The Rexdale Manifesto (Written January 24, 2005)

I was angry when Jane Creba was shot. So was everyone else, but I was more angry about how the reaction to her death compared to the usual reaction people had to young people who died, yet fitted a less valued demographic. This is what I wrote in 2005. Please forgive my youth when I trip over my feet to speak for everyone. Still, I think they were important ideas.

When I surveyed the amount of intense coverage that one of Toronto’s more recent gun related homicides garnered, I turned to my husband and said, “Watch. The victim’s got to be a white person. Probably a female. Probably young.” Later that week, when the victim was identified as fifteen year old Jane Glenn Creba (a girl from a middle class, two-parent family,) I was not surprised.

While recognition of the problem of extreme violence has been building at a protracted pace for over a decade, this story provided what, until now, had been lacking: the perfect victim. Interestingly, when I voiced the opinion that this shooting was treated as a tragedy that required action because the victim was a young white girl, the response was denial. One person said, “It’s not that she was white, it’s that she was innocent.” It’s telling that many people assume that the other fifty-two victims, many of them black men, were not innocents. We only have to look so far as a dictionary to see that white supposedly means innocent or pure and black means evil or wicked.

This perfect victim served to bring to the forefront (or should I say, bring to light) an issue that has long been present. We do need to counter this violence. Notice, I don’t say this gun violence. Guns make violence quick, easy and deadly, however, without a human being, a gun does no harm.

I understand Toronto’s violence, perhaps better than many, because of the areas I grew up in: Flemington Park, Malton and Rexdale. Of all of these, it was Rexdale that presented as the most violent, desolate and angry. When these neighbourhoods are reported on, it is usually with a focus on a common ethnicity or cultural background. These are not black neighbourhoods, middle eastern neighbourhoods or immigrant neighbourhoods. What residents of these places shared unilaterally was an economic classification. We were poor. When we question why so much of the violence is being committed by members of a visible minority, perhaps we should question why so many people of colour are relegated to our poorest communities, these lands of inopportunity. If it is not racism, then why aren’t prosperous areas, like Forest Hill or the Bridal Path, predominantly black? We do not want people to die, especially if violence spills over the edges of places like Rexdale and lands in places like those I have just mentioned.

What can we do? First, I will examine, from my layperson’s viewpoint, what creates violent behavior in people – and killers are people. We cannot forget that. From the thirteenth floor window of the Kipling and Steeles apartment I lived in, I could see most of Rexdale. Opportunity, however, was never in sight. We children of these places are sharp. We are not ignorant to the messages we are sent. We know we are unimportant. We know that little is expected of us. We know that if we fail, no one will be disappointed. We know we are suspect; based on location, skin tone, monetary standing and age. We know that you will not mourn if we die. We woke up in the morning with stomachs full of fear, even when it did not seem to be so. Some of us were afraid of hunger, afraid of violence at home, afraid of the police who stopped us on the way to school. We were afraid that we were nobody, for if we were somebody, surely help would come. It would rescue us from our teachers who hated, tolerated or ignored us. At my high school, North Albion Collegiate Institute, we joked that Rexdale was where they sent teachers to die. We were the pasture to which they sent old horses. Most of our teachers were not talented, coherent or well enough to work elsewhere, and we knew it. We understood that we were provided with resources, only when they could not be used elsewhere. I recall one teacher who sat at her desk crying, muttering about her divorce trial and her sick daughter. Even when she was lucid, she let us teach ourselves, the attendance book out so we could sign in and the assignment written on the board. More than once, I walked in at the end of the class, marked myself present and left. She didn’t seem to notice. I imagine that very few schools would have kept her on, but ours were just happy to have an adult body in each room. I had her two years in a row, for grade nine French and grade ten English.

Our schools, our stores, our apartment buildings, were all ugly and broken down. We had no pride in ownership, for few of us owned anything. Because we could not be proud of our homes, or cars, our schools or our jobs, some of us placed status on smaller things like phones or shoes or jewelry. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Sometimes we would steal these things from each other because we could not afford even them, or because we wanted to feel like we were worth more. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Sometimes we got high because escape was feasible when success was not. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Sometimes we were so confused and angry and lost that we hurt each other. A lot of us didn’t, but some of us did. Some of us learned about death and fear while standing in front of a drawn gun. A lot of us didn’t, but I did.

Respect is like a language. Respect for each other, respect for ourselves, respect for a city, country or planet, must be learned the same way a language is. Imagine that you are learning a second language. (Respect is a second language because survival is always the first.) How do you learn it? If a person says to you “Speak it,” can you? Can you be commanded to know a language? Of course not. A language must be taught. So is the way of respect. To be fluent in a language, you must be surrounded by it. There must be someone who knows it to teach you. You must hear it used. You must concentrate and study. To learn a language, you must be submersed in it. The same is true of respect. If a child is surrounded by respect, both for themselves and for others, they will learn it.

We were besieged with disrespect, shown by action and inaction, speeches and silence, neglect and suspicion, how worthless we were. We could not ignore the disparities in the administration of our neighbourhoods. We could see our status in the context of our city, our province and our country. In my view, this is how we create violent offenders.

The question, then, is how do we counter this? To the young ones now, we must offer respect, security and care. We must let them know that they deserve an equal hand. At very least, we must teach them how to fight for one. As for my generation, and the one just beneath it, we may be lost. We may deserve prison or, even worse, poverty. I hope not. I just don’t know. I do know this: If you leave a person hungry, you create a thief. If you tell someone they do not matter, you create a person without respect for life. If you leave a person without help or hope, you create a void than can be filled with drugs or guns. If you leave us all together in one neighbourhood, you create gangs – and perhaps, eventually, armies.

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