Jun. 21, 2011 - Issue #818: Brian Wilson
A better solution
Perpetrators might benefit from compassion instead
On Friday August 5, the Edmonton Police Service issued a news bulletin saying that police were looking for a 17-year-old girl. The bulletin, which was disseminated to most major news agencies, contained her name, a photo and also stated that the girl was HIV positive and charged with aggravated sexual assault for failing to disclose her HIV status to her sexual partners. While police have yet to prove that the 17-year-old girl (who has since been apprehended) is actually HIV positive, the incident feeds into social perceptions of HIV and those living with HIV as something or someone that should be feared.
On Wednesday August 10, a fire was set at the Edmonton Pride Centre. Fire investigators reported that the fire was intentionally set. EPS is currently attempting to determine whether the fire was motivated by hate, and whether the perpetrator should be charged accordingly with a hate crime.
The almost simultaneous occurrence of these two events highlights how complicated our relationships are with the police, the justice system and the media. HIV/AIDS carries social stigma and individuals with the illness have been vilified. They are seen as predators that need to be ostracized and punished. The Pride Centre fire shows that queers are at the same time perceived as victims and perpetrators, weak and strong.
Queer communities such as ours have long histories of being targeted and regulated by police and the law. Only 30 years ago, members of our community were harassed, humiliated and even arrested for visiting bathhouses, and other gay establishments. Our relationship with the police has since improved in many ways and in some cases we find ourselves on the other side of the law, seeking police protection against other citizens. However, we should keep a mindful and critical eye on how and why the police and the justice system are used in our communities because we were once on the other side of that line.
Both events have the potential to incite fear, anger and uncertainty within our community and society in general. In reaction to the Pride Centre fire, our first instinct may be to point fingers and seek retribution. But witch-hunts rarely work and revenge is not often satisfying or effective. Should it be found that the fire was intentionally set to intimidate, scare or debilitate our community, sending one guilty individual to jail for a longer period of time will not stop instances of crime against our community.
As a society, we must stop hunting and punishing the weak, be it a young vulnerable girl with an illness or an individual acting out of hate or fear. In both cases we need to ask whether the alleged perpetrators were disadvantaged (economically, socially, emotionally, mentally or physically), or were victims of violence, harassment or oppression themselves.
Our justice and prison systems operate on the assumption that an individual needs to be removed from society in order to be rehabilitated. But in both cases, the individuals in question may benefit from being better integrated and cared for in our society.
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