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Op-Ed: Hello City – We have a violence problem

[Ed Note: The following is a repost of an article written and shared by local musican and producer John Wesley Chisholm on Facebook. We would be very interested to hear your thoughts and feedback below.]
By John Wesley Chisholm
I’ve written before about the problem with violence downtown. Musicians, working and visiting downtown late, have a unique perspective. Tonight I had an experience that is typical of the deadly violence downtown.
11:30- I say goodnight to Jack and head down to the Carleton to see Adam Baldwin’s great house band, support the scene and meet some friends. A typical Saturday night. I’ve been going out like this in Halifax since Oct. 31, 1980.
And this story is typical too.
I’m writing it because our streets are soaked with blood and people are dying. We have to speak out and we have to cause change.
The bar is crowded so we’re at the back near the door, listening to the band. There’s a 20 something guy beside us. He’s drunk. Nice drunk. Nova Scotia drunk. Loves everyone. Has something funny to say to everyone. He’s there with a half dozen or so guys and girls. He’s slobbering drunk.
Now, there are only two possibilities here: the guy was admitted to the bar drunk or he was served until he was drunk. Either way, the bar, as well established in law, has some responsibilities for what happens to this kid next.
He stands beside another guy at the bar who accuses him of slobbering in his drink. I was standing right there. I didn’t see it happen. But the other guy maybe wasn’t having such a good night so he was irritated. He tells the bartender, then the bouncer.
Even though this is the nicest neighbourhood bar you can imagine, a listening room for music more than a bar, owned and run by the nicest, kindest folks you’ll ever meet, they have this bouncer. Imagine the caricature. He’s all musclebound. He’s got his head buzzed like Travis Bickle. Neck wider than head. Where everyone else is dressed smart casual, he’s wearing a beat up sweatshirt that’s covered with all sorts of branding about Brazilian Jiu jitsu – a combat sport as I understand it.
Combat. It is as advertised. The bouncer approaches the drunk kid combatively. Pushing. Shoving. Accusing. Escalating an awkward moment into a violent chain of events. Shoving the kid toward the door. The kid is slow to move. He’s drunk. Even just watching I was having a hard job hoisting it all in. It’s hard for me (as a non-drinker) to even imagine how the kid is trying to deal with the violence raining down on him out for nowhere. Just a moment ago he was everyone’s friend. The girls and guys, his friends, are now screaming. Wanting to know what is happening and why. Communication is ZERO. It’s all physical violence and aggression from this bouncer.
In the 5 metres to the door he shoves the kid at least five times as the kid meekly protests: he wants to speak to his friends, finish his drink, get his jacket…make some kind of plan.  Every word meets with violence. When they get outside onto the concrete steps of the bar the bouncer, cursing, gives him a big shove. The kid almost falls to the concrete, but gets his balance – somehow, the lucky grace of a drunken man – and turns around and gives the bouncer a punch on the lip. It’s nothing. But it’s obvious that’s just what the bouncer has been ‘pushing’ for. He starts pounding on the kid. Ten metres down the street from the bar he’s still shaking, punching and pushing the kid. Again the kid, drunk and defenseless, turns and tries in vain to defend himself. He stands wobbly.  The bouncer runs toward him and shoves as hard as he can. The kid falls backward and hits his head on a planter before crumbling to the street.
As an observer, this happens in slow motion for me. In my mind I see so many other Nova Scotian sons, drunk, as is our exuberant culture, who’ve died this way, even on this very street.
But the kid’s OK and struggles to his feet. A crowd has gathered. People, like me, trying not to get physically involved but calling on the bouncer to just leave the kid alone, go back inside his bar. Eventually, the bouncer retreats. Pressured by the crowd. And I go back inside too.
Then the inevitable. The kid, drunk, beaten senseless, alone, in the cold rain, comes back to the bar door. What else would we expect? He likely has a concussion. Who knows. At least he’s alive.
There’s no talking. The bouncer runs at him. Smashes him through the door and onto the street. Once he’s on top of the kid on the sidewalk he grabs him by the hair and beats his head over and over against the ground. Wedging him against a parked car. Practicing, what I can only surmise must be Brazilian jiu jitsu moves. Crushing the kid this way and that.
It’s only now, after the kid had called out in the door way that his friends, who’ve been gathering their coats and – unbelievably in my mind – paying their bills, come to his side. They come to his side in the rain. The bouncer is now on top of him twisting the kid’s face into the dirty ice at the gutter of the sidewalk. The kid just tries to cover his face with his hands. The last resort of human defence. He covers his eyes. One of his friends, a girl in her twenties, probably a university student, begs the bouncer to stop. “He’s not resisting” she rightly cries.  She get’s too close. He shoves her hard up against the parked car. Smashing her head into the side mirror.
At least half a dozen guys who’ve come along the street just in time to see this man assaulting the girl who’s crying, run toward the bouncer.  They see violence and they are ready to fight. To try and do what’s right. As I believe it is in our culture to do. To try. But more than just try. They’re not thinking in the normal sense. We’re bred of men who ran toward the bullets at Passchendaele, at Vimy Ridge, at Dieppe, on Juno beach.
The violence of the scene is now hard to describe. The bouncer gets one hard punch in on a bookish bearded man – who turns out to be the girl’s boyfriend just come to meet her. There are people of all kinds in the fight – skinny hipsters, at least a few girls in heels, a guy with long dreadlocks. A dozen kids who we’d mistake for our sons. I get in the middle and start yelling for separation, telling the bouncer as before, he should go back inside. Someone yells that they’ve called the cops.
