on the street at Sargent and Langside on October 25, faithfully covered in the paper on October 26, to announce a police operation – Operation Clean Sweep – described as “in-your-face-policing” to target gangs, prostitution and drugs. On November 5, the Free Press ran a story following up on the progress of the operation of starting the Operation. A month later, on November 23, McIntyre had another article in the paper announcing that the Operation was actually in operation. These moves can be viewed benignly as a campaign to educate and reassure the public, or cynically as assertive image politics – projecting an air of authority, painting the mayor as a decisive leader. The October 26 story mentions the fact that the police service has been funded to hire new officers next year. That has been brought up repeatedly, and it was the main point in a story in the Free Press November 22, by Jason Bell – Casino profits to boost Winnipeg police staffing. We probably need more police officers to handle the work. The story is getting old, and I don’t know what this really means. It doesn’t appear that the police have new ideas on how they might use their authority and presence to get people to make changes in their lives around the subjects of drugs, prostitution, employment and social engagement.
Some columnists and commentators disagreed with the emphasis on legal repression and the trend to demonize the African youth reported to have been members of the rival gangs. Tthe Free Press published several pieces containing different opinions and policy options – We have ability to help kids, Supportive, preventative programs required in high-need areas by Bruce Owens on October 19 – , Invest in prevention, not detention, We should be building on hope, not fuelling despair, by Shauna MacKinnon and Jim Silver on October 26, Refugee transition can be rough, by Catherine Mitchell on October 27, Try listening to city’s African community by KC Prince Asagwara on November 21.
Ironically and perhaps not accidentally, Bill Neville, one of the most balanced and decent contributors to the Free Press reported on the symbolism of Governor General Michelle Jean’s presiding at a Citizenship Court ceremony in Winnipeg while the police and the media pack got busy informing us that immigrant youth had to be managed and repressed. A worthwhile bit:
Recalling her own circumstances as a refugee from Haiti, she spoke simply and eloquently about the challenge — what she aptly called “the struggles to cross the threshold to the future” — of leaving one home and country to establish a new home in another country. She went on to say, “There are numerous reasons for wanting to take part in the great adventure of Canada. People from around the world come here to explore new opportunities and contribute to our plans for the future. Others, like me and my family, come to start their lives over in a land where they are sheltered from injustice and far from massacres. Every story is unique. But one thing is sure: we have found here the ideal of a society in which all citizens enjoy equal rights. We must not understate this good fortune or pass over it in silence, when barbarism afflicts so many countries and drives so many people to despair. … Democracy in action starts from the will and the opportunity that we have to take action, right in the place where we live and where we choose to put down roots. In other words, in this generous country, where we have the privilege of dreaming big dreams, for the good of our loved ones and the entire community.”
One cannot know all the stories of last week’s 30 new Canadians, still less those of all those admitted to Canadian citizenship at any given time. It’s a safe bet, however, that many are stories, similar to Mrs. Jean’s, of people who more than anything were drawn to Canada because it was not a dictatorship or ravaged by civil conflict but, rather, a liberal democracy which — for all its imperfections — upholds the rule of law, admits a diversity of political opinion and is committed to governments chosen by its citizens
McIntyre managed to get a little more information about the shooting. The police had interviewed Phillipe’s companion and other witnesses and compiled a sworn statement – an Information, in technical terms – filed in Court as a formal application for a search warrant for the house which appeared to have been the source of the gunfire. The Information was probably filed within a few hours of the shooting, but it was under an embargo. It isn’t clear if the police slipped McIntyre a copy, or if the Free Press had to apply to the Court to lift the embargo, but McIntyre got the Information and wrote a story published on the front page on October 26 – EXCLUSIVE – The inside story of the Philippe Haiart murder. There had been another episode at the house on Sunday night. The young men in the house felt they were under attack, and shots were fired. Their rivals or enemies had come back Monday night, and there were references to an attempt to bomb the house.
This seems to be the same story, at a new level of detail. It does raise some questions. We don’t know if the shooting on Sunday was reported to the police, and we don’t know if or why the police didn’t get search warrant on Monday. We don’t know who was in the house on Monday, or where else the young men with guns had been hiding. We don’t get any new insights on the police response to the shooting. How quickly did an ambulance come to the scene? Were the paramedics or police able to provide first aid to Phillipe, or were they afraid of being shot? Did they have the right vehicles, protective equipment and training to rescue a shooting victim? Was Phillipe’s wound fatal instantly, or within one minute, or one hour? These questions are important, because they tell citizens how their police force works in a crisis, and allow for a better understanding of what we can expect in an emergency.
A few days later, McIntyre got another tip and another exclusive. On November 5 – EXCLUSIVE – Teen murder suspects were on bail at time of killings. These leaks by police and court staff are predictable, self-serving, perhaps self-aggrandizing in a small way. The story is that the police had arrested the young men charged with the fatal shooting on other charges earlier in the year, and judges had decided that they should be trusted to stay out of trouble. They didn’t, although who can be blamed for that is questionable.
That isn’t in fact a full review of all of the articles published in the Free Press. There were other stories – reactions and announcements by provincial politicians, each party holding the other party directly to blame for gang violence, crime, and Phillipe’s death. I haven’t looked seriously at other papers or electronic media. We have had a lot of coverage without much information or insight. For the most part, we are spectators watching the police and young people playing a violent game, and we are left with the sense that the only responses are judgmental anger or a despairing disengagment from all but a few connections to this community and city.
When the media reports on crime, private tragedy become public drama. This is one of the cases in which there was a massive but ephermeral wave of sympathy for the victim and the victim’s family and friends. Their privacy was shattered. They can’t turn on the TV or pick up a paper without someone mentioning their loss.
Note – December 2, 200:.
I started to write this entry some time in October, because I saw some similarities between Phillipe’s life and n.’s life. When n. left home, he lived in the West Broadway area. He moved around a lot, and he lived in rooming houses or apartments on Colony. He was 16 when he left home. He tried to get his mother and me to give him an allowance to pay for rent and food. He said lots of other parents did this – and at some points social workers thought this might be better than trying to keep him under the control of social services. He had a drug problem, he lied to us, and he tried to manipulate us with guilt and fear. I don’t know Phillipe’s story, and I don’t know how much he had in common with n.
While my perspective on n. is cold and guarded, I love him and I have had a sense of fear that he is going to be badly harmed or killed by the risks he takes.
I started to write this with as sense of frustration at the shallow and foolish things being said in the newspapers about teens, drugs and crime. Everyone had some kind of ideas. Some people believed in the power of optimism, trust and love. Some people believed in social work, therapy and counselling. Some people believed in tough talk and threats. Some people believe in good adult role models and leaders. Some believed in “in your face” police tactics and long jail sentences. The media claimed to be supporting and celebrating the victim, but at the same time it ruthlessly invaded the privacy of his family and friends.
I came to this with the perspective of the parent of an alienated teen, and a critical observer of the law enforcement system and the media.
I didn’t check to see if any of the other lawyers in my firm were working on the case. I have just found out that my senior partner has been retained to defend one of the young men charged with murdering Phillipe – the adult accused who will be tried in a regular criminal court. I have not met him or talked to him. I have not seen his file. I do not know his story or his defence. I am not interested in arguing about his innocence, but I am not assuming that he is guilty. I have been writing about the story presented in the media, not about the legal consequences shooting or the court case.