Today Gottingen street is awash in rainbow flags and teary eyed residents. Two days ago Raymond Taavel, a well known activist who was particularly involved in the gay community was brutally murdered.
I won’t rehash details of the crime as there is plenty of information available online but I do want to try to add some thoughts to what this means for my neighbourhood specifically and the city more generally. Taavel’s murder hit me hard even though I had only met Raymond a few times over the years and likely would never have been able to pick him out of a line up. I’ve cried a dozen times – in part because I am emotional wreck in general these days, but also because this happened almost on my door step. 100 metres from my house is where he died and his killer was found in an alleyway directly across the street from me.
These are more questions than statements, but its important in times like these to think about what these events mean, even if those thoughts are fractured and incomplete.
1) Was it a hate crime and does it matter?
When the story first broke that Taavel was the victim of a brutal assault outside of a gay bar and that homophobic slurs were heard during the attack the automatic and reasonable assumption was that this was a hate crime. Now it has come to light that the assailant was a severely violent, psychotic patient from a mental health hospital who had not returned from an hour long pass and the once simple narrative is now very complicated.
But here’s the thing that straight folks like me need to keep in mind: Whether or not the real intent behind the murder had anything to do with sexuality the fear that members of Halifax’s queer community felt is real. I think it’s deeply important to remember that any time a member of the queer community is attacked there is a very real chance that they were targeted purely because of their sexuality. For heterosexuals there is an almost nonexistent chance that we will ever be assaulted because of sexuality. Who we love does not put us in danger, and that is a luxury not afforded to our gay brothers and lesbian sisters.
So whether or not this specific instance was one of gay bashing, the fear that the possibility of it being a homophobic assault is imbued with its own power. And this is how homophobia (and racism and sexism and class oppression and much more) actually work and gain their power: It’s not through a specific instance of violence that it gains its power, but rather through the omnipresent possibility of violence which hangs over every night out and every trip to the corner store for queer people.
The initial assumption that Taavel’s murder was a hate crime is a reflection of this reality of possible, always deferred but always present violence and to dismiss it as an overreaction is to apologize for the thousands of acts of homophobic violence that have occurred in this city over the years. The fear that this act of violence instilled in the community is the intended consequence of all of those acts of violence.
It’s also worth remembering that the fact that Taavel’s murder may have been psychotic at the time does not remove some serious political questions from the equation. It’s still possible that the person Taavel stepped in to save was being targeted due to his or her perceived sexuality (a real possibility given the fact that they were standing outside a gay bar and were surely not the first person the assailant had encountered that night), but we also need to reflect on the role that the forced obscurity of queer social life played in this event: Menz bar is not downtown – had it been on Argyle street there likely would have been cops around it during closing time and there’s a chance the assault never would have happened. Likewise, had the Salvation Army’s homophobia and the bizarre entitlement of condo owners not won out Reflections may have been a couple blocks away putting dozens more people on the street and making it less possible for violent acts to happen under the cover of darkness.
2) Is Gottingen Safe?
This is a start reminder that we still live in a dangerous neighbourhood. It’s dangerous because of poverty and drug use, yes. But it’s also dangerous for geographic reasons: long stretches of poorly lit, uninhabited lots (a problem which will only be made worse by the gentrification-led building boom). I always say that I feel less safe in Halifax at night than I did when I lived in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn because of the lack of eyes on the street here. But beyond geography and questions of lighting and built environment, there are larger questions: Why was the attacker drawn to Gottingen in the first place? Was he looking for drugs (he has a history of use of “street drugs”) was he heading to the police station? To the Salvation Army shelter? Turning Point shelter down the hill? Our bohemian dreams of a safe gentrified central North End need to be shaken up by this. What role did jamming together middle class dwellings and extreme poverty play in this tragedy?
3) What is “Our Community?”
I am not a member of the queer community so someone more appropriate can tackle that, but I am certainly a member of the Gottingen community. I, and so many others, have praised the speed with which we put up rainbow flags and the hugs strangers gave to each other on the street, but we also need to face a hard fact about last night’s vigil: almost no members of the indigenous black community which makes up a larger part of our neighbourhood was there. I think that’s a reflection of the divide between people like me – well meaning, middle class non-black folks who go see indie rock bands and foreign films and go to the farmer’s market and our neighbours who see us as invaders at worst and aloof outsiders at best. The public library is a dividing point between two Gottingen streets and when we speak of “Our Community” or “Our Neighbourhood” we need to recognize the spatial, economic, racial and political meanings that infuse that language. We also need to ask ourselves: next time a kid from the square ends up dead will 1,000 of us be out there with candles singing hymns?
4) The complexity of this murder reflects the complexity of the structures of violence
We know that Andre Noel Denny, the murderer of Raymond Taavel, has a history of violent and severe mental illness. We know he has a history of violence against people and animals. We know he has a history of substance abuse problems. We suspect he might be a homophobe. We know that the mental health system clearly failed to offer him the supports and supervision needed to prevent him from re-offending. We know he’s spent time in corrections facilities and mental health institutions. Based on the places he’s listed as living, his last name and his appearance I am willing to guess he is aboriginal.
So ultimately what we know is that we have a victim who may be dead because he was queer, and we have a perpetrator who may be a violent 32 year old because we have prison and mental health systems which overwhelmingly fail to rehabilitate. This all happened in front of a backdrop of gentrification, institutional failure, systemic racism, omnipresent cultural homophobia and economic injustice. It happened in a neighborhood with conflicting identities and split communities.
Ultimately Raymond Taavel’s death is a brutal one and the singularity of his life and his passing shouldn’t be abstracted away, but his death is also like so many other acts of violence and tells a wider story about this neighbourhood, this province and the world we live in.
So I don’t know what Taavel’s death really means, but I know that searching for meanings, and not in some sort of spiritual sense per-se, in it can help us reduce the chances of more people breathing their last breathes on the sidewalks of our neighbourhoods.