In the book, Dying from Improvement, Sherene Razack looks into indigenous people’s deaths in police custody. Aboriginal deaths in police custody have been on the rise, and it has always been attributed to individual errors or lack of judgment. Razack then tries to prove otherwise by looking at inquest and inquiries made of indigenous deaths in police custody. In chapter one, “The Body as Placeless: Memorializing Colonial Power,” Razack looks into inquiry made on Frank Paul. Paul was Mi’kmaq man, living in the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
In addition to being homeless, his alcoholism meant he was a regular to Vancouver Police Department, BC Ambulance services (121 calls), hospital personals (Vancouver General Hospital 93 times, and St. Paul’s Hospital 63 times), and detox center (82 times) (Razack, 2015, p. 39-40). On the day of his death, he has already been booked and released for public intoxication. Later in the day, he was arrested for a second time by Constable David Instant for public intoxication. Soon after bringing him to police custody, his supervisor, Sergeant Russel Sanderson decided not to keep him locked up.
Recognizing Paul, Sergeant Sanderson instructed Constable Instant to drop Paul off in an alleyway leading to the detox center. Few hours after being dropped off, Paul was found dead. Post-mortem, investigators ruled out foul play, and death was caused by hypothermia and alcohol intoxication. Since internal investigation found no wrongdoings, Constable Instant and Sergeant Russel, both got a one to two-day suspension without pay. Sticking with the theme of indigenous death in police custody, Vancouver Police Department blamed the lack of judgment.
Nine years after the incident, a public inquiry was made into the death of Paul. Led by Honourable Williams Davies, the investigation ruled no wrongdoing. Razack then asks the readers to think about Paul’s case not as the instance of homelessness and mental health, but as instances of past and ongoing colonialism. In the first chapter then, Razack tries to “contest the colonial common sense of the inquiry that Frank Paul was simply vulnerable and to argue that he must be understood and remembered as an Indigenous man whose body bore the imprint of an ongoing colonialism” (p. 3).
Razack then organized her arguments into five parts; Redemption, Memorializing, Cleansing, Abandonment, Death-Worlds. By using these five sections, I will then try to analyze and make sense of Razack central arguments. Part one, “Redemption,” we see how Commissioner Davies converts Frank Paul’s case from “violated and dispossessed” to “intrinsically vulnerable” (p. 33). For Constable Instant and Sergeant Russel, it was Paul’s vulnerability has helped them clear any criminal wrongdoings. As discussed earlier Paul was known to suffer from alcoholism.
In addition to his substance abuse, Paul had “2,024 pages of medical records documenting his many encounters at Vancouver General Hospital, and most these emergency owing to seizures, head traumas, alcohol dementia, broken bones, and various symptoms classified as “mental illness”” (p. 39). Davies also recognizes colonialism as the cause of his vulnerability. Indian residential schools, provincial welfare systems, forced dislocation, unemployment, loss of culture, and unable to cope and assimilate outside of reserves, are some of the situation that puts indigenous individuals at higher risk of substance abuse and mental illnesses (p. 6-37).
Although Davies accurately recognize the colonial past and its effect on the indigenous population, he fails to recognize the ongoing challenges of colonialism faced by the Indigenous community. Moreover, by attributing vulnerability as the only cause of the indigenous problem, it “restricts the extent to which anyone can be culpable; it is condition connected to colonialism but not the colonizers” (p. 34).
This phenomenon is what Razack refers to as ‘colonial common sense. Davies thus fails to include the colonizer, and therefore ignore colonizer role in propagating racism and keeping indigenous pollution vulnerable. For example, first responders see Paul and others indigenous population as “nuisances” (p. 35). Vancouver police department for instances resorted to violence, to clear them off the streets. Moreover, although aboriginals are overrepresented in Downtown Eastside, aboriginal institution are largely underfunded, and therefore these indigenous members do not get the help needed to fight homelessness and alcoholism.
