Trigger warning – this article contains descriptions of police violence.
Last week, on November 22nd, a Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officer shot and killed a 51 year old man at the intersection of East 41st Avenue and Knight Street. The man was Phuong Na (Tony) Du.
Within one minute of arriving at the scene, one of the officers drew his gun and shot Du to death. Before the shooting, Du was visibly distraught. According to eyewitnesses, Du was talking to himself while waving a piece of two-by-four wood on an empty sidewalk.
Seconds before the murder, one witness texted to a friend that Du’s behavior was “amusing.” Based on the texts, it is clear that Du presented no threat to the officers or anyone else in the area.
According to one witness interviewed by the CBC: “A police car pulled up and police started asking the man to come towards them across the crosswalk and to put down the stick. Right when they say put down the stick, they opened fire on him.”
VPD murders are frequent
Between 1992 and 2007, 52 people died at the hands of members of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). During the same time period VPD officers also willfully turning a blind eye to comprehensive reports from witnesses about the systemic abduction and murder of Indigenous and low income women in the Downtown Eastside.
Since 2007 the trend of police brutality and police shootings has continued, following a significant boost in police spending since the election of Mayor Gregor Robertson in 2008.
A short history of police violence in Vancouver indicates that the murder of Du is not an isolated incident.
In July 2011, Darell Elroy Barnes wasshot to death by police on Powell Street. The officers involved in the shooting claimed that Barnes was swinging a machete. Yet seconds before the shooting, Barnes had walked through a large crowd of people outside a pub and no one had noticed him, let alone feared for their safety. It was the third police related death in Vancouver that month.
In March 2009, Michael Van Hubbard, a homeless senior, was shot to death by the VPD in downtown Vancouver, when police mistook him for a car thief. When the frail elderly man staggered on unsteady feet towards the officers, carrying box cutters, the officers said they feared for their lives and had no choice but to shoot him to death.
In October 2007, Robert Dziekanski, was tasered to death at YVR airport by the RCMP. Dziekanski was experiencing severe distress due to language barriers, after being stuck at the airport for over ten hours in search of his mother. Within 25 seconds of the RCMP arriving to the scene, Dziekanski was tasered. According to the CBC, he was tasered a total of five times including two times after he had been handcuffed.
A few months before in August 2007, Paul Boyd was shot eight times on Granville Street. The fatal shot to the head was made when he was on his knees and crawling, after he had been disarmed (no longer holding a bike chain) and after he had already been shot 4-5 times.
Perhaps one of the most gruesome murders happened in December 1998, when a Vancouver police officer dragged Frank Paul, a 47-year-old Mik’maq man, soaking wet and unconscious, from the downtown holding cells and dumped him in an alley across town. His body was found at 2:30 am in the same alley by a passerby. According to the pathologist’s report, Paul had died of hypothermia accelerated by acute alcohol poisoning.
All these deaths were avoidable. All the police officers involved in the murders of the people were exonerated, without any charges. For the police and for the system they represent, these lives do not matter.
Policing and the neoliberal containment state
It is only in the context of a broader history of Vancouver that we can understand these police murders. Police brutality has been directed towards low-income, racialized, migrant, marginalized and Indigenous communities for decades, since the founding of colonial Vancouver.
Yet elites and mainstream media have refused to draw attentions to these systemic stories of police brutality, let alone foreground the daily struggles waged by low income communities against ongoing targeting by the police.
Articles published in the last week alone disclose the priorities of local media in Vancouver. When liberal newspapers like The Tyee, the Vancouver Observer and the Vancouver Sun insist on framing the police as helpful, civil, kind, and as handling people delicately and respectfully, they erase the lives of those who have lost their lives to police encounters and the experiences of those who face police violence and harassment on a daily basis. When they suggest that police should fight real crime, they are also legitimizing‘normal’police violence in places other than Burnaby Mountain.
In recent years we have seen a massive bolstering of the capacity of the Canadian state to contain poor and oppressed communities. These shifts have worked to target, criminalize and incarcerate those who either actively resist neoliberal and colonial policies, or whose very existence is deemed dispensable and worthless.
This neoliberal “containment state” is grounded in new ways of criminalizing people and communities, an increase in police and police power, and an expanding prison industrial complex.
As police violence continues to escalate under neoliberalism, it is essential to move beyond scrutiny of individual police officers towards an understanding of police violence as systematic and historically-rooted. Only that way can we build the fight back against police and state violence in our communities.
Please join us tonight for an important panel discussion hosted by The Mainlander on policing and the neoliberal containment state, with Kabir Joshi-Vijayan (Toronto), Jenn Allan and Aiyanas Ormond. Facebook event page here.