If you dig deep enough, I think you’ll find that rage is always accompanied by fear.
Rage is easy enough to spot—an explosion on the surface of someone’s reality—but the associated fear often requires more context, understanding, thought and, ultimately, imagination to discern.
The fear relevant to any situation is impossible to know in its entirety without seeing into the hearts of every person present.
But the fear present in the final moments of the life of Solomon Uyarasuk, found hanging from a meal-slot latch in an Igloolik prison cell in Sept. 2012, is worth exploring for two reasons: because his ending left a family and community grieving, and because the coroner’s inquest examining the circumstances surrounding his death stirred up issues of racism, colonialism and responsible policing.
First, the rage: that belonged to Solomon alone.
Both officers who arrested Solomon, after receiving a noise complaint from Solomon’s neighbor, testified that he flew into a fit of rage—“as though a switch had gone off”—when one of the officers recorded Solomon’s date of birth incorrectly.
“You fucking disrespect me! You fucking disrespect me! You think I’m 12 years old?!” Solomon, who up to that point was allegedly cooperative, started screaming.
His rage was “irrational” and “unprovoked”, the officers said.
Then there was the violence—a form of rage—that Solomon inflicted on himself, according to the testimony of both the officers, corroborated by the Ottawa Police’s external investigation and the autopsy report.
While being transported to the Igloolik detachment, Solomon swung his head repeatedly—pivoting at his waist to bring his full strength to bear, like a pendulum—smashing it hard enough into the plexi-glass and metal partition in the back of the RCMP truck to leave a gash in his forehead, his face covered in blood.
But here is where Solomon’s fear and rage blur together: both officers testified that Solomon repeatedly screamed throughout the arrest, “Please don’t beat me, please don’t beat me” and “don’t smash my head…like last time”. Solomon’s neighbor testified to hearing the same thing through the walls of his apartment.
So real was this fear that Solomon continued to scream the same sentences from his apartment to the RCMP truck to the prison cell.
So real was this fear that Solomon cowered in the back of the RCMP truck once they arrived at the detachment, trying, desperately, to evade the officers’ grasp one last time.
“Just leave me in here!” Sol screamed in the truck outside the detachment, one officer testified.
But then why would Solomon inflict the very injury on himself that he specifically screamed he feared?
I think the fear of those around him might offer at least some clues.
Fear was especially palpable during the testimony of Sgt. Greg Murphy, an RCMP veteran with nearly 30 years of experience but who never seemed comfortable during his testimony, sitting in a suit and tie in a Toronto office building. Murphy had spent the last 16 years policing from an office building, chasing white-collar criminals. He had only made one arrest in those 16 years, hadn’t done any community street patrolling, and had never been to Nunavut before.
This absolute void of preparation was filled with one piece of racist advice, given to Murphy by a career and development officer with the RCMP: “residents [of Nunavut], when intoxicated, become hostile and combative, without provocation.”
What could grow in that void but fear and suspicion?
Both Murphy and his partner that night, Cnst. Noel Martin, admitted that Solomon was scared of them throughout the night.
“Our presence inflamed the situation,” Murphy testified.
In fact, if you remove the police from this situation, you remove Sol’s rage and fear entirely. Their presence, and their presence alone, provoked Sol.
Even Phillip, Solomon’s friend who was in the apartment with him when the cops showed up, and who did nothing but try to calm Sol down during the arrest, gave Murphy an uneasy feeling because of how close Phillip stood to Murphy’s weapons.
Noel, against his own better judgment, let Phillip hug a handcuffed Solomon before the officers took Sol outside to their truck—a fact that showed how harmless Phillip really was that night, Solomon’s family lawyer, Mark Mossey, suggested at the inquest.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Phillip told Solomon that night, just before his friend was taken out to the RCMP truck.
At the detachment, with Solomon pinned on his stomach to the cell floor, Murphy noticed the handcuffs had ridden up on Sol’s forearms, so he removed them. Then Murphy remembered they hadn’t yet searched Sol’s pockets.
Murphy and Noel turned Solomon over onto his back and noticed the belt for the first time.
This was a pivotal moment, when I believe fear played a crucial role.
The officers testified that they had two choices once noticing the belt: to either re-restrain Solomon, putting him back in handcuffs, or to beat a retreat, leaving Solomon in the cell to calm down.
Without speaking, the officers testified independently, they agreed to let Solomon calm down. They backed out of the cell, locking Solomon in the cell with his belt still on.
Without speaking, I imagine they must have both breathed a sigh of relief.
Sol continued to yell for a few minutes, but when Noel checked on him about 10 minutes later, Solomon was lying down up against the wall close to the door, quiet, in an exhausted daze, Noel said, blood from his head injuries gurgling softly as he breathed through his mouth.
“Why didn’t you go into the cell and get Solomon’s belt out of the cell at that point?” Mossey asked Noel. “I was scared if we went into the cell we’d re-escalate the situation,” Noel said.
“Why didn’t you ask Solomon to pass his belt out of the food slot at that point?” Mossey asked both officers in turn. Both, in turn, said they were scared of re-escalating the situation. They both wanted to wait for the health centre nurse, who Murphy had called, to arrive and treat Sol for his injuries.
How much fear and adrenaline was coursing through the officers’ veins at that time? How much of an impact did their fear at that moment, and the relief they must’ve felt in finally having Solomon locked up, have on their decision to leave Solomon alone in his cell with his belt until the nurse arrived?
“Tunnel vision is real in high stress situations,” Murphy said when questioned by Mossey, admitting that he had tunnel vision for officer safety while arresting and locking up Solomon. “We have to focus on threats to us, first and foremost.”
Blinded by fear for his own safety, in a foreign environment peopled by a foreign culture, with no training or preparation other than the advice to watch out for drunk locals, Murphy admitted that tunnel vision prevented him from noticing Solomon’s belt until after the handcuffs had been removed.
Our justice system knows how to handle rage: lock it up until it goes away. But does our society know how to identify and deal with the accompanying fear?
“Part of me feels like there’s too much paranoia when the word ‘Aborigine’ comes into people’s minds,” Rhoda Kanatsiaq, Solomon’s birth-mother said after the inquest. “Expectations become different from relaxed or from normal.”