When words fail
I don’t think I’ve ever wrestled with how to write something, as I have with the words you’re reading right now. You have no idea how many times, disheartened and full of self-doubt I rested my finger on the backspace key to undo my attempts at telling you a story. By the end you may think I didn’t press DELETE often or long enough. But if you make it that far perhaps it was worth it just the same.
When the righteous public convulsions of protest over police brutality in the United States began last month, I watched and listened as the anger spread to my doorstep. It was, and remains impossible not to deconstruct my own relationship to it. I am both white and a life-long journalist with a significant portfolio of stories about policing, justice and Indigenous rights. I won’t detail or defend the work I’ve done over the past three decades. Weeks ago, I resolutely committed to being attentive and publicly silent, regardless of the life I’ve lived or whatever value I think there is in sharing the truths I’ve learned along the way. It’s not my turn. I was good with that. Until now. Because the story I want to tell you isn’t really about me notwithstanding the previous dozen sentences. And I’m breaking a cardinal rule in writing by not telling you right up front what this is about. I’m burying the lede. But there’s a reason for that which I hope will become clear.
I want to begin this story at a moment that occurred fifteen years ago. A Black man who was in his late 20’s at the time, harboured a secret. He had just been accepted into the RCMP as a new recruit and he allowed himself to imagine that one day, he could become the Mounties’ first Black Commissioner. It was a lofty goal, but one he thought was achievable if he just tried to be the best police officer he could be. Kwesi Millington was still a rookie Constable when his private dream was replaced by a public nightmare.
During a routine call about a man behaving erratically at the Vancouver International Airport, Millington used a Taser. It was the first time Millington had ever pulled a weapon in the line of duty. But Millington and the other three officers with him had been trained that the Taser was less force than pepper spray. They were led to believe it was less harmful than a physical struggle. The man they subdued died at the scene. Robert Dziekanski went into cardiac arrest sometime after he was handcuffed. At this point, let me just say that if you think you know the story and you haven’t read Blamed and Broken, then you don’t know the story. Multiple, thorough investigations including a public inquiry by retired appeal court judge Thomas Braidwood failed to find evidence to prosecute Millington or any of the other Mounties for use of excessive force, or what’s colloquially known as “brutality.”
That word – “brutality” – has taken up a lot of space in the news for the past few weeks. And rightly so. The horrific examples hemorrhaging out of the US and Canada are appalling. Many look like prima facie cases of assault and even murder. Although Blamed and Broken was published over a year ago, the preface I wrote for it goes into some detail about the indisputable fact that in Canada as well as the U.S. Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) and those who are drug addicted and mentally ill are disproportionately more likely to die in an interaction with police. That reality has spawned the now ubiquitous hashtag, #ACAB: All Cops are Bastards. You will see that acronym – and much worse – thriving on social media feeds, even on those belonging normally cautious and circumspect journalists who have a new zeal for the subject.
I suspected it would only be a matter of time before Millington and his former fellow officers would be drawn into this long-overdue accounting. It first appeared to me in an Opinion written by the editorial board of The Globe and Mail on June 9. In a piece titled, “Fewer guns. More cameras. Better police”, the author or authors (it is unsigned) offer this:
“From the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles to the death of Robert Dziekanski at Vancouver International Airport, cameras have revealed wrongdoing that otherwise would have remained hidden.”
In one sentence, The Globe appears to suggest an equivalency between the sadistic beating of a Black man by more than a dozen white LAPD officers and what Millington (a Black Mountie), his superior Monty Robinson (a member of the Osoyoos First Nation) did to Dziekanski along with Bill Bentley and Gerry Rundel (two white rookies). Bentley had greeted Dziekanski cordially, and in the minutes after Dziekanski’s death both he and Rundel worked diligently to gather witness statements and secure the very piece of evidence that would be used against them all. Equally troubling in the Globe editorial is the declaration that Millington’s actions at the airport were “wrongdoing”. I won’t go into a point by point explanation about why that term is, at best, vague and misleading. You can find the facts in Blamed and Broken.
However, the renewed vilification of Millington and his former fellow officers caused me to look back over my own work to re-examine it for racial bias, white privilege and just garden variety jaded journalism. I kept coming back to an email exchange I had with a former police officer who wrote to me shortly after the book was published. He is Black and he made the case to me that because Millington and Robinson were ultimately convicted of perjury, but the two white officers were acquitted, the rulings were racist.
I respectfully disagreed with him. I sat through virtually every day of the trials and appeals all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. I never once heard a term or language that I would consider “racist”. Certainly, there was nothing for which I would risk defaming a judge or a lawyer who was just doing their job. Besides, I told him, Blamed and Broken raises plenty of questions about fairness and truth without needing to speculate on whether racism – even systemic racism – factored into the convictions. A year after that exchange I’m now no longer certain.
