I hadn’t walked the desperate streets of Vancouver’s downtown east side for months, until yesterday. Nothing has changed there, besides the absence of many familiar faces. Like any battlefield, the death rate is always high along East Hastings street, and my friends there have always been in the ranks of the most vulnerable.
I first arrived in the neighborhood in the fall of 1985, just before I entered seminary and began working as Outreach Director at First United Church. Thirty years and countless lessons later, the war continues, summed up, perhaps, by the inscription on the nearby World War Two Cenotaph that asks an indifferent city,
“Is it Nothing to You?”
The rain was falling yesterday when I disembarked on Main street, and glanced fondly over at the corner where Bingo Dawson always sat during the years before three Vancouver city cops beat him to death in an alley a block away.
Bingo knew everyone, and in his calm manner used to adopt the younger and more vulnerable homeless kids into his extended street family, watching out for them and passing them whatever food he had. Some of them stood beside Bingo and the rest of us that spring morning in 2009 when we tried occupying St. James Anglican Church on Gore street, asking in our naivete for the killers to tell us where they’d buried so many little brown children.
Bingo and his buddy Frank had held our banner that day – “All the Children Need a Proper Burial” – and together, they had eluded the church security goon before he slammed the church door on us, slipping into the sanctuary and displaying the banner to a shocked pew crowd and angry bunch of priests. We heard all hell breaking loose inside the church, and we yelled to be let in and for our friends to be let out. And eventually Frank and Bingo did emerge from the church, two smiling coup-counters, laughing and holding up the banner to our cheers and applause.
The cops were there by then, in their lumbering and stupid manner, and they “warned” us not to try “disrupting” the church service ever again: to which Bingo had replied with an uncharacteristic severity,
“We’ll stop doing it when they give us our dead children back!”
The cops had no answer to that, and we marched away from them with that rare kind of joy and fulfillment known by those who have lost their fear, back to the Sweet Grass Centre for soup and bannock.
After the police had killed Bingo, having said to his face (and I heard it) “Shit disturbers like you end up going missing”, we held his memorial service outside that scene of his victory, on the steps of St. James Anglican, and we all spoke of the Bingo we had known, and what he had died for.
Frank was in tears that day, but he managed to tell us how Bingo had stood bravely against the priests who had tried grabbing our banner from them after they’d displayed it to the congregation, years before.
“You may be praying today, okay, but now hear my prayer!” Bingo had yelled to the church goers, as from the Great Spirit. “Give us back our children! And arrest those who killed them!”
And recalling that day, Frank had then turned to the cops who surrounded our funeral procession, and he cried out to them,
“How can you be part of this? You killed my brother Bingo! Even if you didn’t do it yourself, you know who killed him! And you stand here and treat us like we’re the criminals! You’ve got to do the right thing!”
I never saw Frank again, after the funeral. Nor have I come across any of the dozens of people who had once rallied and risked and eaten together when against every conceivable odd we forced Canada to face its own genocide.
Tears came to me yesterday, like the rain, when I stood on Bingo’s corner and touched the wall where, briefly, some anonymous fellow mourner had scrawled,
“Bingo: friend forever, in earth and heaven”
I touched the wall, now as wiped clean of those final words to Bingo as is Canada’s memory of its own crimes. And from somewhere, unasked, I heard Bingo’s voice in that heart of mine that doesn’t seem capable of breaking anymore. And he said to me,
“Kev, did I die for nothing?”
The dead, unlike the living, require only the truth, since neither Bingo nor the 50,000 children he died for care that much about our fears and rationalizations and vested interests. So in that truth, I had to answer him,
“Yes, brother. You died for nothing. Because all of the crime carries on, and on”
Bingo could have lived with that answer, for it is the truth: and being the truth, cuts through our lives and lies like the sword of God that the prophet Ezekiel says that once drawn, can never again be sheathed. And that same implacable sword has separated me, and perhaps you, from our old lives, as completely as it did Bingo, when it chose him to bear that special burden.
Bingo Dawson died for nothing, as this world measures things. Children are still traded like bottles all over Vancouver. No-one has ever gone to jail for the murder of an Indian residential school child, or for Bingo’s own murder, nor will they ever, in what we know as “Canada”.
And yet, those who are struck down in their innocence are always restless, and like the truth seek to break into all the sanctuaries of evil and bring them crashing down, the way Bingo did. But to make the promise real, first the lost, like the truth, must find a worthy soul to inhabit.