This is the video that Paul Pritchard took of Robert Dziekanski’s death at the hands of the RCMP. Without this footage, the Mounties involved might have been able to perjure their way out of accountability for using excessive force; with it, they were exposed for telling suspiciously similar cool stories about how they unfortunately just had to do what they had to do to the guy, and some of them remain embroiled in litigation or criminal appeals arising from the incident to this day.
Nice welcome to Canada, eh? I first watched the full video yesterday, and in spite of my extensive familiarity with the case and its context from written accounts, I was shocked by the crude, sloppy, incompetent policing that it showed. The first few minutes of the footage show Dziekanski pacing around an empty airport immigration hall, visibly agitated, and attempting to barricade himself inside the hall by placing some rolling chairs in front of the exit doors leading to the unsecured reception area. During this period, he returns to the exit doors several times, apparently trying to communicate with two male security guards and a concerned civilian woman. The automatic exit doors repeatedly open and close during this time. At a couple of points, he picks up a small table and brandishes it. At one point, he throws the table violently against the glass partition between the immigration hall and the reception area; the table shatters upon impact, with no apparent damage to the glass. (Side note: we could use some glass like that at the farm. Damn.) The security guards speak to Dziekanski at several points, using fairly calm voices. The civilian woman speaks to him at some length through the exit doorway; Dziekanski appears at times to be listening attentively to her and trying to communicate, but at other times he appears paranoid and hostile, and eventually he retreats back into the immigration hall, several yards away from the exit door.
The civilian woman appears nervous but eager to help Dziekanski calm down and regain his bearings. The security guards appear more hesitant than her, but they don’t look willfully negligent as much as scared because Dziekanski is behaving erratically just behind the exit that they’re guarding. One of the guards says of Dziekanski, loudly and clearly, “He speaks some Russian.” When the Mounties arrive, he repeats this, again loudly and clearly.
None of the Mounties stop to speak to the security guards or any of the civilian bystanders about Dziekanski’s behavior. Instead, they charge past the guards. One of them yells “What’s going on?” while one of the guards tries to brief them. He doesn’t stop and stand still for an answer. The Mounties don’t seem to be listening to or observing anyone. They don’t slow down enough to assess the situation. They chase Dziekanski back into the immigration hall at a brisk walking pace. When Dziekanski puts his hands up and starts to run backwards, Kwesi Millington tases him. Dziekanski screams in pain, falls to the floor, and keeps screaming. Two colleagues jump on top of Dziekanski to further subdue and handcuff him.
No one who has any training or common sense about dealing with the mentally ill, or with foreigners who can’t speak the local language, for that matter, would have approached Dziekanski the way the Mounties did. The security guards and the civilian tried to deescalate the situation by speaking to him calmly when he approached the exit doorway. The civilian made a heroic effort to listen to him and communicate with him, given that they did not speak a common language, and the one guard provided accurate enough information about Dziekanski’s language proficiency to arrange for preliminary interpretive services. Any competent Russian speaker could have quickly ascertained that Dziekanski’s native language was Polish, provided that he had been willing to talk. Even though he was badly agitated and paranoid, it’s important to keep in mind that he was trying to cope with a complete language barrier in a new country. Finally being able to speak to someone and have an intelligible conversation would probably have calmed him significantly. He was disoriented in a place foreign to him, in both senses, and unable to ask for directions.
Watching the Mounties bum-rush and tase Dziekanski while yelling at him at the top of their voices, I had to wonder whether they teach anything at Depot other than horse buggery. Everyone else within sight of Dziekanski had the good sense not to escalate with him. The Mounties were the only ones who thought they could order an agitated, disoriented immigrant who was absolutely unable to speak English into immediate compliance. One would hope that their horsemanship skills alone, the RCMP being a notoriously horsey-horse organization, would have given them some confidence around the agitated. Is it possible that Depot drill instructors teach old-school methods of beating the horses and the servants into submission with the same riding crop? That would be some pre-Confederation shit. The RCMP’s very raison d’être is to rise above that sort of brute aggression. It’s supposed to be a civilizing force. Its officers are supposed to have the noblesse oblige to be firm but fair with their mounts and with the bad motherfuckers who would otherwise make life hell on other guys (and friends and buddies, obviously) on the frontier. Knowing how to calm down the agitated should be part of this mission civilisatrice. It shouldn’t even have to fall under the auspices of mental health care per se. If you’ve got one guy who’s pacing around on his own, all upset about something, and he doesn’t speak the language, you don’t charge at him barking military orders. This ain’t Depot, buddy. He didn’t sign up for that. You’re supposed to be the strong one here, and part of that strength is not exaggerating threats. The paranoid mentally ill will very often respond positively to others who are calm and nonconfrontational around them–like the security guards and the civilian mentioned above. Dziekanski was engaged enough to notice from time to time that these three didn’t mean him harm and to back off. Most of his behavior was defensive, not offensive.
