When I was 13 years old, a man grabbed me by the neck and banged my head so hard into the wall that it left a hole in the drywall. I wasn’t alone in the room with that man. In fact, another man I loved and admired was in that room with us. That man continued to watch the soccer game on the television while I screamed for help. I yelled out to another adult who was in an adjoining room in the building. They told me that I wasn’t their child and then closed the door. Because I didn’t die that day, I’ve been repeatedly told that what happened to me wasn’t a big deal. The people who could have helped me that day chose not to intervene. Their discomfort made them look away.
And their collective silence continued to put me in harm’s way.
A few months ago, in Nova Scotia, we saw how silence and looking away can devastate an entire community.
In April of this year, Gabriel Wortman, dressed like an RCMP officer and in his kitted-out car made to look like a police vehicle, hunted and killed 22 innocent people in Nova Scotia.
Years before, one of Wortman’s neighbours had contacted the RCMP and warned them that Wortman had illegal weapons and that he’d physically assaulted his partner. While others had witnessed some of the abuse, they refused to come forward. In an interview with the CBC, Brenda Forbes, who lived next door to Wortman and his partner, said that she was now getting emails from people who’d been there and wanted to apologize for not speaking up.
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“That doesn’t work for me,” she said. “You didn’t believe me in the beginning. I’m not a crazy lady. What I said was true. It irritates me that you finally realized this now after everybody is dead.”
Even now, when we have video of a police officer forcefully holding down a Black man who is pleading for his life, when we see that police officer kill him on camera, there are debates about why people are taking to the streets to protest during a global pandemic.
In the video, George Floyd is on the ground, and a police officer, Derek Chauvin, is on top of him with his knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd repeatedly says, “I can’t breathe,” repeatedly asks for his mother and cries out.
“My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts. I need some water or something. Please. Please,” he says.
Yet no one does anything. And Chauvin can be seen smiling with his hands in his pockets and his knee still on Floyd’s neck. Floyd pleads to the bystanders, “They’re going to kill me, man,” and says to the officers, “Don’t kill me.”
Some argue with the police officers. Others look away. Floyd dies. And it was only after the video surfaced that Chauvin faced any repercussions.
It wasn’t until after Americans began protesting during a global pandemic that Chauvin was charged. The remaining three officers who were at the scene have not been. And President Donald Trump has threatened military action to respond to the demonstrators.
Over and over, perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt, and victims have to prove that they didn’t deserve what happened to them.
This should not be a so-called Black issue. This should be something that concerns every one of us. If this conversation makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why.
Why is having conversations about race considered “preachy” or “tough”? What is tough about discussing something that entire systems are built on? Why are we so afraid to name prejudice and bigotry? Why is it more offensive to call someone racist than it is to acknowledge the impacts that it has on communities? How can we address something and combat it if we can’t even name it?
Today, because of technology, we’re seeing videos of Black men being killed, and yet we look away. He must have done something to deserve it. When he was a teenager, he committed a crime. He shouldn’t have had his hands in his pockets. It looked like he had a gun.
I am weary of writing that I’m worried about my son. I am weary of trying to prove that these things that happen to marginalized communities actually happen and have real-life implications. Where they live; how they travel; the jobs they have access to; how they are treated by the health-care system; and even how they can be at ease when they jog through a park. No one should have to make the case for why their humanity matters.
I am hopeful that we are at a place where this conversation has become too loud to ignore. This past week, thousands of people from all different ethnicities and backgrounds banded together during a global pandemic to protest the death of 29-year-old Toronto resident Regis Korchinski-Paquet.
Discomfort should not mean silence. Looking away won’t change the real-life consequences that others experience. So the next time you feel uncomfortable and would rather look away, ask yourself: Why is your discomfort more important than the very real wounds that are being inflicted on others?