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Rights + Justice

Fear and Murder in Vancouver

Why do some people freak out, and others treat crime like a TV show?

Vanessa Richmond 25 Feb 2009TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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Who's afraid of these bad actors?

"There is always fear and anxiety," when it comes to crime, says Dr. Mary Lynn Young, associate professor and director of the UBC School of Journalism, who specializes in the study of crime reporting.

Certainly, that's the way the media is playing it. And you hear the same thing in comment forums and on the street.

In the comment section after a CBC story about the most recent shooting at Fraser Street and 12th Avenue in East Vancouver, there are many moderate and rational comments, but also many that express fear. And that fear seems to spawn some fairly radical ideas about how best to solve the problem. A few commenters suggest Vancouverites fire all of the judges, others want to create a kind of police state, and still others want to resort to vigilante justice, which would bring a return to the supposed law and order of Deadwood times, I guess. Life in the Wild West has always sounded so safe, especially for women.

One 60-something man I spoke to this week, who had driven in from the suburbs to see a classical music performance downtown, said he and his wife took a longer, detoured route from their car to the theatre, to avoid passing a nightclub that was the scene of a shooting.

And one man, whose family lives two blocks from the most recent shooting, told me his wife feels fearful for the first time: the violence is suddenly too close for comfort.

Guns fire. Bodies fall. Innocents panic. Sounds like many hip-hop lyrics, and Hollywood scripts.

What, me worry?

But I talked to two other families, of similar proximity to that same shooting, who said the event hasn't affected their sense of safety, nor have their day-to-day lives changed at all. They talked about the murders quite breezily.

Several friends who were close enough to the crime scenes to be woken by gunshots, in East Vancouver and Kitsilano, each summarized the evening's events as if relating an episode of CSI or The Wire -- even referring to those shows or others.

In fact, that kind of treatment is typical for the 20- to 40-year-old urban, mostly middle-class men and women I've talked to in coffee shops, bars, grocery stores and private conversation. Some people are animated and even excited as they talk about the events. The typical discussion contains a version of the phrase, "Can you believe it?" delivered with a smile, headshake, gasp, or even laugh.

Have these people been brainwashed by American cops-and-robber shows into thinking violence is normal? Or, as several commenters have suggested directly and indirectly in online forums, are these examples of people who aren't involved enough in the solutions? Typical apathetic Canadians, whose apathy is partly to blame for the continued violence?

Crime as mediated experience

"It doesn't surprise me that some people aren't afraid," said Mary Lynn Young.

Nor does it surprise her that many people tell the story using the language of TV and movies. "Most people's experience of crime is through the media: non-fiction media, journalism, and fiction media."

That doesn't mean they aren't taking it seriously, or lack an understanding that the events are real.

She says, if anything, fear often gets magnified by the way the media frames and discusses a story, in a way that amplifies the reaction that actually exists in the community.

In other words, fear and panic are the expected public reaction, and the reaction that often gets reported in the media, but not necessarily the actual public reaction.

The recent series of shootings "involve people who may already be entwined in other criminal activity," so there's not much panic.

"The violence tends to be isolated to people who are not 'strangers' in the traditional sense. Stranger violence tends to cause the most panic, just like when you hear about someone healthy who never smokes who gets lung cancer, because it is so unusual and apparently 'random,'" she explains.

So if there was a sniper, targeting strangers, people's reaction would be very different.

Crime on Mars

People involved in these crimes "are people who might as well live on Mars," says Dr. Tony Doob, a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, who often researches the public perception of crime.

"When people are able to distance themselves socially, they aren't afraid."

He said that even though there's more than one shooting per week in Metro Toronto, two stand out in the popular imagination as "famous," because of the social aspect.

The most famous was 20 years ago, and took place in a well-known dessert restaurant in an affluent neighbourhood. The young woman who was shot was clearly uninvolved. "That made everyone flip out. Everyone knew where the restaurant was; they knew someone who went there regularly. It was close to them."

The other one was in December 2005, when a young woman was caught in the cross-fire between two shooters, while shopping on Yonge Street on Boxing Day. "She was doing what everyone does."

Both were white, attractive women.

"But if you look at each murder committed every year, you'll find comparable shootings of non-white people," and those don't get as much attention.

"Also, about a third of homicides are domestic, that is to say, usually killings of women by men, but those don't upset most people because even most women think, 'That wouldn't happen to me.'"

So, it seems that "widespread fear" happens when the middle class sees itself reflected in the face or activities of the victim, and thinks, "That could have been me."

Stats make us panic, too

He said people also tend to react when the number of crimes seems unusual, whether it actually is or not. Last year, according to the census, there were 55 murders in the Vancouver metropolitan area, which means Vancouver's murder rate is 2.41 per 100,000, "a little higher" than the national average of 1.8, but not as high as Calgary, Edmonton or Winnipeg, and therefore fourth out of nine metropolitan areas. Due to our population, Vancouverites hear about approximately one murder per week.

Due to a lower population, people in the suburbs don't tend to hear about as many murders happening there, even if the rate is the same, which makes it seem unusual, and more likely they will react.

"There's also a perception that this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen there; it's supposed to happen in the Eastside. People would see this as a disease that's spreading to Surrey and Langley," Doob said.

In a small town of 10,000, even when the rate is the same, the actual number of murders is low, maybe one every several years, which makes it seem rare.

"You're also getting a bunching," which is actually normal. "Things don't happen in an even way. It's not like going to a bakery and waiting your turn. Unusual things happen in bunches, sometimes they're related and sometimes they aren't, but when they happen, people tend to think 'Oh, this is really dangerous,' then six months later, everyone forgets about it."

"If you rationally ask, 'Does my life intersect with these events?' the answer that most people are going to give is, 'No, it doesn't.'" So they won't be afraid.

"The ones where people find it intersects," or are unexpected, whether rightly or wrongly, "are the ones where people do get upset."

"Some people get more upset when it's in geographical proximity. The murder at the dessert restaurant was actually two blocks from my house. People said, 'Aren't you afraid?' Well, no. It's statistically rare, and I don't eat $10 pieces of cake."

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