Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sometimes a house party is just a house party, not a pivotal moment for social justice

Friday’s editorial page from the Daily News offers up an interesting review of the now much discussed house party disturbance of Fifth Avenue East. As Daily News reporter George T. Baker invokes a bit of time travel to interpret causes and effects of civil discontent and the parallels to a local event.

One was perhaps one of the pivotal events in the history of the city of Detroit, day upon days where it seemed as though the entire city was to go up in flames, the other the attempted breaking up of rather boisterous party by the RCMP, an event not well received by the guests of the hostess.

And while there is some truth in his observations about the issues of social conditions in this city, it’s a suspect argument that they may have contributed to much of the violence of last Sunday morning.

Comparing the social conditions of the two communities is at best a stretch, Detroit of 1967 was a city racked with racial intolerance, with widespread poverty (not to mention a war in Vietnam that had split American society). They were issues that were to be further stoked by the assassination of a beloved civil rights leader, Martin Luther King one year later.

And while there can be issues of tolerance in play in Prince Rupert today, and economically this community is struggling, we’re not sure those issues or situations are anywhere near the same category as those which spawned the non stop rioting of Detroit in the summer of 1967.

Editorial page submissions by definition are designed to foster debate and create an atmosphere for careful reflection and thoughtful response on the issues that are raised, no doubt Mr. Baker’s contribution to the Friday editorial page will do that. We anxiously await the letters to the editor of next week to see how Rupertites receive his interpretation of the events and the causes that could have led to the breakdown of civility last weekend.

It’s a bit of a dis-service however to those historic times of Detroit to try and compare events of 1967 to what spawned the events on Fifth avenue East on Sunday morning.

It might be helpful to remember that sometimes an out of control house party is just that, an out of control house party, not a pivotal moment in the quest for social justice.

As the Daily news website doesn’t offer up access to their editorial page contributions, you can review that editorial page offering below.

Anatomy of a riot..
George T. Baker
Editorial page column Tsunami Hazard
The Daily News
Friday, January 22, 2010
Page 4

Perception is reality. At least, this seems to be the case when alcohol and drugs lead to violence.

Detroit '67. Twelfth Street and Clairmount Avenue. A raid on an after hours drinking club or "blind pig" in a predominantly black neighborhood. Police expect to round up a few patrons, but instead find 82 people inside holding a party for two returning Vietnam veterans. The officers attempt to arrest everyone who was on the scene. A crowd gathered around the establishment in protest. After the last police car left, a small group of men who were "confused and upset because they were kicked out of the only place they had to go" lifted up the bars of an adjacent clothing store and broke the windows. From this point of origin, further reports of vandalism diffused. Looting and fires spread through the Northwest side of Detroit, then crossed over to the East Side. Within 48 hours, the National Guard mobilized, to be followed by the 82nd airborne on the riot's fourth day. As police and military troops sought to regain control of the city, violence escalated. At the conclusion of five days of rioting, 43 people lay dead, 1189 injured and over 7000 people had been arrested.

Prince Rupert '10. Fifth Avenue and McBride. One officer attends to a noisy house party in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood. He expects to find a large group, but instead finds a 100-strong contingent of people jammed inside and outside the home. The officer asks for everyone to go home, but somehow ends up in a negotiation with a drunken 21-year old. A crowd pours out of the house to confront the responding officers. Bricks and beer cans begin to be tossed. Within an hour, the police have 11 offices on scene, the fire department and the paramedics. Copy and paste Detroit right up to the military being called in and the resulting deaths from the riot and you have a Motor City riot on a Prince Rupert scale.

The Detroit riot of 1967 was very different event from what we saw in Prince Rupert last weekend. But there were some similarities.

A Rutgers college study of the '67 riot suggests the origins of urban unrest in Detroit were rooted in a multitude of political, economic, and social factors including police abuse, lack of affordable housing, urban renewal projects, economic inequality, black militancy, and rapid demographic change.

We don't have all those factors at play, but we do have economic inequality in town and we do have a rapidly changing demographic, and there was a perceived act of police abuse, which doesn't seem to hold weight in accordance with eyewitness reports.

First, let's assess the situation. Unofficial reports are the assailant had a bum shoulder that many inside the home knew about, but the officer would have never known.

From the officer's point of view, the assailant was just another drunk that needed to be handled immediately before it got out of hand. The fact that neighbours had a 21-year-old male becoming combative, punching and spiting at officer, it seemed to make sense that the police officer would do what's necessary to protect himself.

Police officers are in a unique position of authority that requires patience and restraint, but they are also allowed to defend themselves; if you touch an officer when he or she is on official business you can expect to be touched back. From ‘what has been offered as official eyewitness accounts, this is essentially what happened.

Isolated, the tackle seems reasonable. Once the variables of the situation are included, perhaps the officer's decision does not seem wise. There were 100 people drunk, high and rowdy and already feeling slighted (most of the "guests" were actually people tossed out of a previous house party for a similar noise complaint). By tackling the assailant, the officer might have incited more dangerous behaviour from the party crowd, though not through fault of his own.

Would the crowd reaction have been the same say at a country club involving wealthy old men? Probably not. Context and perception are so very important in these cases.

We should think about what type of crowd was involved. The police officer was just doing his job. Only that's not how the people inside the house saw it. They saw a bully officer tackling an injured man, who they believed was rightly insulted by not being able to party. Youth don't always recognize that some of their actions affect others. And some youth recognize it less than others.

One fact that should be considered is our increase of youth at risk. Prince Rupert ranks third in the province and this demographic should alarm local and provincial politicians alike. These are young people who are more likely to fall into behaviour such as drug dealing, gang activity and robbery because of their social conditions. They are also more likely to disrespect authority. Mixed into an inebriated and imprecise perception of an officer's response to the scene, it could be a demographic cocktail that can incite people to do irrational things.

Last weekend's Fifth Avenue fight does not belong at the feet of local RCMP. Surely, the responsibility lies at those who overreacted.

However, there are lessons to be taken back to the community. One is that we need to start acknowledging and dealing with social inequities that underlie violent responses.

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