Secondly, “Memorializing,” Razack shows how ongoing colonialism imprints Paul’s body (p. 33). From interviewing various professionals, Razack shows how Paul’s “abject body” is used by settlers to define themselves as respectable (p. 38). During Paul’s encounter with Constable Instant, video surveillance shows that he was dragged back and forth from the police station. Conroy, a volunteer bus driver, believes Paul was acclimated to living outside, and that is his reason for his homelessness. BC Ambulance workers who regularly responds to Paul’s call testified that they often had to induce pain to get a response.
Finally, Kevin Low, a correctional officer believed that Paul was intentionally getting arrested because other officers fed him. As we saw from this examples, “bodies on the street are prodded, poked, and dragged”, and through these rituals “they were doing the calculated world of branding, marking the line between modernity and pre-modernity, between subject and object, and staking the claim of white settlers to the land” (p. 39). In part three, “Cleansing,” we see how Paul’s body is rendered as a public nuisance, and therefore, evicted countless times.
Paul’s eviction then follows the same colonial past, were dispossession is used for order-building (p. 32). In areas like Vancouver’s downtown eastside, it is “spatially and racially organized” to assist people like Paul into modernity (p. 32). Bum-proof benches, overcrowded homeless shelters, underfunded soup kitchens, and removal of toilets are some examples of city’s spatial configuration that force homeless individuals to leave the city. Paul’s countless eviction from public places meant that the city belonged to settlers, and therefore, he must be excluded from it (p. 44).
During the inquiry, police claimed to have repeatedly arrested Paul due to the urine-soaked body, but as the history of colonialism has taught us, it is to segregate and oppress indigenous bodies. In the name of public safety, through violence, Paul, and other homeless indigenous individuals are constantly displaced. As Razack argues throughout the book, this example shows how colonialism ongoing, and how it keeps the indigenous community vulnerable. Part four, “Abandonment,” readers get to know why a Paul was left to die in the cold. As I have shown through this essay, professionals that came in contact with Paul reduced him to an object.
This objectification meant they saw “the indigenous body as bestial and as human waste, and the white body as the maker of order, the modern subject of settlers’ city” (p. 31). This meant these individuals did not see Paul as worthy of respect or dignity. Moreover, it was for this reason why Paul was “treated like garbage” that needed to be thrown out at night (p. 52). The inquiry made by Commissioner Davies concluded that it happened due to “callous indifference,” however, this logic repeats Razack argument of colonial commonsense. Davies remarks largely ignore the racial framework that reduces aboriginals to an object.
Death-Worlds,” refers to “forms of social existence in which vast population is subjected to condition of life that confer upon them the status of living dead” (p. 52). As we have seen from the above examples, we see how indigenous population is treated without dignity or respect. The spatial configuration of Downtown Eastside where water, food, shelter is restricted to homeless population shows how “invisible killing” is performed (p. 53). The invisible killing of a certain section of the population, through forced restriction of resources (shelter, food, bump proof benches, etc. , are left to die to scatter (53).
This phenomenon then reaffirms Razack argument that colonialism is ongoing, and by overlooking it in inquiries; it shows how the colonial common sense is produced. Razack arguments then are similar to that of many themes seen throughout the course. One such similarity is to Feldman article on “On Cultural Anesthesia: From Desert Storm to Rodney King. ” Cultural anesthesia refers to process in which “Other’s pain inadmissible to public discourse and culture” (Feldman, 1994, p. 207). Like Rodney King case inquiries often frame indigenous death as incidental or accidental.
Due to their vulnerability (higher risk of substance abuse, poverty, homelessness, etc. ), violence and death are normalized. These narratives then help create cultural anesthesia needed to mask their violence and help us avoid looking at the root cause of all these issues. In conclusion, Frank Paul’s case is similar to that of thousands of other indigenous men and women. In 2014, RCMP reported more than 1000 cases of missing or murdered aboriginal women. Razack book then is the right step towards solving this injustice.