Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Us, them

I suppose I should say something about the dropping of the charges against Michael Bryant. But I'm not sure what to say. There's so much about this case that can trap you into some black or white, us or them position, and I always try to remember to think in terms of the greys in between.

Bryant is wealthy and important. Sheppard was a bike courier. Bryant panicked: he just happened to be in charge of a much bigger, much more dangerous vehicle. Or maybe he didn't panic: maybe he got angry. I have friends that have witnessed drivers flying off the handle and using their cars to threaten cyclists before. Sheppard was drunk, apparently. He'd just had a fight with his girlfriend. Bryant hit his bike. Or he cut Bryant off. Sheppard probably started the fight. Witnesses say they saw Bryant driving up the wrong side of the road, veering onto the sidewalk to try and knock Sheppard off the car. But then other drivers came forward after the incident to say that Sheppard had attacked them in their cars. And Bryant hired a PR firm to patch his name back together after the incident, which smacks of entitled callousness. I don't know why we would need to be told about Sheppard's drug and alcohol addictions: unless it's so we'll understand that he was a "troubled" person - and are we then to understand that his dying was somehow his fault? It's all just as complicated as real life, and that tends to make people want to revert to a simple version of the story. Cars against bikes. Road rage. Rich against poor, powerful against powerless. Vicious, reckless cyclist. Angry, or panicked, murderous driver. Us. Them.

The radio's been going on all day about whether dropping the charges is 'justice' for Al Sheppard. And there are cyclists protesting the dropped charges all over. Critical Mass, here, is going to be in Sheppard's honor this month. I hear things like "Bryant's rich and important, so he walks," and "apparently it's okay to kill someone if they're drunk." I hear Sheppard's bewildered father saying that he has no idea what would be justice in this case. And I hear the arguments on Bryant's side, that Sheppard started the fight, that Bryant panicked and made a tragically bad decision - or really, made no decision, just stomped on the gas to get away from the angry man who was invading his car. About the best comment I heard was from a spokeswoman for a Toronto cyclist's group who said, "What this verdict says is that it's okay to use your car as a weapon," which at least has nothing to do with the character or the social standing of either person involved: it just speaks to the fears of all cyclists, that cars are not recognized as the dangerous things that they are.

And I keep thinking about what I said when Al Sheppard died last summer. About how this wouldn't be making the news if Bryant wasn't a former Attorney General. Sure, it would have been on the news, the way the boy who was killed by the motorcyclist was: covered for a day or two, until the funeral. But we wouldn't be hearing about it a year later. There are cyclists protesting in Toronto, but somehow it feels to me like deep down, maybe they're not protesting Michael Bryant's release. They're protesting Al Sheppard's death, again. The fact that he died, rather than anything about who was responsible. Because it scares us. It was gruesome, violent. You don't want to think about a cyclist being dragged down the street and then under the back tires of a car. And it symbolized, perfectly, the scary conflict that you sense in the undercurrent every time you get out into traffic. All the power - in terms of money, in terms of social status, in terms of physical power in the form of the car - on the driver's side, all the vulnerability on the cyclist's. What a perfect image of the way we all feel when the van speeds by a little too close to your handlebars or the sedan making a right doesn't bother to look for the cyclist coming through the intersection. So that's what's resonating about this case, and why the cyclists are up in arms. If this case is symbolic of every driver and every cyclist, too, then they don't want to hear that Sheppard might have been at fault as much as Bryant, either. I can sympathize: I cringe at the thought of hearing someone generalize his behaviour to all of us. "Those cyclists have no regard for the rules anyway, they're a menace, they shouldn't be on the streets with cars where this sort of thing can happen."

I think the whole thing was tragic. I wouldn't want to live with the memories that Bryant now has to live with, and nothing's going to bring back Al Sheppard. But I also think that casting every driver as Michael Bryant and every cyclist as Al Sheppard - because as a species we love to latch onto storylines and symbols - is way too full of opportunities to blind yourself, or to claim a side of the story for your own reasons, or to ignore the realities. I don't think either one was innocent in this case, to be totally honest.

But I do think that I might agree with the woman who said that this says it's okay to use your car as a weapon if you feel yourself threatened: and shouldn't part of the responsibility of being in control of a car cover not losing that control in such a way that you end up killing someone? A fight broke out, and someone got killed. But given the odds, and given the situation - and sadly, given who they were - if anyone was going to lose that fight, it was going to be the guy on the bike.

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