My own questioning began a couple of months ago, when I learned that Thomas Braidwood had died. In order to write a blog post about his passing, I went back to my notes from my last conversation I had with Braidwood in 2016. In the book I accurately reflected what Braidwood told me: he harboured feelings that Millington and Robinson and the others were guilty of misconduct before he’d heard any evidence. But I didn’t quote everything he said to me that day. One passage that didn’t make it into the book now jumped out at me. As Braidwood spoke about a moment in the video of what happened that left him particularly disturbed, he referred to Millington as “the coloured officer”. What made it significant rather than simply awkward was that Braidwood didn’t even mean Millington. But that’s who popped into his head when he was casting about to tell me a story about why he disliked the Mounties.
I then reconsidered how Millington and Robinson were portrayed at their trials. I asked myself if the language and characterization of Millington and Robinson made them sound more coldly prevaricating and thuggish than their two white fellow officers. I don’t know anymore. What I do know, is that none of the prosecutors or judges were BIPOC. And for some people right now, that’s all they need to conclude the system has a potential built-in bias. Just last week the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada volunteered that a lack of diversity in the justice system is a problem that needs to be addressed. In 2017 when Millington and Robinson found themselves in front of Supreme Court, none of the justices appeared concerned that the two white officers had long since been acquitted on essentially the same theory that all four had been part of an alleged conspiracy.
And while all four continue to wear the unwarranted label of “murderer”, the scorn heaped on Millington and Robinson has been racialized. Since Millington was first identified as the officer who fired the Taser some 13 years ago, he has been called every obscene and racially charged slur you can imagine. Sometimes by people unafraid to use their own names to do it. Millington was granted legal funding at public expense for his appeals, but Ralph Goodale, the federal public safety minister at the time, denied the same request from Robinson, despite a warning by an RCMP assistant Commissioner that doing so would be seen as discrimination. Apparently Goodale’s office wasn’t concerned.
All four Mounties would go on to file lawsuits against the governments of Canada and British Columbia which manage the RCMP. While each of their claims is different, all of them allege suffering from abject abuse and the psychological toll from more than a dozen years as villains and scapegoats. After Blamed and Broken was published last year, the Department of Justice moved swiftly to settle with Bill Bentley. Government lawyers began mediation with Gerry Rundel. But that didn’t stop him from joining with Monty Robinson to go further by alleging claims of criminal conduct by senior RCMP leaders. An official investigation of those claims is currently underway. But even now Robinson maintains he is being treated differently than his white co-litigant. Robinson says he has received fewer disclosures, communications and updates about his own case than Rundel.
And then there is Kwesi Millington. He filed his lawsuit after Blamed and Broken was published last year. It detailed claims of death threats, defamation, depression, PTSD and what will be a life-long damage to his reputation. All for doing what he believed he had been trained to do. Not even Braidwood, who made no secret of his contempt for Millington and the others, believed they intended to harm, let alone kill Dziekanski.
My impression of Kwesi has been formed over years of listening to him. In the witness chair. In his home. Hearing from his friends and family. I accept that no one can truly know anyone. The best any of us can do, is to try. It was never easy with Kwesi. Despite building a new career as a wellness coach and public speaker and being proud to share the joys of being a new father on social media, Kwesi has always struck me as a very calm, cautious and private person. He can take days to consider an answer to one of my cliché “how do you feel?” questions. A few weeks ago, as the calls for defunding and even abolishing the police began to rise on the wave of explosive examples of brutality, I was sincerely curious to understand how Kwesi Millington saw it. All he would share was that like me, he was more focussed on listening than talking. I imagine his close friends and family got a more candid, emotional assessment and I understood why I wouldn’t be privy. But a rare Tweet he authored, offered a clue. Kwesi wrote: “Newsflash: It’s not racism EVERY time a white cop and a black person have an interaction.” As a comment, he added: “I know discrimination is real – I’ve felt it. As a former police officer I’ve been on both sides of this issue. This is something we need to remember…many times it may be about race, but it is NOT always the case.” The emphasis is Kwesi’s.
Late last week I learned that Kwesi settled his lawsuit. The deal was struck after mediation with government lawyers. I reached out to Kwesi and he was characteristically reticent. He did offer that he was “grateful to finally feel heard” by the RCMP.
Apart from agreeing to end his civil claim against the RCMP, the terms of Kwesi’s settlement remain confidential, just as in Bill Bentley’s case when he settled exactly one year ago. But unlike Bentley who had been acquitted at trial, Kwesi was not. He served time in a federal penitentiary. Blamed and Broken raised serious questions about the fairness and justice of his conviction and sentence. All Kwesi would tell me about whether it was a factor in mediation, was that “re-reading your book beforehand was something I’m glad I did.”
I can’t help but wonder though, whether there was another impetus for government lawyers and the RCMP to put this behind them: the renewed – and for the moment – unflinching public focus on how systemic racism has played out in the justice system.
The settlement brings Kwesi’s chapter in that story to a close. But the book is far from finished.
© Curt Petrovich 2020