Fear factor Recent Red River trail attacks a jarring reminder that life is very different for women and girls
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/08/2021 (665 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Sometimes, usually around when summer afternoons make their lazy swing into evening, I like to go for walks by the river and listen to music. Some new stuff, some classics. Old Rolling Stones, fresh pop. Something with a groove and a chorus that crashes over my ears like waves over rocks.
It gets me out of my head, this little ritual. It puts me back in my body. And if you happen to pass by at just the right place and right time, when I think I’m alone under the elms with nobody watching, you might catch me as I slip my hips and bounce on my heels, seized by the bass and the beat and the joy of the moment.
That’s my little secret, then: pass by at the right time, and you might catch me dancing.
I should not wear headphones anymore. It’s not safe, the police said this week. They tell me to always walk with a partner. They tell me to stick to the lit paths and busy ones and tell someone where I am going. They remind me that the little freedoms that make life worth living are not always freely open to me.
Not to me, not to women. Not to anyone who, every so often, is given an official reminder to be afraid.
The attacks, police say, started in April. They don’t say exactly how many there have been, just that they are investigating “several.” The timing of the attacks varied: some when it was light out, some in the darkness of early morning. The victims are all women and range in age from 15 to their 30s.
There was one on June 12, when a woman was assaulted by an unknown man near Cockburn Street and Churchill Drive. Two more on Aug. 8, when a man on the river path behind Churchill High School sexually assaulted a teenager, and later that day when another woman was grabbed while jogging.
All of the attacks, police say, occurred along or near the Red River trail system. The assailant or, maybe, there are more than one, attacked from behind and carried a weapon. Police say they cannot definitively link all the incidents together, but history suggests strings like this are often the work of a spree attacker.
History suggests other possibilities too, for how such an attacker might escalate. Ones we don’t want to think about or too early mention. We don’t want to spread fear or, worse, “hysteria,” the latter word drawing its root from the Greek for “uterus” and once considered a sickness of emotion that only happened to women.
We are not wrong to be afraid of this. We are not wrong to read what the police said this week and shudder, and start wondering how we can better protect ourselves and one another. We are not wrong to take off our headphones, to start looking more furtively towards the shadows, to stop walking our usual paths.
They say fear is a gift, though I wish it was one not so often given, especially to those with the least power to control their environment, and especially to women. We teach girls this fear as a matter of practicality, and of caution: why not to wear heels at night, how to hold your keys jutting out between your knuckles.
In this way, all gendered violence is a crime against millions: first and most destructively against the victim, but then also against all women. Akin in its effects to terrorism, whether the intention to frighten is there or not. The fear itself becomes an infringement of our right to live freely in our world. The fear itself is a violation.
And it’s true, that the way we process fear does not always reflect risk. If someone is going to hurt you, it’s far more likely to be a person you know, even love, than one who lunges out from the bushes. But fear is attuned to the shadows, the uncertain, the unfamiliar; it is attuned to the things we cannot control.
They say fear is a gift, though I wish it was one not so often given, especially to those with the least power to control their environment, and especially to women.
Fear of flying is more common than fear of driving, or being driven; the latter is far more likely to kill you. Fear of heights, when felt from the security of looking out the window of a tall building, makes no logical sense. But many of us live with these fears nonetheless, because instinct cares less about logic than keeping us alive.
And when you are shown, over and over again, that people like you are sometimes hunted, it is not wrong for the deepest part of your brain to consider itself prey. No matter how low the individual risk, or the precautions you choose to take (but should not have to). There is a grief in that tension; it is the death of a boundless life.
Once, years ago, I was walking down Osborne Street in the darkness, when I heard footsteps approaching at my back. I furtively looked over my shoulder and saw a man, face shrouded in shadow. I drew my breath and walked faster. My eyes darted, looking for cars or people; there were none. The footsteps grew closer.
By now I was rushing forward, heart racing, muscles tensed. I began to regret not taking a cab home. I began to regret wearing heels and not charging my phone. In a handful of seconds, I had time to bitterly regret these things I’d failed to do, that I’d always been taught as the rules, the limits I had to place on myself.
Suddenly, the footsteps stopped. I glanced behind to see the man standing still, hands in his pockets.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he called out, in a voice that was gentle and sad. “Have a good night.”
Then he stood there, whistling so that I could hear where he was, until I scurried over the bridge and into the lights of Osborne Village, lost the sound of him, and was gone.
We deserve better than to be afraid. That should go without saying.
I told this story on an online forum once. A man angrily replied to me: “So you expect men to change their lives for you?” he snapped. He misunderstood; I do not expect anything. I tell the story because I am, even all these years later, deeply grateful that an unknown man cared enough about me to see my fear and respect it.
But most of all, I tell it because it is profoundly sad that, in an otherwise unremarkable moment, two strangers’ lives intersected in ways that laid bare how profoundly different their experience of the environment was and how deeply it divided them: one just walking home, the other terrified that he would kill her.
We deserve better than to be afraid. That should go without saying. We deserve a world where we can savour the mystery of shadows and the quiet of river paths. We deserve a world we can move through without fear and crank the music in our headphones and, if nobody is looking, slide our bodies into dance.
Maybe someday we’ll get it. But, as this week made clear: not now, not yet.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.