The responding Mounties used exactly the wrong body language and tone of voice in dealing with him. This was someone who clearly needed to be reassured that those around him did not mean him harm. It might have taken some time for cops to reassure him that they wanted to help him, but a cop should expect this from someone who’s manifestly agitated and mentally ill. Dziekanski did not injure anyone and was not threatening to injure anyone, including himself. The Mounties could have stopped and watched him through the floor-to-ceiling window or the exit doorway to get a better sense of his state of mind. They could have calmly motioned to him. They had been advised that he spoke Russian, so they could have radioed for an interpreter. They could have contacted CBSA for an electronic identification check, which would have given them enough information to request a Polish interpreter specifically and probably to contact his mother as well. Dziekanski had come to Canada to join his mother in Kamloops. She had been at the airport earlier in the day to pick him up and had repeatedly tried to get information on his arrival and processing status from airport personnel. After several hours of futile inquiries, she drove back to Kamloops, assuming that her son had missed his flight.
The responding Mounties should have done all of these things. Knowing that he was agitated and probably mentally ill, they should have gone into the immigration hall calmly, quietly, and politely (as one fucking expects of Canucks). When he fled from them, they should have followed from a distance, still calmly. They should have made every effort not to use threatening body language or voices. It probably would have been best for just one of them to approach him while the others provided cover, as a way of showing that they weren’t trying to gang up on him. Dziekanski had been receptive to the security guards and the civilian woman just a few minutes earlier.
Jumping over a handrail and charging around a semi-blind corner while yelling military-style orders at a mentally ill guy who doesn’t speak English was hellishly bad policing. Monty Robinson and his squad clearly regarded Dziekanski as a noncompliance problem, not a disoriented fellow who needed help. Their job requires more patience and self-control than that. Taking that same act to the Low Track for disputes with English-speaking nutcases would have verged on a death wish. Some observers would put a really disturbing gloss on the Dziekanski tasing by assessing it as a situation in which the responding officers escalated precisely because they did not feel threatened, e.g., that they wouldn’t have been so aggressive and uncompromising with someone they believed to be armed and hardened. This is certainly plausible. The security guards and civilians just across the window from Dziekanski acted only minimally threatened, and they were the ones without Canada’s best police training, or whatever the fuck else Depot is.
All four members of the BC Urban Electrification Project insisted that they had to fall back on their training because the situation was so chaotic. It’s scary to think that the RCMP, of all agencies, trains its cops to act like that. The very proposition of Canada famously holds that it is a country above the high-noon-at-the-OK-Corral violence of the United States, and the RCMP is the premier agency responsible for setting the example for other Canadians as a people above the reflexive butchery of everything in one’s way and the 49th Parallel. Uh, never mind that last part, eh. Again, what the fuck are they teaching at Depot? The YVR foursome can’t have been the only loose cannons on the force. In fact, they provably are not. A year or two ago an RCMP SWAT team was filmed storming onto a passenger plane, yelling and pointing guns in passengers’ faces, to deal with a report of a disturbed passenger. There’s some ugly shit up north. It’s more than just scenarios of an Indian, a ginger, a Negro, and a fish farmer running into a Pole. If that sounds bad, imagine Monty Robinson getting drunk and plowing into your motorcycle with his Jeep, killing you. That actually happened. You might call it inadvertent corporal punishment.
Yeah, it’s kind of a dumpster fire of an agency. A former public information officer for the Kamloops detachment got into trouble recently for selling cocaine, but at least there’s a market for cocaine. It’s like, hey, I’ve got some fresh powder here that you can take on your trip to Whistler, or I could have that walking train wreck of a squad supervisor cream your ass down by the waterfront. I’d take the coke, too. Rob Ford, watch over us. Male corporals do a lot of gray-area quasi quid-pro-quo sexual harassment of female constables, apparently, which has to be bad news for the most part, but it results in that other venerable RCMP tradition, long-term disability at full pay, not death at the hands of bruisers and drunks. If nothing else, though, you get to dress up in a ridiculous red wool outfit and play with horses. In Regina. First prize: one week in Toledo. Second prize: two weeks….
Kwesi Millington accidentally killed a guy with a Taser. Johannes Mehserle accidentally killed a guy with a gun, thinking that it was his Taser. Fuck your process orientation; the outcome was the same. Robert Dziekanski and Oscar Grant are both dead. Our police agencies equip their cops with gun-feeling, gun-looking not-quite-guns which are carried in the same fashion as guns and, by the way, often kill people because they’re basically holster-sized electric chairs. Americans should realize this, living in a country that had the world’s premier run of electric-age executions. Canadians should probably realize this as well, having lived next door to us for so long. In Soviet Canada, Electric Avenue rocks on down to YOU! In Soviet Oakland, it merely tries.
Maybe we’ll know that we don’t live in police states under the sub rosa dictatorship of fascist corporate interests when our police are stripped of their Tasers. Until then, all I can do is troll my people by reminding them that some of the most famous Mounties are black people who recognize that white lives matter, too, and that blue lives batter us black and blue. It isn’t the only thing I’ve heard of that they won’t believe. Turn Big Ears Teddy around; he shouldn’t have to see any of this. Neither should we, but we must gaze into the abyss to have a hope of understanding it.