10 September 2009

Michael Bryant and Darcy Sheppard: divided by class

revised, and references updated, May 2012

The tragic death of Darcy Sheppard, involved in a violent incident with ex-
attorney general Michael Bryant, isn't a morality play, though I think I understand how Margaret Wente might want to see it portrayed as such. It is very class-based logic to see the event as a "cautionary tale for public figures," as though the tragedy could somehow have been avoided, and worse yet, what the consequences can be for important or wealthy people getting mixed up with those other kind of people in society.

To begin with, Michael Bryant didn't just change into a "clean suit," after the accident, before he went to the police station (see Morality play, 2009). He changed out of the t-shirt he had been wearing into the shirt and tie with suit, before being taken to the police station. This is a minor issue, but an example of the ways Wente distorts language and its significance for the public. Bryant may have wanted to change into clean clothes, but the suit was for impression management, not for spending a comfortable night in jail.

Even Jackie Kennedy didn’t change out of her bloodstained suit before getting into the airplane with her husband’s body – John F Kennedy, following his assassination on November 22, 1963, nor on board the plane (Jackie Kennedy’s Pink Suit, 2011.) It’s a matter of priorities, and one has to wonder what Bryant’s really were. Fight or flight. Keep it close; remember; or push it away. Naturally, Jackie wasn’t completely immune to the fight or flight syndrome. Her immediate reaction on having her husband shot while seated beside her in the car was to clamber over the back seat of the convertible, a momentary lapse in good judgement.

When Darcy Sheppard talked back to the driver of the car that had bumped into his bike, it wasn’t to someone wearing a suit, thus more likely to be viewed as someone middle class. Bryant was wearing a t-shirt like any other ordinary person on the street at the time of the accident. So who should take care to avoid the other. Should it be the affluent middle class couple who should be more wary of getting into difficulty and getting blamed for it, or would it be more realistic to advise the person lacking the resources to fight injustice to be more careful to avoid people who show signs of having wealth and prestige. And did Darcy Sheppard realize the danger he was in?

On Sept 1, 2009, Bryant was charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death. Witnesses, including Raajiv Rajadurai and Ryan Brazeau provided details of the street interaction between Bryant and Sheppard (Bryant charged, Sept, 2009; Death on Bloor, Dec, 2009).

The charges were withdrawn with no preliminary hearing taking place, a decision that was explained by special prosecutor Richard Peck, who stated in court, “The evidence establishes that Mr. Sheppard was the aggressor in the altercation with Mr. Bryant. He was agitated and angry, without any provocation from Mr. Bryant and his wife,” (Former Ontario AG, May, 2010).

Bryant himself is quoted as saying, “It is not a morality play about bikes versus cars, couriers versus drivers, or one about class, privilege or politics. It’s just about how in 28 seconds, everything can change” (Former Ontario AG, May, 2010). But if we remove the words “a morality play” from this sentence – Bryant’s claim – it really is about bikes versus cars, and about class, privilege and politics.

Set aside the morality problem for now. Think about what happened, and the consequences. Bryant may have been surprised – no, astounded, to see how quickly a person’s life can change, can go from a normal day out to violence, death, accusations, and practically every aspect of their life being changed forever. He says that. He has now experienced adversity, that emotionless term that is applied to such situations.

From the outside, looking at someone who is angry might appear the same as looking at someone who is experiencing fear. Without Bryant’s explanation, the behaviour could be interpreted as anger against the cyclist who got in his way, and not terror at being accosted by him and not being able to get him off his car (see Former Ontario AG Michael Bryant, May, 2009).

In an article just a few months prior to the incident, Bryant talks about his love of boxing, and his skill in the ring (Contender, Jan, 2009, as noted by a commenter on ‘Cyclist may have grabbed,’ 2009). Is this the same man who was terrified of the cyclist, Darcy Sheppard? Was it Sheppard that Bryant feared or the situation, knowing that being involved in an altercation with a cyclist wouldn’t be good for his reputation – or his career? Are we permitted to use emotions such as fear – or love - as reasons for behaviour that we wouldn’t ordinarily engage in? When you see your life disappearing right in front of your eyes, it can be traumatic. Realizing in one split second that all he things you dreamed about and hoped for are at risk, and may never come about, can have a dramatic effect on a person’s ability to respond appropriately to the situation.

On the effects of the incident to Michael Bryant and his career, a friend is reported as saying,

“An acquittal will remove the possibility of jail, but not the stain of his stupidity. He’ll forever be known, fairly or not, as the guy whose political career ended one fateful August night on Bloor St.” (Is Michael Bryant’s life, 2009).

First, the assumption that Bryant might be acquitted is irrelevant, speaking in hindsight. Secondly, I question whether this can be put down to stupidity, which implies rationality - rational decision-making, though poorly thought out in the moment. This is more about the emotions – a gut response in the midst of the initial altercation. And finally, it’s not written in stone that he will not be allowed to make a political comeback. See this comparison with a similar incident involving another Toronto bike messenger, Thomas McBride, in 1999 (Michael Bryant: Toronto’s Carnell Fitzpatrick, 2009).

