On homicides and vigils…

 I’ve been in some heated debates via Twitter (both directly and indirectly via not-so-veiled passive aggressive general tweets) over the last few weeks regarding the reaction to the recent death / homicide of Chris Skinner.  For those unfamiliar, the CBC story is here: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2009/10/19/toronto-hit-run-homicide816.html with the reaction here: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2009/10/26/skinner-homicide.html. I’m blogging in more than 140 characters because there are some things the micro-blog makes difficult to articulate.

I’ll say a few things up front.  First – I had no connection to Chris in any way during his all-too-short life.  I’d never heard his name, nor do I even recognize him from the handful of pictures that have circulated the internet.  

Second, and this is more important, what happened to Chris was terrible.  Just reading the description of that night’s events made me physically sick, and still haunts and upsets me today.  It hurts to think that anyone could be put through that kind of violence.  Especially someone who, as most evidence is suggesting, did not invite it.  Regardless of what provoked the attacker(s) to do that to him, it should never have happened.  I’m highly disappointed that the police have thus far been incredibly unsuccessful at apprehending his killer(s), even with significant video evidence.  I’m also unimpressed that they haven’t even listed this case on their unsolved open cases page on their website – despite the occasional press conference suggesting they’re actively seeking witnesses.

But now, my point.  

In the days that followed Chris’ death, Twitter and Xtra were jam-packed with the immediate conclusion that this was a gay-bashing, or at the very least that this would not have happened had Chris not been gay.  I don’t intend to debunk this rumour, as there’s simply not enough evidence in either direction to do so.  As horrible as hate crimes are, though, I’m not sure if a random unknown attacker murder is much better — it still leaves the same horror in its wake.  Whether the last words one hears are "dirty faggot" or "how dare you touch my car" is likely of no consequence to someone who had no control over either.  They’re both fucking awful.

After the initial mudslinging and conspiracy theories, a series of touching tributes began to find their way around the Twitterverse.  Friends and strangers alike came together and paid tribute to a(n unknown to many) member of the community.  There was something very primal about it to a lot of people.  Someone who lived or worked or played near us was a victim of horrific violence.  Someone who was part of that family we sometimes call queer (attach whatever label you like to it) is gone.  The sense of community abounded.

I observed, but didn’t partake in, these little electronic window-candles as they flooded my Twitter feed.  Why? I didn’t know this person. I felt sad to learn a member of our community is gone, but I’d never had any interaction with him.  Me tweeting a tribute to him would not bring him back.  It would not comfort his family (including his fiancé).  And, selfishly, it wouldn’t make me feel any better.  The only real reason to do so would have been to show face – to prove to everyone that I was on their side and against the nasty (presumed) homophobes who did this terrible thing.  Those who know me know that I don’t show face for the sake of it, so I didn’t.

All of this tribute-paying and homophobia-accusing precipitated into what I understand was a remarkable vigil along Church Street a week later.  I was out of town at the time so I couldn’t witness it for myself, but from the reports I’ve heard, it was unprecedented in this century (that is, in this neighbourhood/community… it was certainly no Iran Election protest).  This was the point where I stopped and went "wait, really?"  Did this many people know Chris?  Or was this about something else?  Was this an anti-homophobia protest?  Did/do we really have enough evidence to prove that’s even what happened?  What was it about this particular event that precipitated a large-scale, 4-digit attendance, gathering like this?  None of the other 43 homicides in Toronto this year provoked this kind of reaction… nor did the Tel Aviv gay community centre shootings (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8180069.stm), though the latter did have a small vigil in Cawthra Square Park.  Would the reaction have been different had he not being young, white, queer, and good-looking?

I started publicly musing about this, including asking some serious questions to those on the front lines, so to speak.  I got a mix of answers.  They ranged from (still unsupported) suggestions that it really was a homophobic attack, to it was a hate crime of some sort, to it was a murder in our community (either geographical or cultural), to it was a horrible aggressive violent crime.  Most of this can be easily refuted — there is still no solid (or even more-than-speculative) evidence that this was a homophobic crime, it’s not clear what other sort of hate crime could have been committed against him, and the last two are answered by a question – where was Darcy Allan Sheppard‘s multi-thousand person, street closing, memorial? (EDIT: I’ve been informed that Darcy did receive a similar response – apparently I blacked out for a day, as I have no recollection of it… that, or it didn’t make as big a fuss on Twitter, one or the other… though it’s still not clear what portion of that crowd was from the local community vs cycling activists).

To be perfectly honest, I’ve grown jaded with a number of communities here.  I think the apathy and follow-the-herd mentality has really gotten to me (thanks to Justin and Brent for (even if unintentionally) helping me figure out what it was that got me there).  If the community reacted the way it did to Chris’ death when other people are victims of violent crime, domestic violence, hate speech, abuse of power, and so on, this world would be a much better place.  

My argument has never been that Chris is/was not worthy of such attention, nor that violent crime should be allowed to be ignored by communities affected by it.  Nor am I arguing that this was not a hate crime – I don’t have the evidence to support either side of that argument.  I’m also not saying it was a bad thing that the community rallied together, for its albeit melting-pot of reasons, in very short notice and very large numbers.  

My only question is this, and I word it very carefully, what makes the other victims of violent crime or other homicide victims from our surrounding neighbourhood, any less worthy?  

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