Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fears should be faced, not embraced

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When Gord Steeves finally spoke about the things -- Those Things -- his wife once wrote, the mayoral candidate wanted us to know Lorrie was afraid.

No, the candidate clarified, that wasn't an excuse for writing a 2010 Facebook screed about "drunken native guys in skywalks," it was just "context." In the weeks before she fired off that missive, she had been approached by men she perceived as aggressive. She had her children with her. She was frightened. She lashed out.

In that moment, his words were as water striders running along the surface, finding precarious purchase on the tension that holds back the tide.

The context was never really in doubt, was it? From the moment the post leaked out, I think we all understood Lorrie Steeves had been afraid. The fear is real; the fear is something we all know and learn in different ways.

Because I am a woman of this city, too, and I am afraid of many things. I'm scared of planes, I'm scared of large machines that growl and shudder, I'm scared of heights and elevators. I'm scared of the hazy shapes of unknown men emerging from the alley shadows. And, yes, if I a pass a man on a downtown corner, and if he asks for change and lunges forward, my breath catches in my chest and I clutch my bag a little closer. No panhandler has ever hurt me. Still, I am afraid.

The fear is real; we soak it in a thousand different ways. We learn it as soon as we are taught who is friend and who is stranger, as soon as we are old enough to mentally categorize the world by what is safe and what is danger. It's profitable, you know, to sell us back our fear. Like a news anchor, blithely teasing to stay tuned because "something in (your vicinity) could kill you." Something in our kitchens, our fridges, our playgrounds, our food.

Mostly, though, we learn to be afraid of each other. We learn how to demarcate who is one of us and who is Other.

It happens fast, this evaluation. Our brains carry a checklist of a lifetime of small lessons and run through it in milliseconds: clothing, body language, social cues to determine who is likely safe. Of all these things, one of the greatest and most pernicious is race. But we are loathe to reckon with what race really is, or how it works, or how it came about.

After Steeves' news conference on Tuesday, several news outlets (including this one) described it thusly: "Steeves says his wife is not a racist," a noun. But there are comparatively few self-identified bigots in the world. For the most part, racism is an action and a process, meted out by reaction and subconscious. It is enacted in a thousand ways, hardened by the stories we read and tell ourselves every day.

It takes root in the cracks between us, where misunderstanding grows; it bubbles up through media, inflicts itself anew in tacit twists of frame. It shows itself when an Associated Press headline called a group of grieving, thoroughly peaceful, and mostly black civilians in Missouri an "angry mob" and not a rally or a vigil. It shows itself when Los Angeles police volunteered "it is unknown if the suspect has any gang affiliations" after an officer killed an unarmed man, Ezell Ford, Monday.

Even if there is nothing worrisome to say, the fear is real, and so the connections are always thus made: Be afraid, be afraid, be afraid.

Even though "real" fear is not synonymous with "justified," no emotion is more easily weaponized. The fear of police in Beavercreek, Ohio, who killed a young black man named John Crawford for holding an airgun Walmart sold, that he'd just picked up off the shelf to toy with while he gabbed with his children's mother on the phone. "It's not real," is the last thing she heard him say before he was gunned down.

The fear of the shopper who called 911 on him in the first place, figuring "he is either going to rob the place or he's there to shoot somebody."

Then there are the other ways fear is made to hurt, the ones borne on legislative floors. The fear behind civic policies across North America that encouraged mostly white, mostly middle-class suburban flight, while the poorer hearts of cities were left to slowly die. The racialized fear behind America's marijuana prohibition (Google Harry Anslinger), the fear that informs popular support for all sorts of civic and justice priorities and initiatives.

Or, the fear of a man who would be mayor, proposing to sweep his fellow human beings out of downtown so people like him will be less afraid.

This is what I wish Gord Steeves had given time to, wish he had addressed: That fear can leave a more pernicious mark on city business than it does on a Facebook wall. That we can experience fear of one, without allowing it to smear all. That we can accept that fear is often informed by stereotype as much as fact. That we can understand that when we look at another, and see The Other, and feel afraid -- well, it hides the fact there is often someone more vulnerable fearing back.

Once we understand that, then we can talk about how to make this city safer for everyone, and for all. Otherwise, it's just all angry noise on a Facebook wall.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 16, 2014 D2

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