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Lack of interest shows lack of empathy

Many couldn't care less about two young slain gang members

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Ken Roulette, 28, is presumed innocent and has pleaded not guilty to counts of first-degree murder in connection with the vicious stabbing deaths of Mad Cowz street gang associates Jessie Henderson and Dennis Baptiste inside 729 Maryland St. early on Jan. 31, 2009.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Ken Roulette, 28, is presumed innocent and has pleaded not guilty to counts of first-degree murder in connection with the vicious stabbing deaths of Mad Cowz street gang associates Jessie Henderson and Dennis Baptiste inside 729 Maryland St. early on Jan. 31, 2009. Photo Store

I KEEP scratching my head over why more folks don’t appear to care all that much that two young aboriginal men were brutally cut down in the prime of their lives, killed savagely inside a shabby suite at a West End multiplex.

Yes, Dennis Baptiste and Jessie Henderson were members of a feared and loathed Winnipeg street gang, the Mad Cowz. But for many young aboriginal men in a city where some teens carry handguns with seeming impunity and kill in cold blood over childish notions of revenge, gang association is akin to a Scouts club or after-school program for semi-affluent suburban kids. 

And therein lies the rub of it.

Our ability to look the other way or shrug our shoulders at the deaths of these men speaks to a fundamentally greater problem: We seem to have a shocking and profound inability to empathize very much any more.

That’s my gut feeling of what’s happening here. And I trust my gut.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword," one person replied to me on Twitter when I expressed my angst about this.

"I celebrate every time one or more of these drug dealer/gangsters gets snuffed," said another.

I say to them here in reply: "These are coward’s words." They’re an offhand dismissal, a refusal to even try to understand and walk in someone else’s shoes.

Eye for an eye is a simplistic approach that gets us nowhere.

The overall problem of street gangs and why they emerge and entrench is a complex one.

Regardless of abstractions, these two 23-year-old men were real people.

Baptiste had two young children at the time he was cut down. He had a longtime partner who cared about him. He lived, he breathed.

And he bled.

I never met either of these men, and I’m pretty sure they would have spat on me — or at least eyed me with extreme suspicion — if I had ever had the courage to walk up and say hello. But that’s not the point.

The point is that between my cowardice and what I assume might be their disdain are symptoms of a human sickness, just as street gangs are symptoms of a larger sickness still: a generational, trickle-down illness of poverty, rampant unfairness, inequality and racism.

I deplore senseless and cruel violence. I detest the money-making methods of gangs and their über-profitable, miserable businesses of drug and human trafficking.

Nevertheless, I still find it impos­sible to shrug my shoulders and utter ‘meh’ to any life cut senselessly, brutally, criminally short.

But that’s what I see happening when I look at the public reaction to the ongoing murder trial of the man accused of slaying Henderson and Baptiste — a process trying to find some justice and accountability for the loss of life. 

Media coverage, aside from two of the city’s daily papers, has been scant. The courtroom has mostly been a ghost town.

That’s despite widespread and alarmist coverage of Henderson and Baptiste’s homicides when they were discovered and disclosed by police.

The lack of follow-through by the media as a whole deeply concerns me; the lack of public attention more so.

But I have appreciation for the fact that despite this, those who are in the courtroom are invested in getting to the truth.

And this brings me to what I really want to point out. My appreciation for them.

I don’t know if Winnipeg police have it right in arresting and charging Ken Roulette — reportedly a friend of the victims — for causing their deaths.

But in the end, it’s not up to me, or you, to decide.

We’re just observers to the work six men and six women are now doing.

Roulette, 28, is presumed innocent and has pleaded not guilty to counts of first-degree murder in connection with the vicious stabbing deaths inside 729 Maryland St. early on Jan. 31, 2009.

What I do know is homicide investigators and the two seasoned Crown prosecutors in the trial didn’t have the choice of saying ‘meh’ when called on to try to bring some resolution to this awful matter.

What I also know is two of Winnipeg’s best defence lawyers don’t appear to be conceding one inch of territory to the state — another hallmark of criminal-legal seriousness.

Yes, it’s their job, but there appears to be more to this case than simply going through the motions.

There’s an aura to the overall proceedings I can only clumsily describe as spine-tingling.

It hangs over the courtroom like a dark and pregnant cloud.

Given the brutal circumstances, it is right and just that this feeling persists.

The awfulness of what happened here can’t be brushed aside, despite my fear it will in the end — just another ultra-violent incident in a city where violence isn’t shy about making appearances.

But ask yourself this and answer it honestly: If it had been two 23-yearold white kids from Charleswood or St. Vital who were killed in this fashion — even ones who were criminally involved — what would the interest be then? 

james.turner@freepress.mb.ca

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