Now, you’d think the cops would be near by. It’s midnight on Argyle St. We’ve talked about this as a community and the police have made some commitments for which we’re paying a lot of money.
It’s a mess. But the situation settles as people begin to talk. It’s good. Speaking from my experience, men rarely fight and talk. It’s one or the other. Then the bouncer, mute, single-mindedly returns to his to his self-alotted task – trodding on this drunk kid. In spite of all, I just want to help the bouncer by making sure he doesn’t get killed or kill this kid. He’s not helping himself – or anyone else. He’s sitting on the kid’s back with the his face in the cement. But at least the other folks are talking now.  Several people try to reason with him. “Just get off his back.” “The cops are on their way.”
The cops may be on their way but it’s another five minutes or more, and it’s everything I can do – not to talk to the bouncer, because he is just not in receiving mode – but to talk to the other people around to keep the situation from escalating back into a mêlée because the bouncer is confining this defenseless and beaten compliant kid.  It’s really hard to watch. But I’m of the mind that this is the best I can hope for until the police arrive. So I keep talking to the people.
The police arrive. A single constable in a patrol car. He starts to cuff the kid before any words are even spoken. It’s obvious he has some connection with the bouncer. He puts the kid in the police car and I talk to his friends assuring them, as their frustration escalates to shrill levels at the uncommunicative officer, that their friend is not being arrested, he will just sit in the car warm and dry until we’ve all had a chance to report what we’ve seen.
There are a dozen outraged people waiting to speak. But the police officer is ten minutes in the car with the kid. People move on. It’s Saturday night and it’s late.
By the time the police officer emerges from the car it’s just me and a couple of the kid’s friends standing in the rain. But the police officer goes and confers at length with the bouncer. We have to insist on speaking. The girl, crying and soaked says she’s been assaulted, which she was, and I state that I would bear independent witness to that. The constable has no interest.
I tell him I want to make a statement about the three assaults I saw. I introduce myself and ask him for his name. He gives his first name. I ask him for his card or identification. He says he has none. 
A second constable has come along by this time. I know her. She’s been to my house on a noise complaint. She knows exactly who I am. I ask her for her card, which she gives me.
She also starts to talk to me, turning around my statement about what I’ve seen, pressing the point that the bouncer has to defend himself, he’s in a dangerous situation, he’s allowed to use as much force as is necessary based on his personal perception of the situation. She knows nothing about what happened. She’s defensive. I remind her, I don’t drink.
I suggest to her she’s not listening to me; she’s arguing. She insists that I just have to understand – this is the way it is, she wishes it were different but this is it. I ask them if they will take my statement. They decline. I tell them both, again, that I am willing to be witness to the assaults. But they won’t take my name or number. I remind the constable that she knows where I live and how to get hold of me. I can see it’s going nowhere. I say goodnight. The other kids wait for their friend to be released from the police car. I caution them one last time to stay as calm as possible and physically separate from the police, the car, and the bouncer.
I head back into the bar. The bouncer stops me at the door and stands up close to me. “You’re barred” he says. Your friends caused too much trouble so you’re not allowed into the club. I remind him, because he doesn’t seem to be able to discern, that I am not friends with the now frantic kids. I’m just an observer. Helping him. And reporting what I saw. He’s having none of it. I ask on whose authority I am barred from the Carleton. He says, “The owners.”
Though I likely was the guy who helped him out of a disaster of his own doing, I looked in his eyes and could see he perceived me as the enemy and just like the kid, he would love any excuse to shove my head into the pavement too. 
So, soaked and cold, I left. Didn’t get to talk to my friends. Didn’t get to leave any money at Campbell’s bar ( I’ll pay for my pepsi another day), or listen to the Carletones rock out some Springsteen.
As many folks, especially musicians, have observed; that’s Saturday night in Halifax. The scene I describe will repeat in all variations tonight. It’s now 3am. It’ll go on for a couple more hours up at the cabarets.
I’m writing this because I was there. I’m not singling out this bouncer, bar or incident. Like the constable said, this is the way it’s done. This is the norm. It repeats over and over. Sometimes with tragic result. Sometimes just sad.
I’m assuming my ‘ban’ won’t last long. The owner of the bar is one of my favourite people and someone I’m proud to call a friend. And my band is booked to play at the Carleton three times in the next three months.
What I am hoping is that this conversation will last. I’m getting weary of this violence and the violence is getting worse. We have to get at the policies of HRP and HRM government that perpetuate the culture of violence in the downtown. The police and the bouncers (gosh I hate that term) should be ambassadors for the city. But they’re not. They’re recruited and trained to be uncommunicative, suspicious, pack mentality, bullies and enforcers. They’re given leaway for violence that would not be accepted in any other area of civil society. They beat our sons and daughters every night of the week without consequence. And they, the only people paid to set the tone on our community streets in a positive way, are to blame for the violence problem.
It has to stop.

About John Wesley Chisholm

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The views and opinions expressed in this content are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of haligonia.ca.

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