PR expert Jonathan Bernstein knows the importance of charisma in making a comeback – as demonstrated by Bill Clinton, along with other more intentional means of influencing opinion and repairing reputation damage (The long road to reputation, 2009). Social media is another aspect of that (see Michael Bryant's political strategy, 2009). For a day-by day-account of the first week, see Spinning the first week, 2009.

Bryant is currently listed as owner and operator of Humilitus Group, and as a visiting professor at Osgoode Law School (Michael Bryant leaves Norton, 2012.)  He now speaks on his experience and how it has transformed him (Michael Bryant: Former Attorney General, since 2010).

See more on BlogTO on the city’s reaction after the charges against Bryant were dropped, including photos and comments by readers (Michael Bryant walks, 2010).

Bryant charged with criminal negligence after crash
Sept 1, 2009

The contender
By Amanda Lang
Globe and Mail
Jan. 26, 2009, updated Apr 09, 2009

Cyclist may have grabbed Bryant, wheel: police
CBC News
Sept 2, 2009

Death on Bloor: Bryant enters a world beyond political spin
By Josh Wingrove, Timothy Appleby and Kate Hammer
Globe and Mail
Dec 16, 2009

Former Ontario AG Michael Bryant was ‘terrified’ during fatal encounter with cyclist
By Shannon Kari
National Post
May 25, 2010

Is Michael Bryant’s life over – or has it just begun?
By Lynda Hurst
Toronto Star, reprinted for The Record.com
Sept 5, 2009

Jackie Kennedy’s Pink Suit
By Lisa Waller Rogers
Lisa's History room
Feb 12, 2011

The long road to reputation repair
By Simon Houpt
Globe and Mail -Globe Investor
Sept 03, 2009

Michael Bryant: Former Attorney General and Author of 28 Seconds
Speakers' spotlight
since 2010

Michael Bryant leaves Norton Rose
Globe and Mail
Feb 14, 2012, updated Mar. 13, 2012

Michael Bryant's political strategy: PR 2.0
By Kate Hammer
Globe and Mail
Sept 8/14, 2009

Michael Bryant: Toronto’s Carnell Fitzpatrick
Mess Media, Bryant Watch
Nov 19, 2009

Michael Bryant walks, the cycling community rides, and a bad taste lingers
+ comments
By Derek Flack
May 26, 2010

Morality play and a stampede to judgment
By Margaret Wente
No comments permitted
Globe and Mail
Sept 9/ Oct 3, 2009

Spinning the first week of Michael Bryant's new life
By Linda Diebel
TO Star
Sept 5, 2009


Greg said...

I admire your reasoned stance, it's unfair to see Sheppard and/or Bryant as completely irrational human beings due to their social stations. From what I've seen, Bryant was fed up with Darcy taking the lane from him and consequently rammed him a full car-length — a moment of irrationality. When he realized what he'd done, he tried to escape, most likely out of fear — but whether it was out of fear of Sheppard is debatable. Sheppard was still on the ground and had not approached Bryant until Bryant began to accelerate forward. I believe Darcy latched onto the car in a naive and desperate attempt to detain Bryant for having run him down. Since Bryant swerved left instead of right, Sheppard would have fallen under the rear wheels had he let go. It's also possible that his bag or his clothing snagged on the vehicle. I can only imagine that Bryant was horrified that somehow his escape had been foiled and he panicked, trying to shake Sheppard from his car, resorting to sideswiping him against sidewalk obstacles at a witness-reported 90km/h.

Both men panicked, but one instigated the use of force, and for that Bryant should be held accountable.

eli buchbinder said...

I first read your comment on Darcy Sheppard's death this morning. Your remarks about journalists and others who appeal to (and inflame)fears based on class stereotypes seemed particularly apt today as preparations continue for the G20 summit in Toronto.

I work downtown. The "security" in our building has been sending emails to tenants for the past month warning people about the dangerous situation that will be created by demonstrators and the steps that will be taken to "protect" us. Several such emails told tenants not to wear business clothes to work this week because demonstrators will attack them. Comments of this sort create (and are intended to create) a contagion of "certainties that are based on fear and not on evidence". One of the many consequences of this sort of irresponsibility is that the incredibly important issues raised by the protests against the G8 and G20 are lost to public discussion.

Sue McPherson said...

Eli, I guess there's some truth to it, if it's anti-capitalist groups doing the protesting. No suits there! Here is an article by Kenyon Wallace, just out today - ‘Calls to action’ on some G20 protest websites : http://www.nationalpost.com/news/Calls+action
+some+protest+websites/3183669/story.html . Included is a mention on the likelihood of individuals being attacked, rather than organizations.

I can't imagine that security people would advise you not to wear a suit to work. But then, look at the fences going up. It appears that they are going overboard on their precautions. Perhaps it will all become clearer in a week or two.

I agree, however, that if ways can be found to silence even legitimate concerns, it will be done, to protect the image the world gets of this event.