It was muggy and warm Friday evening (May 29) at the corner of Granville and Georgia, even at 8 p.m. When I boarded a #16 (bus 2133) northbound on Granville, it was even warmer inside.
I heard two people who got on behind me—including a young guy who waved me ahead of him and an older man, possibly in his 80s—ask the driver for free rides. As is usual with most Vancouver bus drivers, he just ignored them or gestured them past him; I didn't hear him respond to their request.
They boarded and sat down, the young guy in the back and the old guy directly behind the driver, where he pulled a section of newspaper out of a stained and shabby T-shirt and proceeded to look at it, holding it at arm's length from his eyes, as if he had trouble reading.
Elderly binners with bags of bottles common sight
Another old gent—slight of build and who could have been anywhere from 65 to 85 years old, with a long white beard and clothing that had seen better days—already sat near the front in the first single seat with a very large black plastic bag of bottles and cans. Binners like him commonly ride the buses, often cadging free rides, and they are a common sight on that bus as well as the #7 and #14.
But because the United We Can bottle depot on West Hastings Street in the DTES shut down not too long ago, there aren't as many of those guys riding as there used to be. The location of the new depot, though, on Industrial Avenue near Main and Terminal, means they are still around, just that some of them come from other directions now.
Armed transit police spring an ambush
One stop farther north, the doors opened and startlingly loud voices brought me up from my book with a start. They proclaimed from the front and side doors: "Okay, ladies and gentleman, please have your fares ready for inspection. This is a fare check." At least four transit cops were outside the bus; one got on in the front and two, I believe, came in the side. At least one stayed outside. They were mostly big, with body armour and guns. The smallest of them was squat in comparison but stocky and powerful looking.
The overall impression was that of an ambush. Which it literally was—an armed ambush.
Right away, the two free riders who had boarded with me tried to exit by the side doors but were asked to produce tickets or passes and shunted aside for further questioning outside. The young guy was out of my sight. The old man with the paper told one cop either that he didn't pay or didn't have a ticket (I only heard, "I don't..."). By way of explanation, he yanked his shirt out of threadbare pants, stretched his arms up, and pointed down to what looked like a chest bandage of some sort. Perhaps he had just been discharged from St. Paul's without money or tickets, not an uncommon situation.
Bottle collector singled out
Then the fellow with the bottles made his move out the side door, but he, too, was pulled aside on the sidewalk and questioned. He was obviously displeased, and he went through what appeared to be practised motions of looking through his various pockets while the cop glared at him.
It seemed that they weren't going to let these guys go with a warning; at least one of them had his ticket book out. I could not believe my eyes: what sense did it make that they were harassing possibly homeless people with not enough money, ever, to be able to even think of paying a $173 ticket, and maybe without a fixed address or even ID to show? What use is TransLink's ICBC enforcement ally and its refusal to renew car insurance in cases of oustanding tickets when cops are charging people like this? Both of them could have been through this particular charade dozens of times. And what does it cost TransLink? (Any bus driver can tell you that if the cops would concentrate their fare-evasion work closer to rush hours—Really, 8 p.m. on Vomitorium Row on a Friday night? Who were they expecting to catch?—they would get the young men and women with $300 shoes, iPods, and smartphones who "forgot their pass" that day. I see it while commuting every day.)
Then it all went sideways
Suddenly voices were raised and I turned just in time to see the bearded senior grabbing his bag of cans while the cop did the same, both of them grappling with the yielding plastic surface, with the cop seeming to get hold of the bottom and yankling upwards, upending its contents with a huge crash on the sidewalk. At least one glass bottle shattered.
Immediately, that officer and one other, then another, flew at whitebeard, pushing him back and flinging him to the cement in the bus shelter behind, pinning his arms behind his back while his mouth was open in a silent scream. A few passengers yelled, expressing their displeasure at the scene. Shocked, I couldn't tell if the old man had been injured, perhaps forced onto broken glass or even suffering a broken bone (he looked that fragile). The short cop, holding him from behind. looked up and seemed to realize what a large audience he had. He started to pat the old guys left shoulder reassuringly, as if to say, "There, there; calm down old guy." It was difficult to tell if it was a guilty reflex, with all those eyes on him, or genuine concern.
Just then the bus pulled away. One woman passenger, about 50, shook her head in disgust, saying: "Well, that's a nice welcome back to Vancouver." A middle-aged couple, also seeming disturbed by what they had just witnessed, told me the elderly bottle collector had grabbed for his bag because the cop had put his hands on it. Considering he had probably walked all over Kits Beach or Jericho that day to scavenge so many containers, it was understandable that he would reflexively grab for it.
A shameful scenario
Whether the cop had, cruelly, dumped the bag's contents purposely or not, the entire scenario had been a shameful one. Burly armed cops, clad in body armour, loudly stormed a bus like dime-novel navy SEALS, targeted two elderly, probably poverty-stricken and maybe homeless people for the grave offence of not having enough money to pay for public transit, and proceeded to put them through a public shaming, a sidewalk trial, that ended with them dumping a day's work for one of the seniors all over the ground. On top of that, this rail-thin, elderly man was physically tackled by them—an out-and-out case of assault, to my mind—and possibly injured.
A good night's work, boys. A couple of real desperadoes taken out.
No wonder they carry guns and body armour. If they hadn't, and if a bunch of passengers on that bus felt as outraged as I had, the bullies might very well have had an insurrection on their hands and suffered their own comeuppance.
Charges should be laid
I hope the old guy, if he suffered any injuries—or even if he didn't—takes the proper steps to attempt to have assault charges laid against at least one of those cops. But the transit police know that most such people have neither the wherewithal nor the motivation (what's the use?) to follow up on such incidents. Maybe Pivot Legal can make some enquiries around the Downtown Eastside.
But if I was a lawyer with Pivot, I wouldn't expect any relief from Coast Mountain's much-vaunted multiple security cameras installed on new buses in recent years. The two times I reported on serious transit incidents in this column, the company got back to me weeks later to advise me that a "glitch" had prevented them from retrieving either sound or video recordings. Cases closed.
Our cops versus U.S. cops? Don't feel smug
The several recent instances of police violence against unarmed blacks in the U.S. have disgusted millions of people and probably had some observers in Canada feeling smug about our lack of such seemingly systemic injustice.
But how long before the absolutely ridiculous situation of having armed transit police here results in someone getting shot, and possibly killed? What if the old guy had picked up a bottle, not realizing it was broken, and a trigger-happy cop saw a deadly weapon being raised against him in close quarters?
Do our poor and homeless occupy the same niche as America's black citizens?